Wilkins brings calm to Millwall's fighting spirit

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The Independent Football

Ray Wilkins does a great line in self-deprecation - "I've had my time. I'm all washed up" - but he pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with the public's attitude to his former club, Manchester United.

"I am surprised how disliked they are," he says, praising the "enjoyment" they have provided. "They've won eight out of 11 [Premiership] titles. They've been the benchmark and I do think there is a lot of jealousy."

The Millwall assistant manager - who spent five years as a player at Old Trafford - takes no comfort that, for once, his present club will not be the hate figures when the sides meet in Saturday's FA Cup final.

"The whole country wants us to win," he says. "Chelsea would love us to beat Man United." Chelsea are another of his former clubs - first as a player, then as a coach - and he was on the staff when they won the Cup four years ago.

He puzzles at the antipathy towards United. "When I was in Italy with Milan, Juventus had a similar situation, they had a national support, but the jealousy was not as bad as Man U," the 47-year-old says. "I find it sad. Why not be proud of something that is ours? I class them as ours because I am an Englishman. They have an English core of players and that is a reason behind their success."

Wilkins offers one explanation. "The commercial side may be a factor but that has only done well because they've been extremely bright, you need success to bring the business on but you need bright people to manipulate it," he says. "They were not selling Ray Wilkins duvets in my time, they were selling me."

Indeed they were. Wilkins left in 1984, the year after helping United win the Cup. There was jealousy then, he feels, but not at the level it is now. "You need a certain type of player to play at Old Trafford, who realises what the club is all about. I think that applies to Liverpool as well and is maybe why they have not been as good in recent years."

Millwall's players performed well at Old Trafford not so long ago - in beating Sunderland in the FA Cup semi-final. Wilkins claims, not unreasonably, that if they go on to win in Cardiff it will be the biggest Cup final upset of all-time.

He paints a vivid picture. "We are playing Manchester United, the biggest club in world football, although probably not the best," he says. "When Manchester United don't win anything it is a poor season. They have been extremely indifferent and that is the best I can say.

"They are a wounded tiger and will come out fighting. I'm sure that Sir Alex Ferguson will be desperate to pick up a trophy. The FA Cup is all they have left."

Wilkins, who also went on to play for Rangers before becoming player-manager at Queen's Park Rangers, is relishing his time at Millwall - providing the experience, the calmness to go with player-manager Dennis Wise.

It appears a well-judged combination but he is quick to praise the work of Wise, 37. "Dennis is the manager of the team and I'm just the misery who deals with these guys day to day," he says. That is not what others say at the Den - crediting Wilkins, with 84 England caps, for much of the tactical nous the team has shown as well as being a steadying influence.

Wilkins is a friend of the chairman Theo Paphitis and recommended that Wise be taken on as a player last season after his dismissal from Leicester City.

The two had worked together at Stamford Bridge under Gianluca Vialli before Wilkins eventually moved with the Italian to Watford. The pair were sacked in June 2002.

Wilkins had no doubts when the call came last year for him to help Wise. "I had been out of football for 14 months," he says. "Sky [television] were very good to me but I was going nowhere, doing nothing from a football standpoint. I was pleasantly surprised it [Millwall] was not a bear-pit - though it might be [if results decline]."

So far results have been good, with just one defeat before that Cup semi-final leading to a tilt at the First Division play-off places. Since then, however, it has been one win in eight.

"The Cup affects people in so many different ways," Wilkins says. "They [United] have won twice since the semi-final and we've won once." He still has "a massive part of my heart that feels for Manchester United" adding "but this is not about me".

Maybe so but if another chapter in the Cup is being written his role will not go unnoticed.