He's only 5 foot 4 . . . but Leeds fans should Wise up to his merits
By Giles Smith
THE dismay among fans surrounding the appointment of Dennis Wise as manager of Leeds United is perfectly understandable. Anyone who has taken an interest in the storied career of this crop-haired, modern-day maverick tends to develop firm opinions about him and is, accordingly, bound to wonder whether Leeds is a fit place for a person of Wise’s sophistication and thoughtfulness.
You can see how the culture of the club has already unsettled the former Chelsea captain. At his inaugural press conference, conducted in a room threateningly hung with images of Norman Hunter and the late Billy Bremner, Wise spoke, with apparent relish, of the "horrible" Leeds sides of the past and pledged to bring back some of the "nastiness" that characterised the club in their long-gone heyday. He also appointed Kevin Nicholls as the new club captain — chiefly, as he explained it, on the grounds that Nicholls had once kicked Wise during a match, "and it hurt".
This grimly combative, almost quaintly old-fashioned message was so far from the nature of the silky playmaker and imperious, box-to-box midfield general who graced Stamford Bridge in the Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli eras that one had to assume it was merely part of a canny ploy to ingratiate himself with the locals. The alternative interpretation — that Wise was serving notice of a plan to sink to Leeds’s level, rather than encourage Leeds to rise to his — was, for anyone who fondly appreciates Wise and what he has come to stand for, too disquieting to contemplate.
Unless he was in on the joke, Gustavo Poyet, who was Wise’s team-mate at Chelsea, was latterly his assistant at Swindon Town and who now joins him at Leeds, must have been scratching his head in confusion at his partner’s press conference performance. The former Uruguay international is an instinctively level-headed character who, in his career as a player, was sent off, for spitting, only once. It could only have surprised him to learn that he was now being invited to form a Kray-style double act in Yorkshire and play the Reggie to Wise’s Ronnie.
Common sense suggests, though, that the "horrible" and "nasty" stuff was a sop to local feeling, and a decent bit of headline stealing on Wise’s part. Certainly it hardly tallied with what one knows of the philosophy of the man who learnt his trade at Wimbledon under Dave Bassett and Bobby Gould, but then (and this is the important thing), had the intelligence to unlearn large portions of it under more sophisticated guidance at Chelsea. Thus did Wise smartly reinvent himself within the context of a game going rapidly forwards in the grip of the "foreign revolution", eventually leaving his mark around the club as a family man of sophisticated tastes with a mews house in Knightsbridge and a devilishly handsome smile.
Wise is still hymned at Chelsea as a lifter of trophies and as the scorer of a stunningly well-executed late goal against AC Milan under the hot lights of the San Siro in 1999. Fans also recall his firm belief in the importance of playfulness in football — perhaps best embodied in the friendly pinch he once gave to the inner thigh of Nicky Butt, of Manchester United. And if Butt happened to pick up the wrong end of the stick and end up lashing out at Wise and getting sent off, well, that only indicates how Wise’s approach was poorly comprehended within the game at large. It is all too frequently the fate of the genuinely pioneering to be misunderstood.
Leeds fans, with their reputation for straight talking and their long years in the wilderness, were bound to bridle at the arrival at the club’s helm of someone such as Wise, with his medals and his fancy ways. Even so, sometimes the levels of ingratitude to which the truly fortunate are capable of rising can only take one’s breath away. "You can stick Dennis Wise up your a***," Leeds fans chanted last weekend. But you can’ t, so let’s end this sizeist nonsense directly, shall we? Wise is small, but he’s not that small.
Let those disgruntled supporters also take comfort from Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous, admiring, even slightly covetous, tribute to Wise – that he could "start a fight in an empty house". Only 10,449 watched Leeds lose 3-1 to Southend United in the Carling Cup this week. Clearly Elland Road isn’t quite an empty house yet, but it’s getting there, making Wise, by Ferguson’s definition, even more obviously the man for the job.
For which all credit must go to the vision of Ken Bates, the Leeds chairman, who, let’s face it, could simply have found the first troublemaker on his Rolodex to come in and rough everyone up a bit, but instead made a decision with football in mind. Who knows what fruits could yet be yielded by this dramatic reunion? Provided, that is, that Wise has the stubbornness and tenacity to resist local history and do things his own way. And provided that Leeds allow him to be his own man, as alien as that man may seem to the club at this time.