Millwall player profile – Keith Stevens (1980-1999)

Keith Stevens
Keith Stevens

It’s safe to say that Millwall's play-off semi-final first leg against Bradford City last Sunday was full of blood and thunder.

Whether it was Byron Webster and Mark Beevers' marshalling of Bantams forward Jamie Proctor or Steve Morison's battle with Rory McArdle and Nathan Clarke, there was engagement between the centre-halves and strikers all game long.

One defender that would have relished the encounter is this week’s NewsAtDen player profile star – Keith Stevens.

When the subject of Lions greats rears its head, the names of Harry Cripps, Barry Kitchener, Neil Harris and Tim Cahill will always crop up, but Stevens is up there with them all.

In fact, with regards to appearances made, the man simply known as 'Rhino' is only trumped by Kitchener – in a Millwall career spanning from 1981 to 1999, the defender made 546 starts, with a further 11 coming from the bench, scoring 10 goals.

Of course, Stevens' time at The Den did not come to an end at the conclusion of his playing career; he was made reserve team manager in 1997, but stepped up to the position of manager of the first team (in a player/manager role) a year later, before his sacking alongside Alan McLeary in 2000, 17 months after his retirement from playing.

Rhino's debut came on April 29, 1981, in a 1-0 defeat at Oxford United as the Lions finished 16th in the old Division Three. The following season he made seven appearances, mostly towards the end of the season, replacing Dave Martin in the back four.

Stevens became more of a regular fixture in the side in 1982-83, making 26 appearances in the league – including the first 25 – before losing his place to Martin and Steve Lovell over the rest of the campaign.

Two years later, the Merton-born defender was heavily involved in the club's first promotion in nine years, as alongside names such as Les Briley, Nicky Chatterton and Anton Otulakowski, George Graham's side finished second to Bradford in Division Three, earning the right to play in the second tier the following season.

Rhino missed the first nine games of the Lions' first season back in Division Two, but missed just two games from mid-September onwards, scoring his first Millwall goal in a 2-1 win over Fulham at The Den – a feat he replicated the following campaign, as he notched one in a 3-1 win over Plymouth Argyle, alongside goals from Teddy Sheringham and Danis Salman.

The defender trebled his tally in 1987-88 in a 3-1 victory over Birmingham City at The Den – a season that ended in a historic promotion to Division One under John Docherty. After starting the campaign as a right-back, Stevens moved to centre-half from the game with AFC Bournemouth on November 3, forming a strong partnership with McLeary – the foundations of a side that stormed to the top of the table helped by goals from Sheringham and Tony Cascarino – 47, to be precise. (NOTE: Lee Gregory and Steve Morison are just two goals away from equalling this total)

Of course, their stay in the top tier – despite topping the table at one point – was brief, but Stevens still managed to make 51 appearances in two years, coming up against big names like Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne and John Barnes on a weekly basis.

Despite dropping back down to Division Two, Stevens remained an integral part of the team, making 44 starts in a year that ended with play-off defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion, after the Lions had finished fifth. His 250th appearance for the club came in a goalless draw at Charlton Athletic on September 22, 1990, but it wasn't one to remember – the defender saw red six minutes from time, after receiving two yellow cards.

In 1992, Rhino was made captain and steered the club to consecutive top-10 finishes – seventh 1992-93 and third the following season, as the Lions made the play-offs once more. Stevens played in every league game as the club lost just once at home all year, but unfortunately, it was not to be for Millwall again, as Derby County advanced to Wembley, defeating Mick McCarthy's men 5-1 on aggregate after a 3-1 win at The Den in the second leg.

The 1994-95 campaign proved to be a famous one for Millwall, especially in cup competitions, as they not only claimed famous victories over Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup, but also beat Premier League side Nottingham Forest on their own patch in the Coca-Cola Cup. However, Rhino's year was cut short – twice – by suspension, as red cards against Swindon Town and Southend United – in which fans of a certain vintage may remember an altercation with Stan Collymore – limited him to just 20 appearances in the league.

1995-96 was to unfortunately end in relegation to Division Two, but the season saw Stevens net his final two goals for Millwall, both at The Den – one in a 2-1 defeat by Sunderland, with the other coming in a 2-2 draw with Tranmere Rovers.

The following year saw Rhino begin to take a back seat with regards to playing as he became manager of the reserves, but he still managed six appearances, mostly at the beginning of the campaign, before his position was taken over by the likes of Damien Webber, Scott Fitzgerald and Tony Witter.

After four appearances in 1997-98, Stevens was made first-team boss for the 1998-99 season, making his final start for the Lions in a 2-0 win over Colchester United – a few days before the club's big day at Wembley Stadium and the encounter with Wigan Athletic in the Auto Windscreen Shield final.

Rhino was joined by McLeary in the management department for the 1999-00 campaign – a year that saw young Lions such as Paul Ifill, Steven Reid and Neil Harris propel the club to the brink of promotion via the play-offs. Sadly, Wigan were to prove a thorn in the side once more, as their 1-0 aggregate semi-final win meant that they advanced to the final at the expense of Millwall.

After an indifferent start to 2000-01, McLeary and Stevens were sacked by Theo Paphitis following a 1-1 draw at Brentford – a move that allowed Mark McGhee to come in and steer the club to the Division Two title with a club record 93 points.

The defender's final action in a Millwall shirt was when he played the first few minutes of his testimonial game against Tottenham Hotspur on August 4, 2001 – a game that the visitors won 2-1.

With five red cards adding to a considerable number of bookings in his career, it’s fair to say that Keith Stevens took no prisoners in his attempts to defend the Lions goal. If the current crop can continue their form and summon up just half the desire, courage and commitment that Rhino offered, I wouldn't want to be an opposition striker!

Mark Litchfield

(@IAmTheLitch)