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Joe Miller: March 2009

Joe Miller Interviewed by Colm Murphy

1st March 2009.

What was the best piece of transfer business conducted in the League of Ireland since last November? Right up there has to be Sean Connor’s acquisition of Joe Miller as Dundalk FC coach and assistant manager. In a surprise move, the former Celtic and Aberdeen winger was unveiled at a press conference in the Crowne Plaza hotel in January. Born in Glasgow in December 1968 – Miller won every conceivable honour during his time with Aberdeen and Glasgow Celtic. Having enjoyed a successful spell as both assistant manager and manager of Clyde FC (including their famous 1-0 win over Celtic in Roy Keane’s debut) Miller took a year out of the game but will spend 2009 helping Sean Connor mastermind Dundalk’s Premier Division campaign.

Pittodrie Days
The Scottish league back in the early 1980s was a much more competitive and open competition than the two horse race it is today. After the remarkable success of Kilmarnock FC in 1965 when they edged out Heart of Midlothian for the title – Celtic won every title between 1966 and 1974. Finally Rangers ended an eleven-year wait for the league with back-to-back titles before Celtic emerged victorious in 1977. Rangers and Celtic then won another title each before Alex Ferguson won his first league title at Aberdeen in 1980. Celtic came back strong by edging out Aberdeen in 1981 and 1982 before Dundee United won the league title in 1983 and reached the semi-final of the European Cup before a bribed referee against AS Roma cheated them out of final appearance against Liverpool. Meanwhile, Aberdeen won the 1982 Scottish Cup and went on a remarkable European run that culminated in a 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the final with the winner scored by future Dundalk manager John Hewitt. Aberdeen then won two further league titles in 1984 and 1985 before Alex Ferguson departed to relegation threatened Manchester United in early 1986.  Such an atmosphere was ideal for a young up and coming winger to make his mark. “I had signed schoolboy forms with Aberdeen when I was 13” recalls Miller, “At this point Aberdeen and Dundee United had successfully challenge the Old Firm. When I left school at 16 I signed professional forms and managed to get into the first team at an early age. I then spent three very happy years under Alex Ferguson”. Was it a good atmosphere to develop as a young player? “Aberdeen was one of the  best run clubs in Scotland and still is. Fergie transformed it. It’s a one city team and that benefited it.”
It was no surprise that Aberdeen were able to achieve such success. Their team was packed with Scottish Internationals such as goalkeeper Jim Leighton, Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Gordon Strachan, Eric Black and Mark McGee: “It was a fantastic team. Full of experienced professionals hungry for success. Alex was a great manager so it was a really exciting time for me. I got on really well with Alex. From an early age he was like a father figure to me. He was an exceptional manager. He is still doing the same things now that he did then. He puts a lot of work into the underage set up and the scouting network to ensure that there is a constant conveyor belt of talent. He has a long-term view.  He did have a temper though. I saw his hair dryer treatment and much worse. The Beckham incident was mild compared to what I witnessed!”

Celtic Move
With Manchester United struggling in the 1986/87 season Alex Ferguson departed Pittodrie. Although Dundee United were to reach the 1987 UEFA Cup Final and Hearts developed a strong time that should have won the 1986 League only to lose out to Celtic on the last day – Scottish football began to move back to it’s traditional form of being dominated by the Old Firm. Miller was in demand following his excellent performances for Aberdeen in the 1986/87 season. “There was a lot of transfer talk. I was being linked with Kenny Dalglish’s team at Liverpool and a few teams abroad. Fergie also wanted to bring me with him to Manchester United. But Celtic then came in with a better bid and so I ended up joining Billy McNeill’s team at Parkhead. It was a very exciting move for me. The deal made me the most expensive teenager in British football history at the time. Celtic were developing a fine team and I was the final piece in that jigsaw”.

Centenary Success
Of course, there was one major obstacle to Celtic’s hopes of winning the title. Following the ban on English sides from entering European competition following the Heysel Disaster in 1985 many English players moved to Glasgow Rangers who were now managed by Graeme Souness. Chris Woods, Ray Wilkins, Terry Butcher, Mark Hately and Mark Walters were among the first wave of English internationals to move north of the border. Rangers stormed to the 1986/87 league title and were hot favourites to repeat their success in 1987/88. Miller recalls that Celtic faced a tough task: “Souness and David Murray had put together a very expensive side. They were outstripped everybody else financially. But that season at Celtic Park we just had something special going on. There was a great atmosphere in the dressing room. It was a lot like the great Aberdeen side. I moved from one dressing room full of good players to another dressing room full of good players. Despite not having Rangers’ money we had a great season. It was terrific. We ended up winning the league and cup double in our centenary year. It was very special.”

Old Firm Rivalry
Unfortunately for Celtic – Rangers were to resume their domination for much of the next ten years. How did Miller enjoy the big Old Firm occasions? “When I played against Rangers and Celtic for Aberdeen I always did very well. In fact, I usually scored in those games. So it was great to be involved as a Celtic player. Celtic were the team I supported as a boy. I grew up very close to the ground in the East End of Glasgow. The matches against Rangers were always a real thrill”.  One particular match that Miller will always be reminded of is the 1989 Scottish Cup Final – an Old Firm Derby at Hampden Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The 1988/89 season was not one of Miller’s best as he missed most of the season due to a virus which saw him suffer from dramatic weight loss. However, he capitalized on a blunder by England international Gary Stevens to shoot past Woods to deny Rangers a league and cup double. He wasn’t even able to enjoy the post-match celebrations as he was asked, despite being dehydrated to provide a sample for a drugs test which took 70 minutes to provide and then it was off to hospital for an x-ray on a badly bruised arm. “Everybody asks me if that is my best memory of playing for Celtic. The fans will always remember me for that goal of course. But for me the best memory I have from Celtic is was the experience of winning the double during our centenary year.”

Back to the Dons and then Down Under
The early 1990s was not an easy time for Celtic supporters. Rangers were dominating and nearly qualified for a Champions League final in 1993.  Billy McNeill was replaced by Liam Brady who had a trophy less two year spell between 1991 and 1993 before Lou Macari also experienced a fruitless two seasons in charge. “This was the time before the big takeover of the club. The players were not informed of what was going on. If I had stayed for another few years it might have been different. It was no fault of Liam Brady or Lou McCari. It was just that Celtic did not have the financial muscle of Rangers. By 1993 I was feeling a bit lost at Celtic and I lost patience. I needed to get back on track. I was hungry for success and just didn’t see it happening at Celtic at the time.” So, despite an opportunity to join Nottingham Forest, Miller accepted an offer to return to Pittodrie: “Roy Aitken was at Aberdeen by this stage. He was our captain at Celtic and he was instrumental in brining me to Aberdeen. I played for another five years at Aberdeen, won a League Cup medal, before moving to Dundee United in 1998. I then made a move to Australia which worked out very well for me”.

Coaching Career Begins
Miller soon became interested in developing his abilities as a coach while in Australia. “After one year in Australia I started to get my coaching career started. There was a big market for coaches and football schools over there. I started in that area and then I progressed to obtaining my coaching badges under the Scottish FA. That is still an ongoing process.  In 2005 Miller became assistant manager at Clyde FC in the Scottish First Division and was to become manager outright in 2006. Miller was a very popular manager during his tenure and even brought Clyde to their first domestic cup final in 50 years. However he shocked the club and it’s supporters when he turned down a contract offer. “I had rebuilt Clyde FC. They had only one player and I managed to rebuild a team and get their youth development structure back on track. I built it up from scratch. There were some very difficult periods for me during that time but by the time I left I had left a very good set up. They offered me a deal but I needed a break.”

Dundalk Challenge
So how on earth did Joe end up at Oriel Park? “I first met Sean when he was manager of Bohemians. I had a few Clyde players that were moving on when the club couldn’t offer them a better financial package and Sean was interested in bringing some of them to Bohs. Ryan McCann for example went over and did very well. So I had a number of dealings with Sean then. He was friends of people I knew also so we kept in contact during his time out of the game. When he got the Dundalk job he offered me the chance to get back involved in the game. I was not looking for a management job. I just wanted to get back on the training ground. I think a lot of young coaches like myself rush into things and I just wanted to take my time. The arrangement benefits myself and Sean. I get back doing what I enjoy best on the training pitch and Sean gets the benefit of my coaching experience and contacts. It’s working out very well.” With the advent of a full-time set up at Oriel Park there have been two coaching sessions per day during pre-season training. The coaching sessions on show are quite obviously being enjoyed by the squad with numerous training methods employed during the 2-3 hour sessions. “The players are enjoying my methods. There is a lot of ball work. It gets them thinking and enjoying the training sessions. There is nothing worse for a player than hanging about between training drills waiting on them to be set up or whatever. It causes boredom and is just unprofessional. I have worked for very successful managers and their methods made me successful. When I was at Clyde it worked very well. The squad I had at Clyde all started out on the dole. Many of them are now playing in the SPL earning a lot of money. They had the belief and the faith that I was going to improve them as players and further their careers. The effort was great. It’s the same here at Dundalk. Sean has put together a great bunch of boys and they are enjoying the training. They appreciate the freshness of the training sessions. Some of the methods used they would never have seen before. I have been able to introduce some of my own training exercises and other methods that I have experienced around the world and even from other sports.

Hopes for 2009
What are Joe’s hopes for the year ahead? “Obviously we want to do well. It’s a big step up for the club and the town. Dundalk want to see a successful side that will stay in this league. We can surprise a few people. The players have a lot of experience – nearly everybody has achieved success of some sort in their previous clubs. There is that hunger for success installed in the players. If we can add something different to the players and I we can bring something new at the training ground then we can surprise a few people. Our expectations are just to do well and just give the fans an enjoyable season.

Celtic Visit
Today’s visit of Celtic to Oriel Park brings back memories of the 1991 friendly in which Joe played. “I can remember it was a great atmosphere and that there was so many people there that they were right on the side of the pitch. There was a few invasions. I remember we had to run off the pitch with still 5 or 10 minutes left in the game! Liam Brady just told us to get back on the bus! I am looking forward to the Celtic game. It was great to get the game arranged with Willie McStay and Neil Lennon. It will be an interesting game and a good test for our boys on the new surface.”