Thursday 18 July 2019

No crock of gold at end of Wembley rainbow for Ryan and team-mates

Sam Dean investigates what became of Millwall team who took on United in 2004 FA Cup final

Down under: Robbie Ryan swopped his football boots for a job on the London Underground. Photo: Getty
Down under: Robbie Ryan swopped his football boots for a job on the London Underground. Photo: Getty

Sam Dean

Nearly 15 years on, the memories remain vivid for Millwall's class of 2004, a group of players who set a benchmark in the FA Cup for one of English football's most notoriously unfashionable clubs.

Their journey to the final that year, when the fairy tale was eventually ended by a ruthless Manchester United, remains one of the great Cup achievements of the past few decades.

It has not been forgotten in south London and it will be recalled again today, when Millwall meet top-flight opposition once more as they host Everton at the Den. Tim Cahill, the poster boy of that 2004 side, will be there to watch his former teams. And so will Neil Harris, Millwall's striker back then and their manager now.

They are two of the more visible and memorable figures from that team, and the cameras will no doubt linger on them this evening.

But what of the rest? What of the full-back who marked a young Cristiano Ronaldo? What of the centre-back pairing who tried in vain to keep Ruud van Nistelrooy quiet as Millwall lost 3-0? What of the teenager who became the youngest player to appear in an FA Cup final, and thought it was only the start of a career at the very highest level of the game?

It speaks to the gulf between the sides on that afternoon in Cardiff, and the financial nature of second-tier football in the early Noughties, that the Millwall players have since taken such divergent paths to their illustrious opponents.

Take Robbie Ryan, for example, who works for London Underground. Or Darren Ward, whose business interests include running a cattery.

And then there is Dennis Wise, the player-manager, who is probably best known these days for his appearance on 'I'm a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!'

"I'm going on Saturday and the first thing I'll get asked about is marking Ronaldo," laughs Ryan, whose story is as illustrative as any of the contrast in lives between Millwall and their opponents at the Millennium Stadium.

The game proved to be the last of more than 200 matches Ryan played for the club.

In the wake of the Cup success, he had hoped for a new two-year contract, but the club had other ideas.

"They said no," recalls the Dublin native, who joined Millwall from Belvedere as a teenager.

"They were offering me a one-year deal on the same money I had been on for three years. It wasn't about money - it was about principle.

"Over four years the price of a slice of bread had gone up, a man working behind a bar has seen his wages go up. Everything had gone up, but they weren't even giving me an extra £10 a week."

It should be said that there is no bitterness in the way he tells the story.

Ryan went on to Bristol Rovers, where it did not work out, and eventually made his way into a role with London Underground.

Now 41, he enjoys being a cable linesman, working nights and providing for his daughter. "It keeps me out of trouble," he jokes.

Still, it is a different life to the one he briefly experienced in the build-up to the final.

"I had Sky Sports in my house, cameras at the training ground every day," he remembers.

"I had sponsors ringing me up every day asking me to wear this or do that. It was a complete shock to the system, to be honest. Everyone wanted to be my friend, giving me this and giving me that. But after the final nobody wants to talk to you again. It opened my eyes."

No one had wider eyes on the day of the final than Curtis Weston, whose appearance off the bench was only his second in professional football.

At 17 years and 119 days old, he became the youngest player to ever appear in a FA Cup final. "At that age, you start thinking it's only going to be uphill from there," says Weston, now 32. "You don't realise how hard you have to work. I took that for granted."

Weston, currently a Chesterfield midfielder, has enjoyed a successful career in the lower leagues.

Pinnacle He accepts, though, that the FA Cup final should have been a stepping stone rather than an improbably early pinnacle.

"I should have got my head down a little bit more and listened a little bit more," he says. "It's a quick career and if you don't hit that top level when you have that chance, it soon fizzles away."

But the memories remain, for both the players and fans, of a run that took Millwall past Walsall, Telford United, Burnley, Tranmere and then Sunderland in an all-First Division semi-final.

"The semi-final against Sunderland at Old Trafford was probably one of the most memorable days of my life, barring the birth of my children," says Matt Lawrence, who partnered Ward in defence for the final and now lives in the United States, where he works in media and commentates for Sporting Kansas City.

"We thought it would be the old 'hot balls in the bag' trick, and that United and Arsenal would be separated, so there wouldn't be a chance of one of the First Division sides reaching the final.

"For us to be playing Sunderland, I couldn't believe that had actually happened. The minute that came out of the bag, it was on."

Millwall's success that season, Lawrence says, was built on a team spirit that was allowed to develop under Wise and the late Ray Wilkins, his assistant. "They were experienced and they were open to the fact they were managing at levels below what they were used to," Lawrence says. "They didn't look down on us in any way and treated us fantastically. They brought a great team spirit."

The players may have gone their separate ways, into different lives and worlds, but the bond they created still lasts.

"My overriding memory of that team is a wonderful togetherness," Lawrence says.

"If I see any of those guys now I would happily go for a coffee with any of them. Even now when I go back to the Den, it's just a big brotherhood. It's like 2004 all over again." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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