Long before Stuart Pearce came to prominence or before anyone had the curious idea Vinny Jones could be a professional footballer, a young man born in Streatham earned the nickname – “Psycho”.
By the time he was aged twenty-six he’d been sent-off ten times. In a career which spanned twelve years, he received his marching orders twelve times, although he recently defended this record claiming “only ten of those were straight reds”.
Mark Earl Dennis was born on 2nd May 1961 in Streatham. Despite being born in London, City lost the game, 0-3, but Dennis impressed enough to make a further thirty times in a season which saw The Blues relegated from the First Division.
He had tried to get into the Youth team at Stamford Bridge but when his efforts seemed unappreciated he moved to St. Andrews. He remained a Chelsea fan despite claims to the contrary years later.
The following season he missed just two matches as Birmingham bounced straight back up, finishing above Chelsea on goal difference, a team they experienced the drop alongside twelve months previously. Over the next three seasons he only made fifty-nine appearances as suspensions started to take their toll. His performances in their promotion season earned him a place in the PFA Second Division Team of the Year.
Dennis soon became part of a notorious group at St. Andrews known as “The Birmingham Six”. It was a play on the phrase given to men who were wrongly accused of the IRA bombings of Birmingham in 1975. Mick Harford, Howard Gayle, Robert Hopkin, Pat van den Hauwe and Tony Coton all joined Dennis in various scrapes, often late at night around the city. The team was regarded as one of the hardest around, but unlike the circus at Plough Lane a few years later these boys were hard but fair and embraced the physical side of the game. It was a common held view if you kicked one of these men, they’d just kick you back, but harder. They were regularly seen in places such as Rum Runner, Peppermint Place and Mr Moons. They drank like fish, fought fans of rival teams, mixed it with taxi drivers, trashed cars and got run over by buses. Many players of the era when asked who the hardest player they ever came up against was would reply “what, you mean after Mick Harford?”
A young apprentice called Julian Dicks was also at the club so you get the idea of the sort of team they were.
In 1983 Dennis was sold to Southampton for a nominal fee. He joined a side managed by He saw through the indiscipline with Dennis and uncovered a talented left-back, a tenacious tackler who loved an overlap and one who many Saints fans came to consider as one of the finest they’d ever seen. Dennis made his debut in a 1-2 defeat at Leicester City in November 1983. McMenemy had opted for the formula of experience alongside promising youngsters, and when Dennis arrived he took his place alongside Mick Mills, who’d lifted the FA Cup as Ipswich captain and skippered England during the 1982 World Cup, the mercurial Frank Worthington, who was on his seventh club and had been at Birmingham with Dennis, and England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Out had gone former England internationals, Kevin Keegan and Mick Channon. Dennis was one of the youngsters McMenemy was looking to take the club places, along with Steve Moran and Danny Wallace.
Under McMenemy’s man-management Dennis blossomed. Often seen as a father-figure, he was able to harness the talent within his young charges and Dennis was able to concentrate on his football to the benefit of both himself and the team. The club ended the 1983-84 season in their highest position ever as they finished just three points behind Liverpool. They also reached the FA Cup Semi-Finals but were narrowly beaten by an Adrian Heath goal late into extra time, as Everton went onto lift the cup.
The following season they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle by the club Keegan had left to join them back in 1980, Hamburg. Fifth place in the League would have meant they qualified for Europe again but due to the ban on English clubs after Heysel, they were never allowed to compete. Dennis played in forty-one League and Cup games but at the end of that season Lawrie McMenemy decided to end his twelve year reign at the club and resigned as manager. A few days later he was unveiled as the new Sunderland manager.
This event was the beginning of the end of a promising career at Southampton for Dennis. Southampton plumped for former captain, Chris Nicholl as their choice of manager. Dennis just didn’t have the same connection with Nicholl as he had with McMenemy and soon the two started to clash. Southampton reached another FA Cup Semi-Final where they again bowed out after extra time as Liverpool marched onto a double. But in the League fourteenth place just wasn’t what the faithful had expected after the progression of the previous years and soon the manager was under pressure. Dennis’s on-field disciplinary problems returned which can’t have improved the lot placed in front of Nicholl.
At the start of 1986-87 season he scored his first goals for the Saints. At Norwich he scored what was described as a “fierce volley” in a 3-4 defeat. They lost four of their opening six games of that season. His second goal came about five weeks later at home to Newcastle which saw him “steam forward cut inside then beat the keeper with a classic chipped shot”, in a 4-1 victory.
Away from football his marriage was breaking up and it was taking its toll on the player who the papers reported was getting into a lot of trouble off the field. The Police were called to domestic disputes. There was a famous incident where after being up in Manchester for treatment for a leg injury, he got his wife to wheel him out of hospital and they embarked on a drunken evening. Needless to say it didn’t end well.
At the beginning of February 1987 he played his last game for Southampton. After a 1-2 defeat at home to Norwich he clashed with Nicholl in the dressing room and by his own admittance in the book “Southampton’s Cult Heroes” his life was spiralling out of control.
After Norwich game they took on Liverpool in League Cup Semi-Final First Leg. Dennis played but the club discovered he’d been out till the early hours before the Norwich game playing snooker and that his young daughter had been with him asleep under the table. The club suspended him and told the press he was injured. He missed the second leg at Anfield and was never to play again for the club again.
The tempestuous relationship Dennis had with his wife often saw them fighting each other but despite the public perception of him as a violent thug, he gained custody of his daughter after the marriage broke up.
Southampton shipped him out of the club where he joined Queen’s Park Rangers in May In mid-November they travelled to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur and Dennis received his eleventh red card of his career when he elbowed Ossie Ardiles in the face. QPR manager, Jim Smith, who’d been Dennis’s manager during his Birmingham days, was initially critical of the Argentinian, apologising a few days later. The FA handed out a 53 day ban (eight games), then a record, and Chairman, David Bulstrode, wrote a letter to The FA vowing to terminate the player’s contract if there were any further misdemeanours.
Months later Dennis received knife wounds while out one night in Croydon and went on holiday to Spain without club approval. The club handed him an official warning for that.
In 1988 he was sent-off for the twelfth time in his career when he spat at Fulham’s Leo Donnellan in a reserve match. He denied the charge and escaped with a three-match ban and a £1,000 fine. QPR really fought his case as they sent a former Chief Superintendent and two club directors to fight his corner at the disciplinary hearing. There was also a certain amount of fortune for the player in that Bulstrode by then had passed away and so the threat to cancel the contract wasn’t carried through.
But QPR, by then, had really had enough of the player. In August 1989 he was offloaded to Crystal Palace, making his debut against Luton Town in November. He only made eight appearances during a season when Palace were beaten in a FA Cup Final replay and finished third in the League. His final appearance came a year later and by 1990 the professional football career of Mark Dennis was over.
After finishing playing, Dennis admitted to taking cocaine when he was at Palace. He claimed there were several players on the drug and he believed he was lucky to still be alive. He became a director at Winchester and Assistant Manager at Eastleigh, leaving in 2007 after “irreconcilable differences between him and a board member”. He also spent time working as a postman in Southampton.
Dennis is still considered a legend at Southampton with many fans believing him to be the best left-back they’ve ever had. In an interview with the Sunday Times in 2010, when asked about his disciplinary record he claimed it was over-exuberance rather than an evil streak which lead to many of the red cards he received.
There is little doubt for a three year period during the mid-1980’s Dennis was as good as any left-back in the country, yet his disciplinary record definitely counted against him. His CV did register three Under-21 appearances, though, but no full international caps. His tally of twelve red cards is only one short of the record in England held by Roy McDonough (Colchester, Exeter and Southend) and Steve Walsh (Wigan and Leicester City). He was booked sixty four times as well and his indiscipline was such it was suggested he may be expelled from players’ union in 1986. The union considered the matter again after his Ardiles moment but they never carried it through. These were days when it was harder to get sent-off than it is today and so his record really stood out. Red cards can be so frequent nowadays so Dennis’s achievement was all the more impressive.