Dennis Wise exclusive: Winning FA Cup took Chelsea to a new level - and, yes, my son still cringes at that photo

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Dennis Wise exclusive: Winning FA Cup took Chelsea to a new level - and, yes, my son still cringes at that photo - PA ARCHIVE
Dennis Wise exclusive: Winning FA Cup took Chelsea to a new level - and, yes, my son still cringes at that photo - PA ARCHIVE

Dennis Wise can still remember the moment, with pin-sharp clarity, when Chelsea finally emerged as a modern force in English football.

It was the FA Cup final in 1997, when Chelsea were pitted against Middlesbrough, and it took only one glance at the figures seated next to him in the Wembley dressing room for Wise to realise that a new era was looming.

"When you look around and see Robbie Di Matteo, Franco [Zola] and Luca [Gianluca Vialli] you kind of know you’re going to win it," he says. "I was in the 1994 final with Chelsea as well. It was against Manchester United and before the match I looked around the dressing room and, with no disrespect to the players at that time, I thought we had just a chance. We lost 4-0 and I’ve never watched the video back. But '97 felt different and it was that game that started us off."

Wise was Chelsea’s captain, with his combative display and Roberto Di Matteo's thunderbolt after 42 seconds inspiring the club to their first trophy in 26 years. A second FA Cup, a League Cup, the Uefa Cup Winners' Cup and a Super Cup followed in a glorious period of success over three years - a spell which set the club on the path to becoming one of the dominant forces in European football.

And at the heart of it all was Wise - a diminutive but spiky presence in central midfield, adding a dash of the spirit that flowed through his previous club, Wimbledon, to a dressing room that was, by 1997, a cosmopolitan place.

"When I first turned up in 1990 we were happy to finish mid-table, stay out of a relegation battle and see how we got on in a cup," Wise says. "The change came when Glenn Hoddle came in and signed Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. As soon as they turned up, it all changed. You understand it as a player, you’re thinking, ‘wow’, they’ve come here to win."

Chelsea players celebrate after winning the FA Cup in 1997 - ALLSPORT/GETTY IMAGES
Chelsea players celebrate after winning the FA Cup in 1997 - ALLSPORT/GETTY IMAGES

Not that Chelsea were averse to some streetsmart tactics in persuading some of Europe's biggest names to come to west London. At the time, Chelsea trained at Harlington - a disused, windswept airfield next to Heathrow, and a far cry from the gleaming complex enjoyed by the club's current crop of superstars at Cobham.

How could Ken Bates, Chelsea's then chairman, convince Gullit to spend his days in such rustic surroundings? The answer was simple. "Ken was very smart about it, he didn’t show them the training ground!" Wise says. "If he’d done that, I think they’d have got straight in their cars. It wasn’t the best."

Wise established himself as a Chelsea legend during this magic carpet ride of success, his most memorable moment arguably coming in another Cup final, in 2000, when he lifted the trophy while carrying his four-month-old son, Henry, in his other arm.

"He cringes sometimes, bless him, when he sees the photo," says Wise, laughing. "I’ve always told him it was a nice family moment and he does laugh about it.

"He’s 21 now and at Watford. We need to probably get him out on loan next season and playing some men’s football in the lower leagues."

Wise senses parallels between Saturday’s final against another of his former clubs, Leicester, and that historic moment in 1997. He believes that Thomas Tuchel is on the brink of another chapter of success at Stamford Bridge, which will also see Chelsea compete in the Champions League final against Manchester City later this month.

"Thomas has come in and what he’s done has been outstanding," Wise says. "He’s changed the system, the personnel and adjusted it in a way that he needed to. He’s very clever with the tactics and puts players in their right positions. He’s adapted things in a way which previously was very different.

"It was lovely to see him get into the Champions League final and he’s been a brilliant choice of manager - a breath of fresh air. He’s shown what his capabilities are and hopefully he can start by winning the FA Cup against Leicester. I fully expect them to be competing next year."

Wise, 54, has had a varied CV since he retired from playing in 2006. He took Millwall to an FA Cup final in 2005 before managing Leeds and then serving as Newcastle's Executive Director (Football). Now, he is the technical director of Garuda Select, a UK-based academy for young Indonesian footballers which aims to fast-track them into European teams.

Earlier this week, Garuda faced Manchester City’s under-16s and while it is a change of pace from elite football, Wise insists it is no less satisfying.

Wise is now the technical director of Garuda Select - Manjit Narotra/MSN Images
Wise is now the technical director of Garuda Select - Manjit Narotra/MSN Images

"I always wanted to give something back to people who have struggled. As a kid I was told three times I wasn’t good enough. I went on trial with Southampton, Palace and QPR, knew I had ability, but other people had different thoughts," he says.

"Not all of them come from privileged backgrounds and it’s lovely to give them the opportunity to come over here and be part of it. There’s 280 million people in Indonesia and they love their football.

"We’ve already had a few lads sign for European clubs and eight are playing in the Indonesian Super League. If we can get a player in the Premier League it would be amazing."

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