The old Denn at the New Den? Wiser man wants to be more Luca than Crazy Gang

The Interview - Dennis Wise: Millwall's player-manager is keen to shed the image of mischief-maker and work more in the vogue of Vialli. Nick Townsend meets him
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The Independent Football

Midday on Friday, and you discover Butch and the Sundance Kid holed up in their office, plotting and scheming on two fronts: promotion to the Premiership in the long term and, more immediately, progress to the FA Cup fifth round. The affinity between the two former west London midfield players is such that comparisons with the cinematic Western duo are inevitable. We have Wilkins the sage, the avuncular character who appears to have been around English football for an eternity but is still only 47, and the wickedly irreverent Wise, 10 years his junior, who was enticed into management by "helping out" the Millwall chairman, Theo Paphitis, for a month when Mark McGhee's precipitant departure in October created a void, and who three months later has defied those who predicted that his tenure as player-manager would be brutally brief.

The statistics are impressive: including yesterday's home win over Sunderland, only four defeats in the 15 games since he was appointed. "It was just thrown at me," recalls Wise. "Mark McGhee left, and he obviously spoke to Theo and said, 'Give it to Dennis. The lads have a lot of time for him, and he gets on well with them all'. Theo asked me to do it for just four weeks at first. I said yes, but that I wanted Ray to come and help me. Then I went home to my wife and said, 'You know, I'm knackered now. In four weeks, the new bloke will come in and I'll be out. That's football for you. That's the way it happens. I'll be thought of as a threat'."

He adds: "Anyway, I did it for four weeks, and we did OK. Theo asked me if I wanted to do it permanently, and I agreed to be player-manager. I felt it was right for me. I'd got the bug. Obviously, your home life can suffer, especially as my missus is going to drop our second in a week's time. That doesn't help. But she's right behind me, told me I should do it."

Wise nods his approval of Ray Wilkins, seated at his desk. "I wouldn't be able to do this without him," he says. "I like to plan all my own set-pieces and so on, but Ray's a very good organiser, which helps me because I'm a little bit scatty. If I forget things, Ray picks them up. Right, Ray?"

Wilkins grunts and offers confirmation in that measured way of his: "We work very well as a team."

Wise continues: "When he talks to the players, it's like there's an aura around him. It just goes quiet. They want to learn." That impudent smile crosses Wise's features. "But we do have domestics at times, don't we, Ray? About me playing, or not."

"Yes," agrees Wilkins. "And I win."

Wise explains: "I had always intended to play for one more season after this. But when I first took over, I took a back step. Ray feels I should play more."

That was virtually decided for him. "I'd always liked playing Luca's [Gianluca Vialli's] little diamond system which we played under him when he was manager at Chelsea. We changed to that in a game against Ipswich when I went on as sub and it worked well. That's the handy thing about being player-manager. Then we did it at Cardiff [and won 3-1]."

As a result the Lions have only been beaten once in nine games in a run stretching back to the start of December. "I felt that system would benefit a couple of the players, Tim Cahill and Neil Harris, who are both Premiership quality, and they both have [benefited]."

Many pairs of eyebrows, belonging to those who harbour their own prejudices about him, were raised with incredulity when Wise was installed. He recognises that, and it doesn't trouble him unduly. Off the pitch, there have been the bruises inflicted by confrontations with authority. On it, he remains, in many eyes, the little assassin with a smile, the recipient of no fewer than 12 red cards in a career which began at Southampton, but which prospered under the management of Dave Bassett at Wimbledon, before a profitable 11 years at Chelsea won him FA Cup, Worthington Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup trophies - but not appreciation from all quarters.

"On the pitch, I've always tried to give as much as I could. And yes, I will wind people up," he says. "You do what you can to win. A lot of people didn't like that. But - how should I put this - I enjoy playing football. Whatever happens out there, happens. Afterwards I have a beer with them, and I haven't got problems with anyone."

And does he still insist that his team should be "horrible", as he was once quoted as saying? Wise explains: "I want my team to be fair - but in people's faces. If they get booked for tackles, I haven't got a problem. I won't fine them for that. Millwall's renowned for being strong and tough. I want it to stay like that. I want us to have that mentality. I don't want sides to come to the New Den and enjoy it. I want to put negativeness in the other team."

Undoubtedly, membership of the old Wimbledon "Crazy Gang" tends to define your career for ever. Never mind that he possessed sufficient talent to claim 21 England caps, and not merely because he could bite in the tackle. The headlines were easily scribed. "Dirty Denn" and "Dennis the Menace". Somehow "Dennis the Meritorious" doesn't have the same eye-catching quality to it.

So, you ask Wise, who is sitting clad in a training top and a pair of cut-off "trackies", are you still crazy after all these years? He confirms your impression that few areas here at Millwall are modelled on the Dons of the Eighties. "That's gone," he says. "They were good times, and I enjoyed it. But actually we didn't train properly and probably didn't eat properly. We didn't look after ourselves as well as we should have done. But here we want it very professional. That's why we've got a dietician and a fitness bloke."

In terms of the football style he espouses, too, his approach is more redolent of Stamford Bridge than Plough Lane. "When we've got the ball, I want it passed," he says. "I don't like them booming it. I like playing the way Luca did it."

While Wilkins is an influential figure, Wise emphasises that he is "the gaffer". He describes his management style thus: "We want organisation, and for players to know what's expected of them. If you put responsibility on them, they'll do the right things. If you just let them go out and play, they'll make excuses.

"People expect me to be a screamer and a shouter, but I've never been one to go potty in the dressing room. But I will point people out, and in front of everyone. I put the onus on them. If they've been told to mark someone at a corner - and I put on a board exactly which player to look for - and he scores, it's their fault. They have to put their hands up. They don't do it again. If he does, he won't play."

He adds: "The players have respect for me. And I have respect for them. I treat them like grown men and they appreciate that. We have a giggle as well. I have taken them out for the night and we have an enjoyable time, but it's very low-key. Here, I've just been totally honest with everyone. Sometimes it's difficult. It's not always nice being honest. I've had to tell a couple of players I didn't want them - Stuart Nethercott and Ronnie Bull - and they're both out on loan. But I've also kept a couple of players, Matt Lawrence and Robbie Ryan, who would have been out of contract at the end of the season and had been told they could go by Mark [McGhee]. I always fancied Matt as a centre-half and not as a right-back where he'd been playing. So I moved him, and he's been fantastic. He's also got a new contract, and Robbie has, too."

Wise reveals that when he took over, he sought counsel with Vialli and Micky Adams, the Leicester City manager. Micky Adams? You query the name. Leicester, of course, sacked Wise in 2002 following a pre-season incident involving a team-mate, Callum Davidson. "I haven't got a problem with Micky," stresses Wise. "He hasn't got a problem with me, either. He didn't want me to get the sack. He's helped me with a couple of set-piece ideas."

Wise's ambition this season is to propel Millwall into the play-offs, but on Saturday there is the debatably appealing diversion of the FA Cup, at the home of non-League Telford. A tasty tie, you suggest. "Yeah, for them," he says. "There's always going to be an upset, and I don't want it to be us, but I love the FA Cup. I won it three times. It's a fantastic, wonderful tournament, and potentially a great money-earner for the club."

There is just one specific problem on Saturday. That is his wife Claire's "due" date. "Don't know what I'm going to do," he says cheerily. "Hopefully it'll be late..."

Or premature, which some pundits argued was the case as far as Wise's management future was concerned. Not for the first time in a tempestuous career, he has so far proved them wrong.

Biography: Dennis Wise

Born: 16 December 1966, London.

Club career: joined Wimbledon in 1985, under Dave Bassett's management. Promoted to First Division in 1986, finishing sixth in 1987. Won FA Cup in 1988, beating Liverpool 1-0. Moved to Chelsea in 1990 for £1.6m. In 1994 was stripped of Chelsea captaincy after being sent off for foul and abusive language v Newcastle. Won 1997 FA Cup, and 1998 League and Cup Winners' Cups. Joined Leicester for £1.6m in 2001. In 2002, sent home from training camp and contract terminated. Joined Millwall.

International career: made debut for England v Turkey in 1991, scoring only goal of the game.

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