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Dennis Wise

Started by Jim,

48 posts in this topic

Rebooted: When Wise was sent off four times in a season — and accused of biting!



“I honestly don’t think I am what you would call a dirty player. I am hard but I am fair. I won’t let anyone take liberties with me, though. If someone does something to me, then I will get my own back. That is the way it was when I was growing up and that is the way it is now. And, no, I don’t care how big they are.”

In an illuminating autobiography first published in 1999, Dennis Wise makes no apologies for the footballer he had become – the cheeky, spiky provocateur idolised by Chelsea supporters and reviled by opponents. You suspect his insistence that he wasn’t a dirty player prompted more than a few eye-rolls throughout the English game. Not least from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who famously said Wise “could start a row in an empty house”.

But the impassioned self-defence Wise mounts in writing is all the more remarkable because of its timing; in the 1998-99 season, he had produced an incredible disciplinary tour de force that consisted of four red cards, 11 yellows and no fewer than 14 matches missed through suspension across all competitions.

Even as Gianluca Vialli’s spectacularly entertaining side produced their most consistent stretch of winning football in the Premier League, eventually finishing just four points shy of treble-winning champions Manchester United, they often had to do so without their captain.

“I was injured for three months of that season and I’m not sure if I played more games than Dennis!” former team-mate Gus Poyet tells The Athletic. He was making a joke, but a look back at the numbers reveals it to be true: Poyet made 38 appearances in all competitions to Wise’s 37.

The most disrupted season of Wise’s career at Chelsea was the result of a perfect storm of bad judgement and bad luck. His first red card actually arrived in pre-season, during a friendly against Atletico Madrid in the Gelderland Tournament in the Netherlands. He clashed with full-back Carlos Aguilera and both were sent off, with the referee sending reports to the Spanish Federation and Football Association.

Aguilera escaped further punishment but the FA saw fit to hand Wise a three-match ban. “I thought it was bizarre, embarrassing to a point,” Poyet says. “I understand they thought we were representing England abroad, but football is worldwide, not one country. There were rules for every country and England was punishing one of its players for something that anywhere else in the world wouldn’t be punished.”

“I remember there being uproar about it,” adds Graeme Le Saux. “The FA now are a much fairer organisation in that sense. They understand far better the consequences for players and I think they’re harsher on players who do things that are way over the line but they’re much more reasonable for things like red cards in pre-season matches.”

Wise was annoyed by what he perceived as a lack of consistency and made what became, in hindsight, an optimistic vow: “I’m fed up with being banned. I won’t be getting sent off again.”

The disruption caused by the suspension was compounded by Wise getting injured against Blackburn in his first game back, and it wasn’t until late October that he made his third league appearance of the season. With an eye on building his fitness, Vialli then picked his captain in a largely second-string side to face Aston Villa in the League Cup three days later, only for the red mist to descend again.

Chelsea were leading 4-1 in the final minutes at Stamford Bridge, and had just brought on a 17-year-old John Terry for his senior debut at right-back, when Wise went in high, late and two-footed on striker Darren Byfield. The punishment from referee Graham Barber was swift, and a furious Vialli became embroiled in a row with the opposition bench.

“It was a bad tackle,” said Vialli’s assistant Graham Rix, who attended the press conference. “He deserved to go. He is devastated. There was no reason to make the tackle. It’s all about split-second decisions and he made the wrong one.”

This time, Wise would miss four English matches rather than three, for what was classed as his second dismissal of the season. The motive for the tackle, late in a game long since over, was unclear. “There’s something about a lot of players of that generation and background,” Le Saux adds. “It’s like a code. I don’t know whether you’d call it a street code, but if you wronged them, they felt totally justified in at any point, no matter how long it took, getting retribution.

“It was like the black book. You’d go in it and it might be the next game, it might be six months or it might be six years. ‘But I’m never going to forget that and I owe you one’. If you’re part of that code, you accept that, but the problem is he put himself into situations where he put that before his own responsibilities as captain or the context of a particular game.”

Wise played just twice in November and only once in the league, a 1-1 draw away to West Ham.

Red card number three arrived in his next game in the competition, against Everton at Goodison Park. A fourth-minute booking for a foul on Danny Cadamarteri was compounded by an off-the-ball clash with Marco Materazzi, and Chelsea lost their captain before half-time.

Vialli sarcastically applauded referee Gary Willard and even Everton manager Walter Smith described Wise’s dismissal as “a bit iffy”. “I played at Everton, I made two tackles and I was off… and they weren’t malicious tackles, they were just… tackles,” Wise later said in an interview with The Guardian. The standard one-match ban became another three games, because of his prior misdemeanours.

That trip to Everton perhaps highlighted most clearly the adjustment that Wise, along with many of English football’s other traditional ‘hard men’, faced as Premier League refereeing changed near the turn of the millennium; IFAB had outlawed the tackle from behind in 1998 and the trickle-down effect transformed many of English football’s previously passable challenges into yellow cards, and those that once merited a booking into straight reds.

“They were implementing new rules, and most of those rules were more difficult to change in England for the players,” Poyet says. “A 50/50 committed tackle between two players in England was regarded as proper football, and then it became how in control of your body you were, or whether you were off the ground. All those new definitions of a tackle became difficult for us, because they changed almost from one day to the next.”

“You look at the sorts of challenges that were going in during the 1980s and early 90s, the way football was played, you had to look after yourself – and you had to put your foot in,” Le Saux adds. “Sometimes you had to go in and look after yourself. Dennis was at the epicentre of that in his early Wimbledon days, because they were literally punching above their weight.

“You’re conditioned to behave like that, so it’s hard to unlearn that stuff, especially in such an intense, instinctive environment as football. You’re not having a punch-up around the photocopier. You can’t compare an office environment to a football environment and I think those deep-seated learned behaviours come out very easily in that environment.”

After returning from suspension, Wise finally managed to gain some rhythm as a regular starter in January – only to be derailed by his most senseless red card yet. Having been booked for handball in the first half of an FA Cup fourth round replay against Oxford United that Chelsea were leading, he dived to his left and parried away a Dean Windass shot that was flying wide. With the score 4-1.

A second yellow followed, together with another four games on the sidelines. “I will be lenient with Dennis,” Vialli said. “I don’t think the first hand-ball was deliberate, though the second was.”

Not everyone at Chelsea was quite so forgiving. “I could not believe Dennis did it,” team-mate Dan Petrescu told reporters after the game. “Even if the ball was going in, it didn’t really matter as we were already 4-1 up with 15 minutes to go. All the lads were disappointed afterwards, even though we had won the game.

“We need more people on the pitch because with Gustavo Poyet and Tore Andre Flo missing through injury, we are short already. But now Dennis will be out for a long time again. He has already missed a lot games this season and he really should not have handled the ball. There was no need – it was unbelievable. He let himself down more than us.”

But despite clear frustration with Wise’s indiscipline, Le Saux doesn’t remember any big dressing-room inquests. “When it’s such a fundamental part of somebody’s character, it’s hard to really confront them with it,” he says. “You knew how he would react, and I don’t think he’d have taken it well if we’d really got stuck into him.”

The Oxford game saw Wise score his first goal in almost 11 months, but that was scant consolation for a suspension that ruled him out of another chunk of what was shaping up to be a potentially historic Chelsea season.  In the end, they could not use his disciplinary issues as an excuse for falling agonisingly short of realising their title dreams; a costly April run of three draws in a row against Middlesbrough, Leicester and Sheffield Wednesday happened when Wise was back in the side.

But there was another brush with the authorities to come in their Cup Winners’ Cup trophy defence.

Wise was accused of biting Real Mallorca’s Marcelino in the semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge, only for UEFA to drop the charge after receiving his explanation.


“Television and the papers made a big thing out of me appearing to bite their defender Marcelino,” he later wrote in his book. “I never did; I just gestured to bite him after he had run his fingernails up my neck. He didn’t complain, the referee saw nothing and Real Mallorca said nothing.”

The incident overshadowed the tie, and Wise was greeted with kids barking at him like dogs as Chelsea warmed up at the Son Moix stadium ahead of the second leg two weeks later. He hoped to have the last word in typically provocative fashion: “We had a great celebration planned if I scored, and in the last minute I thought I was going to do just that when I went to meet Franco Zola’s cross,” he wrote. “But I headed it too deliberately and wide.

“Shame – because if it had gone in, I was going to run to the corner in front of the Mallorca fans, go down on all fours like a dog, lift one leg and pretend to pee on the corner flag!”

Chelsea lost 1-0 that night and the tie 2-1 on aggregate, and so ended a season which had promised so much with only the UEFA Super Cup, won with a 1-0 victory over European champions Real Madrid, to show for it. There were widespread suggestions that Wise, who turned 32 in the December, had outlived his usefulness to the team and after a season in which his indiscipline regularly undermined his inspirational leadership, the criticism appeared fair.

Wise responded in 1999-00 by producing his finest football in a Chelsea shirt, acting as the driving force in the club’s wild first Champions League adventure and scoring a memorable late equaliser to draw with AC Milan in the San Siro. “He kept being himself and enjoyed himself in the next few seasons,” adds Poyet.

“You couldn’t be Dennis without his way of understanding football – the 50/50s, the aggression and the leadership.”

Wise was sent off just once in the final two years of his Chelsea career, against United at Old Trafford. When considered next to all the trophies he won and victories he helped inspire, that remarkable flurry of red cards in 1998-99 now stands as a monument to the uncompromising personality that underpinned both the best and the worst moments of his career.

“I know I will never be regarded as a footballer for the purists,” he subsequently admitted in his autobiography. “I accept that. I also know that I have made perhaps more than the occasional mistake in my career. But with me, I would like to think that what you see is what you get. I have been lucky, but on many occasions I have made my own luck.

“If I had to use one word to describe myself, it would be a fighter. I have had to fight for everything I have ever won in football and I see no need to apologise for that. I work hard, bloody hard. I always have done and always will do. That is the type of person I am.”

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