Wise's sparkling example gives Millwall hope of champagne moment

Millwall have been lifted by Dennis Wise as both player and manager. By Jason Burt
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The Independent Football

Pink champagne and Dennis Wise. It's a strange combination. But so, everyone would think, is the old Menace and management. But it works.

Pink champagne and Dennis Wise. It's a strange combination. But so, everyone would think, is the old Menace and management. But it works.

The Millwall striker, Danny Dichio, who will miss today's FA Cup final through suspension, takes up the story. "We'd all said our bits and pieces," he explains, recalling the nerve-racked minutes before the semi-final at Old Trafford against Sunderland. "And then Dennis and Ray [Wilkins, the assistant manager] had a tray of pink champagne lined up for us. And we all had a quick shot and they said 'Right boys, let's go out and enjoy it'."

It makes Dichio chuckle. It's the essence of Wise's managership. "Little things like that do count," says the erstwhile journeyman striker who has been Wise's only cash signing, through money generated by the Cup run, in the surprisingly successful months since he was appointed. "And it got everyone up for it," Dichio adds.

Whether Wise, 37, recovers from a calf injury to lead Millwall into their first and, astonishingly, his fifth FA Cup Final may determine whether there is another champagne moment. "This time we expect Kristal," jokes Dichio.

Wise is always bubbly, never mind the tipple. He is desperate to appear and took himself off to Rome in midweek to receive some "deep massage", according to Wilkins, which gives him every hope of making the starting XI. Even if he's "10 per cent fit" he wants to play in an attempt to become the first player to win the Cup with three different teams, after his successes at Wimbledon and Chelsea. But it is not, Wilkins insists, about personal glory. The "little blackguard's" worth to the Millwall team is immeasurable both on and off the pitch.

David Livermore, the former Arsenal apprentice, who is probably regarded as Millwall's most accomplished passer after Wise, is candid in his assessment. "Dennis has obviously got this image," the 24-year-old says. "And I expected Dennis to be exactly how he's been portrayed in the press and obviously what his past has shown."

The club captain, Matt Lawrence, whose career has been revived by Wise moving him to central defence, adds: "You can't always believe what you read about people in newspapers. He came in and is a lovely, bubbly character." However Lawrence goes on: "Maybe I didn't think he was going to be like that."

Wise's past, of course, is pocked with ugly incidents including a conviction for an assault on a taxi driver, which was overturned on appeal, and the alleged attack on his team-mate at Leicester City, Callum Davidson, after a dispute over cards. Davidson was left with a broken jaw. It's something that has been picked up on by Millwall's fans in one of the less salubrious terrace songs. To the tune of "Volare " they sing "He's only five foot four, but he'll break your... jaw."

Dennis Frank Wise is actually 5ft 6in. But he's used to dealing with misconceptions. Sent off 13 times, he still has 21 England caps to look back on, as well as the cup wins. They in turn led to winners' medals in the European Cup-Winners' Cup and Super Cup. At Chelsea he captained a team which included Marcel Desailly and Gianfranco Zola. Wise, according to Wilkins, then a Chelsea coach, had total control of the dressing-room. His ability - for one of the members of the Wimbledon "Crazy Gang" - has, belatedly, been recognised. Wise was always a shrewd, if not a sensible, footballer.

So it is disarming to hear Livermore say that Wise is still the ringleader of the players' card school. "He's not distant at all," Livermore says. "He's got his desk and his office but he's still the same Dennis. He still plays in the card school, still the joker of the pack. No, he's not changed."

The Millwall players feel confident enough to tease their player-manager. "We've got a nickname which I'd not like to mention as it's quite offensive," says Livermore. "But we still call him it and he laughs at it so the banter's still there between the players and the manager."

Wise eventually arrived in south-east London after being sacked by Leicester following the pre-season incident with Davidson two years ago. He was taken on by Theo Paphitis - the chairman and a friend of Wilkins - and initially played under Mark McGhee. When McGhee left last October, with Paphitis fretful, however justifiably, that Millwall were under-achieving, Wise was appointed. It was, supposedly, a temporary move. After four games it became permanent.

"As soon as he arrived I realised he was the opposite to the image that I had built up of him," says Livermore. "He likes to win and has installed that in us and obviously on the pitch he's extremely important."

Wilkins, who has adopted the role of mentor and tactician, adds: "I don't think he has changed, I don't think he will ever change. He is honest. He's as honest as the day is long and I don't think that anyone can ask much more of a manager."

Honesty has become a theme adopted by all at Millwall. "He'll sit down and talk to you," said Dichio, who signed after a loan spell from West Bromwich Albion. "If he feels things aren't going right he'll pull you to one side and you don't get a lot of managers like that nowadays."

Dichio, obviously feeling bruised from past experiences at other clubs, adds: "I think the number one characteristic any manager can have is honesty with his players, especially if you are going out there to play with him.

"You find the other players will show that honesty and fight as well. They will show him the same respect."

Wilkins concurs, praising Wise's "man management skills", but he reveals that the transition from player to manager has been tough. "I had a very similar thing at QPR. Not telling your mate he's playing in big games is not easy but you have to be up front with them," Wilkins says. "They are not intimidated by him but they respect him especially with his level of performance."

His performances, Wilkins claims, have "mellowed" despite Livermore's assessment that his manager is still the "same fiery character". But Wilkins says: "He was sent off in his first match versus Sheffield United and he thought: 'hang on a second, I've got to stand up and be counted'. He's mellowed, not in his attitude to his playing but he thinks on his feet, instead of flying in on a tackle, because he has to set an example."

The players have had to adapt too. "I guess he was a mate, a footballing colleague and all of a sudden he takes over as manager," says Lawrence. "He kind of wants to distance himself a little bit and you as a player do as well."

No one, Livermore says, was surprised when he got the job. "It seemed like a natural progression." Wilkins says it is Wise who "sets out the team". "Tactically he's very good. He is quite astute in changing things around. I have been pleasantly surprised," he says.

Lawrence adds: "He's very knowledgeable and he fitted in with the team very quickly and made friends immediately. I'm not sure that I thought a major star would fall into a First Division side as easily as he did."

However, Dichio reveals that Wise's contributions can also be a bit more direct. "If we're not doing it then he'll come in at half-time and boot a couple of people up the backside and that's what you need as well," he says.

Indeed, it is thought that Paphitis had wanted to give the job to Wilkins but realised he needed someone more aggressive. He's certainly got that now and appears to have struck upon a winning combination.

The last word comes from the captain, Lawrence: "He [Wise] enjoys being around football people. Him and Ray are the same. But he does draw the line - you do need to look up to him and he's a character you do revere because he's been there and done that. He's Dennis Wise."

Indeed he is. And the Millwall dressing-room will all raise a glass to that.