Izzet the Fox on the trail of England

Leicester City's young midfield talent was led to seek his fortune at Filbert Street after problems with Chelsea.
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IT WAS February 1996, Chelsea were playing West Ham, and Muzzy Izzet was sitting in the home dug-out at Stamford Bridge. Eddie Newton went down injured and Izzet, then 21, thought to himself: "He's a midfielder like me. This is it, this is my chance."

IT WAS February 1996, Chelsea were playing West Ham, and Muzzy Izzet was sitting in the home dug-out at Stamford Bridge. Eddie Newton went down injured and Izzet, then 21, thought to himself: "He's a midfielder like me. This is it, this is my chance."

On the pitch Ruud Gullit, who was playing sweeper, shouted across: "Put Izzy on". But on the bench Glenn Hoddle turned to Frank Sinclair and said: "get stripped, you're going on; tell Ruud to move into midfield."

Chelsea lost more than just the match that day, they lost a player who is now on the fringe of England recognition.

Izzet recalled, as we sat in the sunshine at Leicester's training ground this week: "I remember thinking, 'it isn't going to happen for me here'. I went to see Glenn a couple of weeks later and said I'd like to go on loan and get some first-team experience."

Within weeks he was at Filbert Street; within a couple of months he was at Wembley, in the play-offs. Leicester won promotion but Izzet was due back at Chelsea. Hoddle had by then moved on to England; Gullit was yet to replace him.

"I got a call from Gywn Williams [Chelsea's assistant manager] asking me what I wanted to do. I said, 'after playing at Wembley I don't think I can come back and play in the reserves again. I've had a taste of it now.' "

Chelsea's loss? They did get £650,000 (rising to £800,000) for a player they never played and, had he stayed at the Bridge there is no certainty he would have flourished. The month before that West Ham game Muzzet had seen Jody Morris, then 17, given his first-team chance. Though an England Under-21 regular Morris is still struggling to gain a regular place at Chelsea.

Playing at Wembley in his 12th match for Leicester sums up the way it has gone for Izzet since his move. In three-and-a-bit seasons he has been a fixture in a side which has played at Wembley three times, won promotion and the Coca-Cola Cup, played in Europe and finished 9th, 10th and 10th in the Premiership despite the dire predictions of critics.

Not that it was love at first sight. "My first game was Sheffield United at home and Martin [O'Neill] was getting booed, all the team got booed, I think we'd gone about 10 or 12 without a win.

"I came on as sub, a little skinny kid running out there. I was supposed to be the saviour but no one had ever heard of me. I'd never played a first-team game."

Leicester lost that one but dropped four points from the next 24 to make the play-offs, Izzet scoring the clinching goal. They went on to beat Crystal Palace at Wembley and the rest is stability - except at boardroom level.

Izzet, wisely, is not about to be drawn into the present dispute, which sees O'Neill at loggerheads with the majority of the plc board, but he did say: "If for some reason he did go it would not be the end of the club, but he's the one who has brought every player here: this is his team. It would make a big difference if it got to that but I don't think it will. I think they should give him what he wants."

That Leicester have been winning ever since the dispute started - they lie seventh as they meet Southampton today - says much for the spirit O'Neill has fostered.

"We respect everyone but we don't fear anyone," Izzet said. "I know everyone writes us off as a hard-working team, and we do work hard, every single game, but we also have some decent players and several internationals."

Two of them, Emile Heskey and Steve Guppy, played for England last Sunday, the first time two Leicester players had performed together for England since 1974 when Peter Shilton, Keith Weller and Frank Worthington played in three successive matches under Joe Mercer.

Izzet now hopes to become Leicester's ninth England international - but was not he once in line to play for Turkey?

"Euro 96 was coming up, I had just got in the Leicester team and someone asked me if I was interested. I was young and naïve, but then they mentioned national service."

In the event it would only have been a few months which he could have served at the end of his career, but Izzet would rather play for England. "I was born here [in Mile End], I don't speak Turkish. I don't have any relatives there. I've only been once, to Bodrum with my mates."

The link is more with Cyprus. His grandparents - who still call him Mustapha - lived there before moving to London while Izzet's father was still a toddler. His mother is English and he was brought up in the East End spending his early years in Vallance Road, previously home to the Kray twins.

His brother, the 19-year-old Kemel, is also a professional, with Charlton Athletic. He hopes to make the breakthrough this season.

Though a West Ham fan - "I used to watch Tony Cottee, now I'm playing with him" - Muzzy began at Charlton himself before, at 13, being attracted to Chelsea by the lure of the big name and the presence of many of junior club team-mates there. He advised Kemel against the same decision, especially as none of his friends made it at the Bridge either.

One is in the big-time though - Terry Skivington, who appears in, and choreographs some of the moves for Dream Team, Sky's football soap opera. Even that series, however, has never produced a comic moment like the one Izzet saw Skivington act out with Chelsea's youth team.

"We were playing Brentford, I was sub. Terry scored and he's turned round and the ref is standing right there. So he's jumped on his back and started rubbing the ref's bald head. The manager brought him straight off."

Now recognition is coming Izzet's way even if Paul Ince called him "Izzy Muzzet" last week. The goals, eight this season, are the reason - "I'm not playing any different otherwise".

This is down to O'Neill's encouragement. "I worked out myself, as a player," the Leicester manager said, "that if you had a goal to your name and were playing in midfield the manager wouldn't leave you out. All successful sides have a goalscoring midfield player and we haven't had that for the last couple of years. Muzzy is not in danger of being left out but it is a progression."

And his other strengths? "You look at him warming up, he has really thin legs. You would hardly think he is going to do battle with the big boys of the League but he has got great heart, he is brave and he wins challenges at the edge of the penalty box he has no right to win.

"Plus, when he has the ball, he has got a wee trick, he can shuffle past a few players. The one thing he doesn't have is blinding pace. If he did he would be playing for Brazil - or Turkey."

And England? "I don't see why he shouldn't be mentioned in that category. He's playing as well as any goalscoring midfielder in the country."