BY TREVOR HAYLETT
Dennis Wise was a free man again last night, but one with a three-month jail term hanging heavily over him. The Chelsea and England footballer suffered a heavy personal defeat in the courts yesterday and then a partial victory when he was granted unconditional bail - originally denied him - in view of his appeal against conviction and sentencing for assault and criminal damage.
So this extraordinary football season of sleaze and scandal has claimed another high-profile figure. The later decision of Southwark Crown Court leaves Wise free to be at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea's European Cup-Winners' Cup match with Club Bruges tonight, but only to watch - he has a thigh injury in any case.
Wise looked shocked and close to tears when sentence was passed at Horseferry Magistrates Court for the attack on a taxi driver and his vehicle, for which he was found guilty last month. The magistrate, Geoffrey Breen, told him he had acted like a "bully" and that a custodial sentence was entirely appropriate.
Denying defence pleas for leniency, Breen said: "I am aware of your considerable standing as a professional footballer, and one who has had the honour of representing his country, but that does not entitle you to special treatment."
Wise's legal team and advisers were equally stunned, his agent Eric Hall saying he was "monster, monster shocked". They then went across London to Southwark, where a Crown Court judge ruled that bail should be allowed. Hall said he was now "sensationally happy" but back at Horseferry Wise refused to comment as he was driven away in a taxi.
It was a night out at Terry Venables' Kensington club and restaurant last October that preceded the confrontation. Outside, Wise and three friends hailed a cab to go to west London. After a dispute, and after his girlfriend had been injured by the taxi door , Wise smashed a glass partition inside the cab and punched the 65-year-old driver, Gerald Graham.
Wise, who had to be pulled by police off his victim, was also ordered to pay £965 compensation to him for damage to the cab, £169 for damage to his spectacles, £100 for the shock and distress caused and £370 prosecution costs.
Among the first to react to the sentence was Venables, the England coach, who after the earlier hearing had withdrawn the player from his squad to play the Republic of Ireland. "I am shocked at the sentence," Venables said. "Now is not the time to discuss football matters, it is a sad day for Dennis and his family."
Condemnation over the "severity" of the sentence was led by the Labour MP Tony Banks, a Chelsea supporter and a character witness for the player. He said the law had dealt with him more harshly because he was a public figure and accused the magistrate of being "more interested in self-publicity than justice. Like a ham actor, he has been trying to make a name for himself.''
Banks went on: "This is an appalling decision and the sentence is out of all proportion to the offence. There were mitigating circumstances which the magistrate has clearly chosen to ignore. The delay between the original appearance in court and sentencing was excessive."
However Tom Pendry, Labour's spokesman on sport, took the opposite view. "I am sure the court took everything into consideration," he said. "I hope it's a lesson to anyone who might be tempted to go down the same road."
It might be several weeks before Wise's appeal is heard. When he is fit he will resume his place in the side, the Chelsea managing director Colin Hutchinson saying outside court that the club were standing by their man, who would also continue to captain the side. "We don't condone what Dennis did but it's non-football related and the punishment will come through the courts."
Blessed with impish, exceptional skills, Wise has come to be an inspirational leader for the London club. In a mediocre season when many of Glenn Hoddle's players have struggled to do themselves or their transfer fees justice, he has stood out both in respect of his form and the efforts he has made to curb a temper which has been only too quick to explode in the past.
A sending-off at Newcastle in September and five subsequent bookings would not ordinarily suggest that Dennis the Menace has wised up but Hoddle has been pleased with his captain. Following the taxi incident he withdrew the captain's armband, only to restore it a few weeks later, citing Wise's good "attitude and example".
Even if he does have to serve his jail term there is no reason why Wise should not resume his career, and his England status. Tony Adams, jailed in 1990 for drink-driving, but soon re-established with Arsenal and his country, is the precedent football's latest figure of disgrace will endeavour to follow.
n Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, was charged by the FA yesterday over his outburst after last week's Premiership game against Manchester United. The FA's action comes on top of the inquiry Kinnear faces after incidents during January's defeat at Newcastle. Both issues will probably be dealt with at the same hearing and could result in Kinnear being heavily fined and banished to the stands.
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