Dennis Wise – The Beating Heart of Chelsea’s Nineties Revival.

Whilst some may contend that it isn’t true of a particular team, it’s one of those enduring truisms that all teams, especially the more successful ones of recent times, that each had at least one player of this type. He’s the player that your own fans take to their hearts, but supporters of other clubs look upon with a disdain bordering on contempt. You love him for his commitment. Others loathe him for a perceived overstated ability and an indulgence in the dark arts of football’s muck and nettles. They’re the players you love to hate, but also the guys you’d want next to you in the mythical trenches so often referenced in such evaluations of worth. Manchester United had Roy Keane. Arsenal had Patrick Viera. Chelsea had Dennis Wise.

There’s a neat symmetry to Wise’s time in Chelsea blue. Signing for the club in July 1990 and then leaving in June 2001, his time in West London almost perfectly bookends the nineties, and the £1.6million fee that Chelsea paid to Wimbledon, to acquire a key member of the club’s famous – or infamous, delete as applicable – ‘Crazy Gang’ exactly mirrors the amount they received from Leicester City, when he left. In between those dates and the exchange of cheques, Wise forged out a career at Stamford Bridge that would see him lift trophies for the club and accumulate a playing record placing him in fourth place on the all-time list of those turning out for the club.

Wise was signed by Ian Porterfield, and his first two seasons with the club saw his best scoring returns across his time there. In his first term he would net a dozen goals from 41 appearances and then go one better the following season in 44 games. If his time under Porterfield was the most prolific though, it was when he played under the more expansive managers of Hoddle, Gullit and Vialli that he truly flourished.

Hoddle would be snaffled away by the FA in 1996, but after arriving at the club in 1993, he recognised the attributes of Wise and installed him as captain of the club. Whilst, as a player, Hoddle was majestic, if often judged peripheral at times by critics, Wise was the polar opposite. Skilful enough, but the determination to succeed was the sort of inspirational leadership the new manger sought in order to drive the club forward. He also shifted the emphasis of Wise’s role in the team from the wide man, charged with delivering crosses into the box, into a more central position, linking defence and attack, prodding and probing. It suited the little man’s talent and attitude to a tee.

Involvement in the game was increased and allowed Wise to display a talent for perceptive forward play often hidden by a tempestuous malevolence on the pitch that marked much of his career. Hoddle began the process of bringing in talented, if older, players the likes of Vialli, Gullit, Petrescu and, later, Zola meant that an upshift in the quality of play was required and, for many, Wise confounded the expectations of many by flourishing in the exalted company of team-mates who would have been anathema to his early days at Wimbledon.

It would be wrong however to paint a picture of a sinner totally reformed. The mean streak that Chelsea fans adored was apt to boil over at times, both on and off the pitch. Ill discipline led to a collection of cards, both yellow and red, the envy of anyone with a birthday, and an infamous altercation with a taxi driver brought him before the court and a conviction. A temporary loss of the captaincy followed.

The move into central midfield would mean a tempering of his goalscoring – in the following three seasons under Hoddle, he would score a total of just 21 goals in 114 games – conversely his contribution to the team’s performance level would grow immensely. An FA Cup Final appearance in 1994 brought a disappointingly harsh four goal defeat to Manchester United after Chelsea had maintained a level playing field with the Old Trafford club for much of the game. Defeats educate however. Chelsea and Wise would come again.

Thanks to a W cross and a Sanchez header, not forgetting a penalty save from Beasant, Wimbledon won a memorable FA Cup Final against Liverpool in 1988, and almost ten years later, with Hoddle now in charge of the Three Lions, the stewardship of first Gullit and then Vialli would see Wise and Chelsea get into the silverware collection business.

A 1997 FA Cup victory over Middlesbrough saw Wise reunited with FA Cup triumph once more. As with the Wimbledon victory, he would be involved in creating the breakthrough in the final,  delivering the cross for Frank Sinclair’s opening goal that set the Blues on their way to victory. The following term would be even more memorable. Success in the Cup Winners Cup put the club back onto the European map.

Again, Wise was involved in the vital goal in the Stockholm final. A half-fit Gianfranco Zola came late onto the pitch with the deadlock still to be broken but, just minutes later, an astute Wise clipped pass over the Stuttgart defence put the diminutive Italian in the clear to thump home the winning goal. Chelsea added the League Cup later the same term. A UEFA Super Cup would follow and then another FA Cup triumph in 2000, in the final game at the old Wembley. By this time, Wise was nearing the end of his career with the club, but he revealed a gentler side to his nature that probably few outside of Stamford Bridge thought existed, when he took his young son up the Wembley steps to pick up the trophy, raising it with the child in his arms.

When Dennis Wise joined Chelsea, they were hardly a real power in domestic competition, let alone in Europe. A decade later, they had collected cups in England and reprised the European exploits of the early seventies. No-one would surely argue that this transition was solely down to down to the acquisition of the former Wimbledon player. That said though, when the Chelsea began to move forward in the ranks of English clubs, with a new squad being developed over the ten years or so he wore Chelsea blue, it would be churlish to say that his contribution was minimal.

When Vialli left the club, he was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, with the new man having a remit to reduce the age of the squad. Dennis Wise was now 34 and a prime target for the axe as the new manager sought to bring in his own players and develop a different image for the club. The move to Leicester City would recoup Chelsea’s investment in the player. Although Wise was no longer at Stamford Bridge, there still remained an echo of his time there. Perhaps not for the ill-judged actions that sometimes blotted his copybook, but for the winning mentality that he added to the playing approach at the club and the belief that they could succeed at the highest levels. The triumphs that Dennis Wise enjoyed and helped to engender at Stamford Bridge may pale in comparison to those of Keane and Viera as referenced above but, for all that, the transformative effect on the long term outlook of Chelsea may be just as significant.

(THis article was originally produced for the ‘Names of the Nineties series on These Football Times website).

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