Wise leads Millwall to brink of history

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The Independent Football

For a moment, if you had shut your eyes, it could have been Arsène Wenger talking. Ahead of his side's FA Cup tie the manager said, with an experienced air: "It's a great opportunity for all of us. At the moment we haven't achieved anything: we're in the semi-finals. At the end of the season we need to sit down and look at what we've done."

For a moment, if you had shut your eyes, it could have been Arsène Wenger talking. Ahead of his side's FA Cup tie the manager said, with an experienced air: "It's a great opportunity for all of us. At the moment we haven't achieved anything: we're in the semi-finals. At the end of the season we need to sit down and look at what we've done."

Except this was not the Arsenal manager emphasising his club's focus on one match at a time: it was Dennis Wise. If you had kept your eyes closed you would have quickly known anyhow this was a rather different London club. The game was up when the chairman said he would strip naked and run around Trafalgar Square if Millwall beat Sunderland tomorrow to reach Europe. David Dein does not go in for those sorts of stunts.

Wise has been the player-manager at Millwall since October having joined them late in 2002 after leaving Leicester City in disgrace, following an incident where he hit his team-mate Callum Davidson. But despite that serious mark against his name, the fact that he can sound so convincing and not like the novice that he is when it comes to running a First Division side, is one reason why the Lions have reached this stage of the Cup.

There is a sharpness that he has carried around with him throughout his career. An edge visible in the fact that he held his own for so long at Chelsea when surrounded by better players and now visible in hauling what was a faltering Millwall side into the play-off places this season.

More than anything, though, Wise's long career in English football, which includes 21 international caps, is synonymous with the Cup and it is fitting that, in what might be his last season as a player, he has taken the south Londoners this far. Wise, 37, does not do ordinary in the Cup. He has won the competition three times in three different decades and two different centuries. His first triumph came with Wimbledon, against Liverpool, in 1988: "That gave me the most satisfaction because everyone wrote Wimbledon off at the time and we did it."

There was no disgrace in losing the 1994 decider against Manchester United but then he was captain when Chelsea scored the fastest-ever goal in a final, thanks to Roberto Di Matteo's strike after 43 seconds against Middlesbrough in 1997. Finally, three years and a new century later, he was again captain as the Blues beat Aston Villa in the last final at Wembley. He celebrated that one by taking his then very young son up to collect the old pot. Ten years on and it cannot have been too often that a Millwall press conference has attracted attention from the likes of CNN, at least for positive reasons, but that is now the size of this semi-final against Sunderland. It is, in effect, a play-off for a place in the Uefa Cup, as the winner from Arsenal or Manchester United, the other semi-finalists, will be in next year's Champions' League.

"It's fantastic for everyone involved in the club," Wise said. "The players realise now what it means, they've seen you lot [the media] here and usually we have one person down the training ground. It's a bit of a difference. It's important knowing Europe is that close. It's an opportunity when you never thought you'd get in. It's quite interesting." It was when discussion of Europe came up between Wise and his chairman Theo Paphitis that things became more interesting still. After beating Burnley, their opponents in the fifth-round, Wise began to wonder about the Uefa Cup and players' contracts. Paphitis, understandably, had not considered the possibility at the season's start, and his idea of a bonus was the threat to strip.

Wise has had to discover the serious side of management and upon graduation to the post last autumn had to tell his friend and team-mate Ronnie Bull he would not be renewing his contract. Soon after he went to Bull's daughter's birthday party, but how could he face the player himself? "Honesty," is Wise's reply to carrying out such delicate matters.

So after barely five months he appears secure in a role in which he admits he has surprised himself with what he has done. However, Wise is quick to praise the contributions of his coach and long-standing friend Ray Wilkins and, not least, his team. "You have to look at the players in this situation. They've gone out and performed," he said. "I've helped them and so has Ray but they still have to go and do the business on the field."

"The business" this season includes league victories home and away against Sunderland but despite that, Wise, with echoes of 1988, casts Millwall as underdogs. "It's going to be interesting and difficult for both teams. It would be better than what I did with Wimbledon if we get past Sunderland. They've probably got more experience in this situation than we have, with players from the Premiership and who've been in cup finals." Wise has never shied away from the spotlight and reaching the Cup final would do even more for his new managerial profile.

It may have caught his attention that there is a likely vacancy at Stamford Bridge this summer. So, had he taken a call from a certain Russian? "No calls from Roman yet," he piped up. It may be far-fetched to suggest that, come victory tomorrow, he shouldn't stray too far from the phone but Wise and far-fetched have always gone well together.

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