Izzie Looks Up

Izzie Iriekpen says that the power of prayer has helped him rescue his career.

The young defender reveals that a trip to see his family in Nigeria, where he was advised to pray to restore his fitness, set him back on the road to recovery.

After two years out with a persistent - and, to some degree, mysterious - knee injury, Izzie was on the brink of quitting the game four months ago, and he says: "My family and everyone was praying for me and, by the grace of God, I started training again when I came back - and the swelling just went down.

"There was no reason at all. My brothers just said to me to keep believing, and I started playing again.

"I can't explain it, and the doctors couldn't really, but I had tried everything else and nothing was working."

That short break in his home city of Benin certainly proved to be an inspiration, and he says: "I definitely believe in God; my brother is a Reverend and my family is highly religious.

"I wasn't a strong believer before, until I went home to visit my parents, but my brother kept telling me to pray every day, so I did, and I said 'I am going to start training again'.

"The swelling went down, my knee didn't blow up, and I don't know why that happened all of a sudden.

"I believe the prayers definitely helped, but also the physios really helped, and I'd like to thank them as well.

"I was ready to give up football just before I came back, but I thought I would give it one more chance, and, because the gaffer kept faith in me, I was happy - and there are no problems now.

"I was depressed seeing the boys out training every day, and I had no pain whatsoever, it was just swelling which wouldn't come down.

"That is why I wasn't training at all, and I saw the doctor, who said 'if it doesn't go down you might have to call it a day'.

"It is all about getting your mind right and time is a healer. I was just so happy being out there with the boys again, and it was brilliant."

Izzie, who was set to make his debut at Old Trafford as a 16 year old when the whistle blew for full time before he could come on as a sub, was back on the bench at Newcastle, and says: "It was definitely a boost and I was surprised. When I got in the changing room the gaffer told me, and I am just glad he has got confidence in me - I have to thank him for having faith in me.

"Without a lot of help I wouldn't be playing football now, and I would like to thank all those people - too many to mention."

If he had not retired as a teenager four months ago, and not got back to fitness by the summer, his contract would have expired, and he admits: "That would have been it anyway. I would have had to pack in, but the gaffer believed in me and hopefully I can repay him.

"I grew up in Upton Park, West Ham is my home ground, I want to play football there - and nowhere else.

"Since I was 16 and in the first team squad the first time around I have wanted to be there or thereabouts in the first team squad all the time.

"It was hard getting injured after a lot was promised. It set me back a while, but now I have returned I don't want to look back at what has happened - what is important is what is going to happen, and hopefully I can get my chance again."

Izzie has been offered a one year contract and adds: "It is just a formality and hopefully I will sign before the season ends."

As well as the help of God, Izzie has also received encouragement from team mates past and present, and he says: "I stay in touch with Rio Ferdinand. I last spoke to him two days ago and went to see him in Leeds when he was opening up his new club, and he was saying 'don't even think about giving up'.

"People like him and Joe Cole were always looking out for me."

Now his ambition is simple: to get in the first team and pick up where he left off two years ago, and he adds:

"With hard work and a bit of luck as well, I can break through. First team football is what it is all about.

"If you are good enough the gaffer will give you a chance like he has shown with Jermain - mind you, he can't get past me in training!

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping to be involved against Bolton in any which way."

The question is, if he had left football behind, what would he have done to earn a living?

"I was just thinking about that today, actually, reminding myself that three or four months ago I was looking to pack it in - and now I am looking to push for a first team place," he says.

"I love music and I would have loved to have done that, or maybe I would have gone to university."

As it is, Izzie can now look forward to fulfilling the promise that he showed a couple of seasons ago - and become yet another youngster off the Academy production line.