Dennis fails to prevent Red menace having final word

FA Cup final: Millwall veteran's efforts overshadowed as favourites ease home
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The Independent Football

Not the barest glimmer of a chance that young Henry Wise would charm us all again. Here in 2000, he was not much more than a toddler in the arms of his father as Dennis Wise raised the FA Cup to the heavens as captain of Chelsea. Now the son of the Millwall player-manager, he may have just learnt an early lesson in life: FA Cup finals rarely defy the laws of natural justice.

Wise senior had to stand and accept the inevitability of defeat as the Manchester United captain Roy Keane savoured such a triumph for the fourth occasion in his career. Well, the Irishman appeared to enjoy it. Surely this couldn't have been the same United captain, who once, rather patronisingly, described the FA Cup final as "a nice day out", could it? And who knows, those four winning medals and Cups hoisted aloft could have become a joint record of five, if, in that same year, 2000, United and their advisers had not decreed that a trip to Brazil for a tournament that is now long forgotten, should take precedence in their calendar.

It is as well that Sir Alex Ferguson's team turned up for the tournament this year and regarded it with due reverence, as it has turned out to be the only trophy that has come their way this season. They won it with a stroll which was bereft of heroics, major controversies, and, in truth, any interest once the interval had been reached, save for a brace from Ruud van Nistelrooy and some entrancing footwork from the opening scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo.

But then, for the first occasion in this season's Cup campaign Millwall had met a team of Premiership distinction. Not the First Division club's fault, of course. It's merely that we do expect our finalists to have survived some kind of adventurous passage. Not the decidedly unexotic odyssey of ties with Walsall, Telford United, Burnley, Tranmere Rovers - after a replay - and Sunderland in the semi-final.

"I want my team to be fair - but in people's faces," Wise had declared ominously, as he explained his managerial approach when we met earlier this year, just before the fourth round. This was surely the occasion to produce that aggression. Yet, if we had expected Millwall, and in particular the Lion King himself, to bare their teeth, we were hugely disappointed. Not even that old adversary, Keane could provoke him to produce a more malevolent side in this now rare confrontation between the pair, for whom the fires of destruction have begun to be extinguished. Indeed, the Irishman enjoyed himself in a gardening role - busying himself tidying up at the back - and only occasionally venturing forward.

Keane was subdued because, frankly, he didn't need to raise his game much above the pedestrian. Wise simply couldn't. The former England man confined himself principally to negating the threat of Paul Scholes. But it was all carried out at a 37-year-old gentleman's pace. Understandable, perhaps, particularly given the hamstring strain that nearly denied him a place in this, his fourth FA Cup final. "I wasn't really fit," the player-manager admitted. "I was feeling it [the injury], but I felt that I should play. There were so many young kids on the bench. You couldn't have asked them to play and given a responsibility like that."

For much of the game, the former Wimbledon and Chelsea midfielder was an inspirational presence, an on-field motivator, directing those around him like a busy traffic cop, rather than the devilish character of old who would dive in without any regard for either his or his opponents' health.

Millwall attempted to smother their opponents and, for a while, did so effectively. If only Ronaldo had not been in evidence. He began showboating after eight minutes with something more reminiscent of an ice dance routine than a football dribble, culminating in him crossing the ball with his right foot produced from behind his left. Exceptional skill.

The next occasion the Portuguese midfielder embarked on a scintillating foray but he eventually came to grief in a manner of which that old Den stalwart, defender Harry Cripps, would have approved. On his backside. Wise then clattered into the prone player. The incident promised to erupt into a fracas when Darren Fletcher stupidly blundered into the argument. Fortunately, sense prevailed.

Wise was incandescent when United twice went close in quick succession as half-time beckoned. Poor Neil Harris was the recipient of his displeasure. Wise could read the signs. United were shifting through the gears. It surprised no one when they scored. Nor the fact that it was Ronaldo who was on the end.

Wise displayed his frustration. Before a United corner, he dragged Scholes to the ground, but went unpunished. He was beginning to look fired up. After the break the player-manager was involved in a goal-line clearance. But the game was up for his men when Van Nistelrooy converted a second with a spot-kick. With a minute to go, Wise substituted himself, and allowed teenager Curtis Weston his moment in what was once the season's grand finale, but is increasingly becoming just an afterthought.

In his heart, Wise was almost certainly reconciled to the afternoon's disappointment and though he declared himself "proud of them", adding "everyone said we'd be annihilated but we gave it a go", he will have been privately irked that, for all the brave build-up talk, there was barely a hefty challenge worth its name - the exception, a challenge by Wise himself on Ryan Giggs which earned him the game's only caution - that would have had the dock-worker supporters of the club of old growling with pleasure.

The irony is, of course, that the distractions of the appearance here effectively scuppered Millwall's chances of promotion which was always his priority. The legacy of this Cup run, however, is that it brings a Uefa Cup place and a financial windfall which will do no harm at all where next year's First Division campaign is concerned.

Sadly, as for the recently much-trashed FA Cup, this non-event can only have provided a further dent in its status.