Wilkins plays the wise straight man to a winning firebrand

Millwall v Sunderland Old Trafford
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The Independent Football

It has been a pretty impressive ride over the last six months since The Cruncher and The Crab settled into the twin driving seats at Millwall: an FA Cup semi-final this afternoon, and an excellent prospect of a place in the First Division play-offs at the season's end.

Not bad for a club who are not only unfashionable but not much liked outside their immediate area of south London. No wonder, then, that player- manager Dennis Wise and his assistant, Ray Wilkins, are enjoying life down at Zampa Road SE16.

They are one of the sport's unlikelier combos. Wise, a founder-member of Wimbledon's pyrotechnic squad, the Crazy Gang, a spiky little purveyor of glottal stops, hard stares and tackles to match, who is still doing impressive things in midfield at the age of 37; and Wilkins, a 47-year-old who favours Italian suits and cuff links, who won 84 caps for England and during his five years with Manchester United was dubbed The Crab by Ron Atkinson because of a penchant for the sideways pass rather than the riskier forward one.

Wilkins, a thoroughbred who also played for Chelsea, Milan, Paris St-Germain and Rangers, won one FA Cup (1983 while at Old Trafford), while Wise has collected three winner's medals, one with Wimbledon in that unforgettable 1988 upset of Liverpool and two for Chelsea (1997 and 2000). So the managerial pedigree is as indisputable as Millwall's lack of background in Cup semi-finals. However, the fact that the captain, Kevin Muscat, is the only one apart from Wise to have gone this far in the competition before does not mean that Sunderland, with greater experience on their side, will have an easy time of it in the all-First Division clash at Old Trafford.

Millwall have beaten them twice in the League this season and Wilkins had this to say about his new club's prospects: "Will we win? I don't know, but I do know one thing. Sunderland will have to scrap and work and work if they are going to beat us. They may have the edge where ability is concerned, but not when it comes to commitment."

There was a similarly steely promise in Wise's warning, "We are not going up there to have a nice day out", and a rather surprising postscript that, for him, getting past Sunderland would be better than that Wembley win over Liverpool 16 years ago, since reaching the final this year would guarantee European football down at Zampa Road.

Wise's first act on being offered Mark McGhee's job last November was to telephone Wilkins, since the two had gelled so well as player and coach respectively under Gianluca Vialli at Chelsea. "I don't think I would have been able to do it without Ray," Wise admitted.

A manager with QPR (1994-96) and Fulham (1997-98), Wilkins worked with Vialli at Stamford Bridge and Watford until he was sacked in the summer of 2002 with Watford struggling to fend off bankruptcy. So he turned to punditry for the next 16 months. "All managers and coaches who have been relieved of their positions are indebted to Sky," he smiled. "They are very quick to get us back on TV and back into the eye of the football public." That said, he felt that the spell when he was not directly involved in the game was "horrible".

Although he nurtures ambitions to become a manager again one day, Wilkins is adamant about his Millwall role. "The manager has the final voice and I am his assistant and doing the best I can to help Dennis. The important thing is that we are both winners, and have told the players in no uncertain terms that that is the object of the exercise. When I came, you could see the potential was there. Now it is basically the same batch of fellers who are producing the goods."

And how do Cruncher and Crab hit it off? "We actually get on very well," said Wilkins. "I basically do a lot of office stuff that he doesn't like, so I have taken that side of it away from him. But we do disagree now and then on what we feel is right and wrong, and that is very healthy. We can't be yes-people, we have to be upfront with each other because we are different personalities. Dennis is more outgoing than I am, more outspoken, but it works quite well, we dovetail.

"I had a very similar relationship with Luca, always talking about what we could improve, and we have managed to keep a healthy dialogue going. But it would take a far calmer person than me to be a calming influence on Dennis. That it has worked very well is down to the effort that has gone in and some bloody hard work from the players."

As someone who knows them both well, Vialli thinks the pair make a great team. "The secret is that Dennis has a strong winning mentality, is very aggress-ive and is still one of the best midfielders in the First Division, while Ray has experience and ability. One is fiery, the other calm and collected." Millwall's players also approve. Paul Ifill said: "McGhee had taken this club as far as he could. It needed shaking up, and Dennis and Ray have done just that. You can see the team spirit is a lot better."

And, in the opinion of Danny Dichio, "Wisey has set such a high standard for us now." It is a standard which promises to give Sunderland a torrid time this afternoon.