FORMER striking legend Gianfranco Zola is giving Irish hopeful Terry Dixon every chance to come back from his career-threatening injury and live up to his potential.
Tomorrow's U21 international between Ireland and Armenia at Tallaght Stadium is a chance for this Irish side to make amends for recent disasters --they lost 4-1 away to Armenia in their last qualifier -- and move off the bottom of the table, hoping to avoid the wooden spoon which came Ireland's way after the side finished last in the five-team group last time around.
But it's also a big night for West Ham striker Dixon. He has not kicked a ball in a game of note since he made his U21 debut in a 1-0 defeat at home to Belgium way back in September 2006, as a knee injury ended his time with Tottenham and almost ended his footballing career.
His team-mates from the Ireland U21 side that day have since gone on to win 53 senior caps between them, but Dixon hasn't played a proper game since, bar a few run-outs for the West Ham reserves.
But the Hammers have offered Dixon another chance, and the player is grateful to the former Italy and Chelsea star Zola for offering encouragement.
"Zola has been great with me, I think the fact that he was a striker in his playing days makes him more interested. He has called me in for a few chats and to give me advice.
He trains with us a lot of the time so, even by watching him in training, you can learn a lot from someone like Zola, he still looks out of this world on the training pitch," Dixon told the Herald.
"I have been in his office a few times for chats and he just says I need to get my fitness up to the top level if I am to get into his team. He's encouraging me, he tells me to keep plugging away and working hard, and that's what I intend to do, with West Ham and the Ireland U21s.
"If I do get to play against Armenia, this will be my first real game, apart from a few reserve matches for West Ham, since I last played for the U21s and that was a long time ago.
"I am restricted in the amount of minutes I am allowed to play. West Ham aren't keen for me to play more than half an hour, but just getting a game and a cap is the main thing for me.
"I need games now as I haven't played much football in the last while. West Ham haven't had a reserve game in about two months now, which is difficult, and I haven't been training for the last while. I only started back last week, so my fitness is not where it needs to be for Premier League football. But for me, it's just good to be back in the fold with Ireland as I really missed the Irish team."
A place in the squad for this game was a welcome boost to Dixon, the man who made headlines all over Europe when he was plucked from obscurity at Tottenham at the age of 16 -- he hadn't even played for the Spurs reserves, let alone the first team when he got the call from then Irish boss Steve Staunton.
"It was as close as you can get, what happened to me that time for the Chile squad, there I was on the bench for an Ireland senior game at Lansdowne Road, it was one of the best weeks of my life," Dixon added. "But then I had some bad injuries, I left Tottenham and at one stage it looked like I was finished in the game.
"For a while I thought it was all over for me and I had to start thinking about what else I would do if I wasn't able to be a footballer. Luckily I had good support from my family. I tried to keep belief in myself and luckily I got the call from West Ham and that resulted in a contract.
"I am still looking ahead and even though I'm still young I have started my coaching badges, that could give me something to fall back on if something happens to me again."