Football: Wise's fear of the law proves to be the beginning of wisdom

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The Independent Online
When he was a member of the Crazy Gang Dennis Wise revelled in his image as a cheeky Cockney chappy who was always in the thick of the action. And he continued to live up to his wild reputation when he left Wimbledon for Chelsea.

Then a policeman inspired him to close the door on his wild side, and now he in the thick of the international class action on view these days down the Fulham Road. He is loving every minute of it.

Ruud Gullit is lounging on a chair, Gianfranco Zola is looking at the food on offer for lunch at the Chelsea training ground, and Gianluca Vialli is showered, dressed, and waiting, somewhat impatiently, for his friend to join him.

Dennis Wise looks up to the shaven-headed Italian. "Baby, I'm busy," he says, with a mock accent. "I won't be long. OK?" Vialli gives an exaggerated, Latin shrug of his shoulders and sits down to wait for the club captain to finish talking to me.

"He's a legend," Wise says quietly, leaning over the table to ensure that Vialli doesn't hear him. "And he's such a perfectionist." At that moment Mark Hughes walks by, which sets Wise off again. "I can't believe Manchester United let him go, either. He's been phenomenal."

If Wise sounds a little disbelieving at the position he finds himself in, then it is because he is. The 5ft 6in bundle of energy still can't quite work out how, week in, week out, he plies his trade alongside some of the biggest names in European football.

"Zola, Vialli, Hughes, they're all legends, and I'm so lucky to be playing with them all. It'll be nice when, later on, I have kids to tell them that I used to play with those guys. They probably won't believe me, so I'll have to show them a video." Maybe, I suggest, Zola will tell his children he once played with Dennis Wise? He laughs. "No, I don't think so."

The facts, however, tell a different story. Throughout the season so far the Chelsea manager, Ruud Gullit, has operated a squad system, which has seen the big names in and out of the team, willy-nilly. All, that is, except Wise who, up until his current, three-match League suspension, played each week, despite the fact that the press reported, only last season, how he and Gullit were at loggerheads.

"I couldn't understand why I'd been dropped," he explains. "Ruud said that my English mentality was different from the Italian mentality he was introducing to the club. When English players get dropped they tend to sulk, like I did, but the Italians are so relaxed. Once it's been explained to them, they accept the manager's decision.

"Ruud outlined to me, and to the others, that to win anything in football these days, you must use 20 players, not 11. Everyone now accepts that we won't be playing in every game. I know I have been up to now, but I understand that I'm bound to be dropped on some occasions this year."

Maybe, but his form has been so consistently good all season that, despite England's continuing success, a powerful lobby has been pushing hard for Wise's inclusion to add to his 13 international caps. As for Wise, he does not really know what else he can do. "Everyone keeps saying I should be at least in the England squad, but it means nothing to me unless I am.

"I watched the match against Italy like everyone else and, of course, I'm delighted we've made it to the World Cup. I've now got to make sure that I do as well. I'm playing at my best right now, and have been since the start of the season , so if Glenn won't pick me now, I can't see how he will in the future. I suppose I've just got to carry on, and if Chelsea have a successful season it can only help my cause."

Wise has actually helped his own cause most of all. His career, up until recently, has been anything but quiet. As a Wimbledon player it was his free-kick that set up Lawrie Sanchez to head home the only goal in the 1988 FA Cup final against Liverpool. "He wasn't supposed to be even in the box," Wise recalls. "It was supposed to be Alan Cork. To this day I don't know why they swapped."

A pounds 1.6m move to Chelsea followed in 1990, but for most of his time in football he has attracted the wrong kind of headlines, culminating in his infamous fracas with a London taxi driver that saw him convicted of assault and causing criminal damage.

In March, 1995, he was sentenced to three months in prison. He ended up spending just two hours inside a cell, before he was released on bail pending an appeal which, three months later, saw him acquitted. But those two hours proved to be the turning point in Wise's career and, indeed, life.

"My whole attitude to life has changed, and it's all down to the incident with the taxi driver, and the consequences," he says, quite prepared to discuss the sorry subject. "Going to prison is an experience I am never going to forget.

"I remember walking to my cell with a prison officer and I asked him if I could sit outside. I just couldn't get it into my head at all. He said, `No, you're in custody.' I asked him again, and he refused. Then he shut the door on me."

Wise had nothing to do except sit down on a small bed and look at the four walls that surrounded him. "It was very frightening. I sat down and wondered how on earth I had ended up there. Then I started to look at myself, and to think about life.

"Believe me, two hours is more than enough to sort yourself out. I realised how much I loved playing football, but how I shouldn't take it for granted. It gave me a huge kick up the backside. I clearly needed it."

He blows his cheeks out and, for a moment, the cheeky chappy grin deserts him. "I've mellowed a lot since that experience, I can tell you, both on and off the pitch. In a funny sort of way I'm glad it happened to me. It's put me in good stead, both for now, and for the future, when my career's over. And it's made me really enjoy my football."

He looks around the training ground refectory at his team-mates. "You can't help but look good when you're playing with them," he adds. "I just love playing for this club. It's not about the money, or the fame, or anything else except the football. If I wasn't a professional footballer, I'd still be out playing the game on some park every Sunday morning."

The new Dennis Wise happily coincided with the new-look Chelsea, courtesy of first Glenn Hoddle, and then Gullit. "When I came here Chelsea were a sleeping giant. Not much changed for the first few years. We remained a mid-table side. Then Glenn arrived, and he inserted a lot of discipline and professionalism to the club. Even little things, like introducing the canteen, and laying down carpets downstairs helped. It made us feel special. And, of course, he signed Ruud.

"I'm in my eighth season here now, and we've only just won something. The sleeping giant's just woken up, and I'm hoping it's the start of great things to come. Certainly, lifting the FA Cup last year was my greatest moment."

What was that like? Wise's eyes light up. "It's the most wonderful feeling possible," he answers. "When I was handed the cup, I just waited a split second and looked completely around the stadium first before lifting it up above my head. It gave me such a buzz. Being second up the steps for Wimbledon was good, but raising the cup for Chelsea was incredible."

Does he miss those rather wild days at Wimbledon? "Nope, not at all. They were great days, of course. Nobody was on big money, but we enjoyed the crack by upsetting all the odds. But we were always the underdog and I always wanted to move because they would never reach a higher level. My ambition was always to play for a big London club. That's why I was never going to stay there."

Now he is playing for a big London club that shares his ambitions. "I want to win the League, the Cup-Winners' Cup, and get my place back in the England team," Wise said. "And I'm playing for the right club to do all of this."

He looks across at Vialli again. "You know, reputations don't count for much here, either. We all have a great laugh. When Italy beat us at Wembley, Zola and Di Matteo turned up for the next training wearing their Italian shirts. They then made a point of jogging round the pitch taking the mickey out of us all.

"Well, this time we got our own back. We've put loads of messages up in the dressing-room, like "We're off to France," and "Italy are Crap." The guys had a laugh with us. That's what it's like here."

As Wise made his way off to the Motor Show with Vialli, I told him that he must have changed if, during the well-documented fracas last month in the Old Trafford tunnel between Manchester United and Chelsea players, he was acting as peacemaker.

I added that the thought of Dennis Wise upholding the peace was akin to Oliver Reed complaining about a rowdy drunk. He takes my point. "Yeah, well it can happen sometimes in the game. But I know what you mean. I thought to myself: `What am I doing?' "

Would he have tried to cool things down a few years ago? The cheeky grin appears. "No," he said. "Probably not. I would have been in the thick of it."

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