Football: Rhino the real force behind the Lions

After 50 years away from Wembley, Millwall return for tomorrow's Auto Windscreens final. By Nick Harris
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MILLWALL'S MANAGER Keith "Rhino" Stevens has probably seen more than his share of football's negative side since making his debut in 1981, aged 16, at the only club he's ever known. As his side prepare to face Wigan in tomorrow's Auto Windscreens Shield final at Wembley - Millwall's first journey to the Twin Towers for 50 years - Stevens is confident his club can give a good account of themselves, and not just on the pitch. "Our reputation has always gone before us but we've done so much to combat that whole [hooligan] image," he said. "We want our fans to go out, show a bit of pride, get behind the side."

Stevens' nickname, presumably earned for his charging approach to defending, was reputedly coined by Neil Ruddock when the pair were Millwall youth players. While Ruddock moved on (as did Teddy Sheringham, Tony Cascarino, Alex Rae, Kenny Cunningham, Ben Thatcher and others likely to be in attendance tomorrow), Stevens stayed to witness two promotions, two relegations, the worst hooligan era in the club's history and a close call with the administrator.

By February 1997 Stevens was the reserve team manager, and, when Billy Bonds departed at the end of last season, he became manager. Stevens and assistant Alan McLeary, both 34 and both Millwall men through and through, are the youngest management team in the Football League.

The Lions are ninth in the Second Division and nine points below the play-off places, so promotion must wait. Tomorrow's final is some consolation. "I'm pleased to be going to Wembley," Stevens said, adding that he will only be happy if he comes away with the trophy. "There's no point in being runners-up."

For a club that has not bought a single player all season and has seen 10 players move from the youth ranks to make first-team appearances, such ambition is bold. So was fielding what was effectively a reserve side - including four youth-programme debutants - against Colchester United on Wednesday. With Nigel Spink (40) and Stevens also in the team, Millwall won 2-0. "We've got a set of young lads with a good spirit," Stevens said. "We're all pulling together. That's been the key."

Of the ten young players who have stepped up this season, four, all aged 18, stand a good chance of starting against Wigan. Steven Reid, the former England Under-16 striker, should play some part, as should Paul Ifill, Millwall youth's leading scorer last season, Tim Cahill, a promising Australian- born midfielder, and Joe Dolan, a central defender, once of Chelsea and capped at Under-18 level for Northern Ireland.

"We've had some bad times, been relegated twice in 10 years, the football sometimes hasn't been great to watch and it's got more expensive for fans," Stevens said. "But it's great to take part in this."

Perhaps the most remarkable statistic about the final is that by last night the club were expecting to have sold their entire allocation of 48,000 tickets. How? "That's what everyone's asking," Deano Standing, the chief press officer at Millwall, said. "We've got about 8,000 regular supporters. But each of them is bringing their mum, their dad, their kids, their next door neighbours. We've got people from all over have been asking for tickets. Not just Southwark, New Cross, Bermondsey, the Medway towns, but places like Grimsby, Barrow. There'll even be people from Dublin."

Standing added: "It just goes to show what a ground swell of support we have even if they don't come every week."

Things have come a long way since May 1996. Millwall fell into the bottom three of the First Division after the last game of the season and were relegated. Worse was to come, as the club went into administration, only saved by the businessman Theo Paphitis, who had previously turned around the ailing lingerie firms Contessa and La Senza and the stationery chain Rymans. "The bottom line is Theo wants to turn a profit," Standing said. "He's not going to do that here, he's here because he loves football."

Millwall's transformation has involved a lot more than football. Attempting to lay to rest the image of Millwall fans as racist, hooligan thugs - epitomised by the running pitch battles of the 1980s - has been paramount. The problems are not gone, as trouble at a match with Manchester City early in the season showed, but they are being tackled with a wide range of community projects and anti-racism work.

For Millwall's opponents tomorrow, the match offers the chance to repeat their win in 1985, when they beat Brentford to take the Freight Rover Trophy, as it was then known. Wigan are seventh in the Second Division, eight points off the play-off places, and, as with Millwall, the match could make their season. Should the Latics succeed, it will be a personal triumph for chairman Dave Whelan, the JJB sports shops magnate who transformed the town's rugby side in the 80s and would like to see elements of rugby brought into football, wage-capping and sin bins included.

"Wigan have got ambition but in this game you've got to speculate to accumulate," Whelan told the Independent earlier this season during a survey into the health of English football. "We're heavily dependent on our youth policy," he added, of where he will invest in the future. "It's more important than ever." Rhino Stevens, 18 years on from his Lions' debut, would not disagree.