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Thursday, May 20, 2004
Into the Lions' Den

Norman Hubbard

On October 26 1999, Dennis Wise proved he belonged.

AC Milan were leading 1-0 in a Champions League match when Roberto Di Matteo played a diagonal pass from the half-way line. Chelsea's captain, with a perfectly-timed incision into the Milan defence met it and an assured finish. The ever irrepressible Wise had silenced the San Siro.

It was perhaps the zenith of his 11 years at Stamford Bridge, though more obvious pinnacles are 1998 League Cup and Cup Winners' Cup and the two FA Cups he lifted as captain.

On Saturday, his hamstring injury permitting, Wise will play in his fifth FA Cup final. It will be his first as manager and if his Millwall team beat Manchester United it will be a shock to rival Wimbledon's win over Liverpool in 1988.

Then, a 21-year-old Wise took the corner that led to Lawrie Sanchez's winner. Sixteen years later, the impish left winger has mutated into an impish 37-year-old midfield anchor man.

But his playing career has come full circle; Wise is back with the rank outsiders, and back in the FA Cup final, trying to become the first man to win football's most famous domestic cup competition with three different teams.

It shows both staying power and an instinctive ability to survive. As Matthew Harding's millions and Ken Bates' bruising ambition transformed Chelsea, Wise was the only survivor of the teams of Bobby Campbell, Ian Porterfield and Dave Webb to flourish in the glamour revival on the King's Road.

Frank Lampard, in one respect, is merely a cleaner-cut latter-day Wise.

His undeniable talent helped. But, if the sight of Wise captaining Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit, Marcel Desailly, Gianfranco Zola and Didier Deschamps appeared incongruous, some of football's most decorated players had few complaints.

His popularity was not universal, his ability often overshadowed by controversy. Nicky Butt, who could line up against him on Saturday, was sent off after an altercation in one Chelsea-Manchester United match.

Former Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle omitted Wise from the 1998 World Cup squad when his form dictated he merited a place in the team.

And a propensity for getting into scrapes frequently harmed Wise, if only temporarily. His third sending-off of the 1998/99 season came for an impetuous handball in injury time in a match already won.

More seriously, an incident involving a taxi driver almost cost him his liberty in 1995. It probably made it harder to get a cab, too.

Wise's arrival at Millwall was precipitated by his sacking at Leicester for breaking team-mate Callum Davidson's jaw. It may have been an opportunistic way to dispense with a big earner, but Wise answered his former employers on and off the pitch.

On their first meeting, he scored Millwall's last-minute equaliser. A victory at the high court followed, though Leicester's financial plight rendered it pyrrhic, rather than profitable.

So has management changed him? Is there a new Den at the New Den? That he was sent-off three minutes after coming on in his first game as player-manager suggests not.

Millwall have the First Division's worst disciplinary record. Like their manager, they are committed, but there's no shortage of skill from Neil Harris, Tim Cahill, Paul Ifill and the old-timer at the heart of the midfield.

The simple assumption to make is that Wise and Millwall were made for each other, the pantomime villain at the club with an unofficial motto of 'no one like us, we don't care'. Both club and manager are easy to stereotype. Even Wise's trademark grin has 'chirpy cockney' stamped all over it.

Except that chairman Theo Paphitis is trying to rid Millwall of its hooligan image and Wise has proved a thoughtful appointment as manager. The sacking of Mark McGhee less than 18 months after he led the Lions to the play-offs and two seasons after promotion seemed harsh.

It only increased suspicions that Paphitis and not McGhee had signed Wise.

At the New Den, there was an increasing perception that McGhee was staid and an irritation that he persisted with certain players. Wise shipped out club captain Stuart Nethercott to Wycombe on loan and had to tell his friend Ronnie Bull he had no future at the club.

He introduced several products of the club's successful youth system and, but for Charley Hearn's hernia injury, six players aged 21 or under could have been in the squad to face Manchester United. Fergie's fledglings' final hurrah could come at the expense of Wise's whiz-kids.

But the energetic Hearn is one of five Millwall absentees, joining the injured Tony Warner, Andy Roberts and Kevin Muscat and the banned Danny Dichio on the sidelines. Millwall's already slim chances have receded further.

Even if the match itself is one-sided, however, Wise's final encounter with Roy Keane offers the prospect of a contest. Though the Lions boss intends to play on for a further year, it will surely be the last major outing in his distinguished playing days (if distinguished is the right term for a career incorporating 13 red cards).

Before Wimbledon beat Liverpool in 1988, few would have expected it to encompass five FA Cup finals. As the second phase of Wise's career begins - aided by the more urbane and experienced Ray Wilkins - can he confound expectations again?

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