Man who swapped a building site for the Madrid cauldron

Leicester City's Matt Elliott, whose rise from football's twilight zone reaches a new landmark in the Uefa Cup on Tuesday
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So what's it all about, then?" asks the player. "Well, each week we do a major football interview, so far we've done Marc Overmars, Alex Ferguson, Ruud Gullit, Chris Waddle," replies the reporter.

Matt Elliott looks impressed, then asks, without a hint of false modesty: "So why are you talking to me, then?"

At 28 Elliott has come late to the fame game and, like his Leicester City team-mates, he is not taking it for granted. The reason we met in a hotel on the outskirts of Leicester this week was that he has already had a more interesting career than most and it is about to enter a new dimension.

Tomorrow Leicester fly to Spain for Tuesday's Uefa Cup first round first leg tie against Atletico Madrid. It is arguably the most daunting fixture in the competition - Atletico, Spanish double winners 18 months ago, spent pounds 23.5m in the summer on Christian Vieri and Juninho alone. Leicester spent pounds 1.4m.

This is not what was predicted for Elliott or Leicester a year ago. He was playing for Oxford United in the Nationwide League and City were being tipped for relegation from the Premiership. Leicester then paid pounds 1.6m for Elliott and not only stayed up but also won the Coca-Cola Cup (for which he was cup-tied) to gain Uefa Cup entry.

"I've been to Spain like most people but never to the capital," Elliott said. "I'm told it's a 60,000 all-seater, so it should be quite an atmosphere. We've got three or four players with international experience, and some with European experience, but for the majority it will be a new situation. We are under no illusions. We know it is going to be a really tough game but it will be another chapter in Leicester's recent history if we did pull off a result."

To show those European virgins, like Elliott, what to expect, Martin O'Neill took Leicester to Greece for a match with Olympiakos. "It was supposed to be a pre-season friendly and we found 20,000 mad Greeks spitting and swearing at you, waving banners about Satan and the devil. We thought `hang on a minute', but we'll probably get that in Madrid to an extent, so it was good experience."

It is certainly a long way from Torquay and Scunthorpe, where Elliott spent his formative football years - and even further from the building site he found himself on, having rejected the chance of a professional career as a schoolboy.

"I thought the chance of playing at this level had passed me by," he admitted. "I was quite surprised and relieved that Martin O'Neill came in for me. It was quite a lot of money for someone of my age and my experience - the level I had played at."

Born and brought up in south-west London, Elliott, at 14, was playing Sunday football with the likes of Richard Shaw (now Coventry), Michael Thomas (Liverpool), Gareth Hall (Sunderland) and Neil Sullivan (Wimbledon). He was also playing Saturday football, schools and district games and training and playing with Crystal Palace. It was a classic case of a good young player playing too much, something Howard Wilkinson's reforms are designed to stop.

"I was playing seven days a week and when Palace offered me schoolboy forms I turned them down. Perhaps I should have dropped something else but at the time it was too serious for me, I just wanted to play for fun. The only incentive was a tracksuit and set of boots. I was OK as a youngster but never one of the best, not like Vinny Samways. Every club in London wanted him."

Elliott moved towards cricket, playing in the same Surrey schools side as Graham Thorpe but continued playing football and, after leaving school and becoming a labourer, joined his local non-League club Epsom & Ewell. At 19 he was spotted by Jimmy Hendrie, the Charlton physiotherapist. "He thought I had some potential and with a bit of coaching might be half- decent. Lennie Lawrence was kind enough to give me a year's contract but I was never really part of the set-up, I wasn't good enough. They were in the old First Division and had Tommy Caton, Peter Shirtliff and Colin Pates. I played one game in the League Cup, then he loaned me to Torquay."

Elliott signed for Torquay and began playing regularly, but admits the distractions of a holiday town were too tempting for a young pro fresh away from home. "I really enjoyed my time there but did not concentrate on my game as much as I should have, I couldn't believe I'd become a professional footballer and I enjoyed the other side of it. I realised I needed a change, a move away from the distractions."

At 23 he moved to Scunthorpe for pounds 50,000 and came under the tuition of Bill Green, the former Carlisle and West Ham centre-half. "He said: `All I want you to do is head it'. I thought: `Well, OK, but a lot of people can just head it'. I wanted to prove, not just to him, that I could do a bit more than that. He trusted me to further myself like that and Denis Smith [who was to manage Elliott at Oxford] was the same."

Smith played for Stoke City when they were a force and was one of the best centre-halves never to play for England - partly because he suffered so many broken bones. Elliott, having missed specialised coaching for most of his teens, benefited from Green and Smith's knowledge.

Now he is under Martin O'Neill's wing. "He has his own style, which is different to anything I've encountered. Sometimes he won't come out training for a week, he'll leave it to Steve Walford and John Robertson. The next week he'll come in every day and analyse you. He's very intelligent and doesn't let you get away with anything. You will do something in a match and think you've got away with it, that no-one's noticed, and he'll suddenly pick you up on it in a team-talk."

Shades, inevitably, of Brian Clough here, as with the early departure for Madrid (most teams leave the day before European games). Clough's motivational techniques also appear to have rubbed off on O'Neill. The Leicester manager, says Elliott, is both a bollocker and an arm-around- the-shoulder manager.

"What do you prefer?" I ask naively. "Not being shouted at," comes the reply, to a barely concealed snort from the photographer.

The question which should have been asked - "what works best with you?" - is then put.

"Sensible, constructive criticism. I'll hold my hands up if I've made a mistake - some players will complain until they're blue in the face rather than admit they're wrong. The over-riding thing for me is his passion. He doesn't try to hide it, everyone has seen him on the touchline in games. He is very intense on match-days, players realise how much he wants to succeed. He's not obsessive, he's passionate, but he'll talk as long as you like about football."

O'Neill has created a team of similar desire. Elliott admits that during the summer he wondered whether the club could maintain last year's standards but the consistency of performance last season, and early wins over Aston Villa and at Liverpool, quelled any doubts. Leicester, who host Tottenham today, have also drawn with Manchester United and Arsenal, results which Atletico will have noticed admiringly.

"We're not particularly close outside football but we all seem to get on well, there's no back-biting" Elliott said. "The manager and staff instill how hard we have to work. If we win two games, they say `don't think you're something you're not'."

Elliott, married to Catherine with two young children, Jade and Charlie, is keeping his own feet on the ground. Such has been his impact at Filbert Street the prospect of international honours has been mentioned. "I think they are getting a bit carried away," he said. "It would be lovely but I don't really think about it."

He has played at Wembley - two play-offs and a Sherpa Van Trophy final - and won promotion. Now, he says, "my ambition is to win some honours. The league might be pushing it, but why not Leicester for the FA Cup? I think players who come the long way up appreciate it. At the end of my career I want to have no regrets, to have achieved what I can and enjoyed it whatever happens."

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