Dennis v Menace: Wise is keener than ever

Millwall's 'little blackguard' of a manager has had his day as an underdog in a final before. Nick Townsend looks at a team with real bite
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When the Great Designer drew up his plans for Dennis Wise, eagerness to please was never included in His scheme. Where the Millwall player-manager is concerned, DNA means Does Not Accommodate. Not the media, anyway. Take Friday, first thing, at The Den. He was scheduled to meet myself and other Sunday newspaper writers, as all FA Cup final managers do, a routine as habitual as dodgy suits on the big day itself.

When the Great Designer drew up his plans for Dennis Wise, eagerness to please was never included in His scheme. Where the Millwall player-manager is concerned, DNA means Does Not Accommodate. Not the media, anyway. Take Friday, first thing, at The Den. He was scheduled to meet myself and other Sunday newspaper writers, as all FA Cup final managers do, a routine as habitual as dodgy suits on the big day itself.

Instead, we were presented with his assistant, Ray Wilkins, who advised us that Wise was unavoidably absent, as he was receiving treatment to a leg injury. Suspicion abounded. Which leg, he was asked. "I'm not saying which leg it is," retorted Wilkins. "He will be coming up against Mr Keane very, very early on in the game and I would hate to give Roy an inkling."

In fairness, I was a granted an individual interview with Wise earlier this year, but it is a rare occurrence. My belief is that he doesn't relish the experience, simply because he is astute enough to recognise that any enquiries will principally concern the, shall we say, darker moments of what by any estimation has been a prosperous playing career.

Now, in his inaugural management role, Wise has presumably learnt from others, such asSaturday's counterpart at the Millennium Stadium, Sir Alex Ferguson, that a reputation is only enhanced by success. Hence the reason he tends to delegate opinion-forming to the urbane Wilkins.

It was the former England midfielder, an FA Cup final winner with Manchester United in 1983, who was instrumental in Wise's original summons as a player to The Den by chairman Theo Paphitis. So, did the chairman take much convincing? "Yeah. He obviously had the same thoughts as everyone else, that 'this fellow's a little blackguard, and do I need another little blackguard at Millwall?' I said, 'Yes you do, especially when it comes to the quality of footballer you're going to be getting.

"And the dressing room's important, too. When I first went to Chelsea with Luca [Vialli] we had the likes of Leboeuf, Desailly and Zola there, but Dennis was the captain, and the respect he drew off the other players was immense. So I knew he would work wonders here - and you need a dressing room, whatever club you're at. You need your Roy Keanes - it's vital to have that. If you don't,you don't win. Dennis is a massive character in the ranks, and, as far as vocal characters go, Wisey's the main guy in the dressing room. He'll make sure the players don't start intimidated. Dennis is still a Premier League player and I'm sure he will want to demonstrate that. And there's a nice rivalry between him and Roy, and I really do believe they'll both enjoy playing against each other."

Wilkins delivers the words airily, but with a hint of menace. They evoke memories of Vinnie Jones's first-minute robust tackle on Steve McMahon which established the tone in the 1988 final and which concluded with Wimbledon's defeat of Liverpool.

Wise will, no doubt, adopt a similar strategy as his one-time Dons team-mate Jones this time. "We don't really know if they're going to hit each other early or late on in the game," reflected Wilkins when pressed on those acknowledged combatants, Wise and Keane. "But at some stage there will be pleasantries..."

Certainly, Ferguson anticipates a response from Millwall akin to that provided by Crystal Palace in 1990 against his side, when a replay was required. "Palace were up and at 'em and were a handful. We can expect the same attitude from Millwall," the Scot said. "They'll depend on getting stuck in. If we go in with a lackadaisical approach we could suffer embarrassment."

Ferguson has confirmed that Keane will be fit. It is impossible to imagine that Wise won't be, despite that "leg problem". Such a confrontation between the Irishman and his English rival may just contribute to this final becoming more of a spectacle than many of us suspect.

The reality is that this is a final between one club who, when the Champions' League and Premiership still promised another remarkable Double, would have happily eschewed their day at Cardiff, and another who would have preferred their journey to Wales to have been a First Division play-off final. No fault of theirs, but Walsall, Telford United, Burnley, Tranmere Rovers and Sunderland scarcely represent a perilous passage to the Millen- nium Stadium for Wise's team. Nevertheless, to Cardiff they will venture on Saturday, bearing the slogan, presumably, in view of the antipathy from many quarters to their opponents, "Everyone loves us. We don't care".

Should the Lions triumph, and provide humiliation for Ferguson at the end of an already unsatisfactory season, it would eclipse such notable victories as Sunderland against Leeds in 1973, and that of Wimbledon against Liverpool 15 years later. "With the greatest respect to the other finals, there were not too many foreigners involved in our game then," said Wilkins. "Our Premier League has gone to a different level - so I would say this would probably be the biggest shock of all time if the boys can pull it off."

Can they do so? Millwall do have sufficient quality performers, including the Australian-born (albeit of a Dagenham father) Tim Cahill and Paul Ifill, to trouble a suspect rearguard. The former used to mimic United's players of the Nineties in the back garden of his Sydney home before, with the help of a parental loan, he arrived in Britain and successfully completed a trial at The Den. "Eric Cantona and Bryan Robson, they were absolute legends where I was concerned," said Cahill, who scored the semi-final winner at the Stadium of Light. "I watched them in finals back home and now it's an absolute dream just to be a part of the competition. Everyone says we've had the luck of the draw, but we've still had to win the games. Telford was probably one of the hardest games we've played in a while. Now we've got to take the opportunity we've been offered."

One man, more the Wiser after nearly two decades in the game, will be determined to ensure that they do. Perhaps then, he'll spare us a few words...

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