THE FORMER Rangers player and Hibs boss tells of those sand-dune days with Jock Wallace, reveals he would love another big football job, and how he once sold ice cream – from a van, with chimes
Alex Miller’s Loch Lomond timeshare offers splendid views of the bonnie, bonnie banks but soon after our chat gets going I barely notice them. Well, it would be rude to gawp out the window when he is speaking and, besides, his stories are good, by turns funny, sad and funny again. Indeed, we talk for so long that I end up wangling a lunch invite.
At the table, in the company of his wife Ann’s sister and her husband, will there be a conversation shift? No, it’s yet more football, a terrific goal Miller scored to win an Old Firm game in the last minute, despatched high on the half-volley from a Willie Johnston throw-in, although he isn’t boasting and has to be prompted for the memory. “I remember my celebration, too: a wee jump, then, control, composure,” he says. “These matches had gotten quite tousy and a warning came down from on high that we weren’t to go mad.”
“That would be you, all right,” says Ann, passing me the cold meats. “You always do things by the book.” “I was a staff sergeant in the BBs,” says Miller, 65, proudly. Mrs M: “You’d never go through a red light, would you?” Our man: “Whereas you would!”
Maybe some Hibernian fans who thought Miller too cautious a manager would have preferred his missus in the Easter Road dugout. Ah, but maybe Ann wouldn’t have won the Hibees the Skol Cup because, as the mega-meticulous Miller remarks more than once: “I know football.”
Ann makes some interesting interventions, such as when we’re discussing the art – which comes easy to some managers – of self-publicity. “You’re PR was always terrible,” she tells him. “You never projected yourself, you never networked. You’ve had a great career despite that, but maybe it could have been even better.” Miller smiles and nods. “It’s true. I didn’t project myself and if I could have changed one thing it would have been that. At Rangers, the older pros used to say, ‘Dinnae speak to the press, they’ll hang you’, and I went on believing that. As a result I was seen – especially at Hibs – as being dour.”
What they found more odd was that I didn’t drink.I was the only tee-total at Ibrox. I didn’t swear either. Derek Johnstone was astonished at that
But the revelations don’t just come via his other half – he supplies them, too. Indeed, today is all about The Secret Life of Alex Miller. Here are three examples…
When he was a young buck at Rangers, instead of idling away his afternoons at the bookies or in the billiard halls, he popped to the flicks for what became a regular fix of cinematic wonderment. This wasn’t Truffaut or Fellini or even Emanuelle, but the official documentary of the 1970 World Cup and Miller luxuriated in the images of the sun-scorched Aztec Stadium over and over again until the film ended its run.
“I was football-daft – still am,” he says. “I was desperate for information about different trends. Plus, I thought one day I’d like to be a coach. That Brazil team were the first to go without fixed positions. Tostao – was he really a centre-forward? And look where Clodoaldo turned up in the final…”
Something else you possibly didn’t know about Miller: pre-season training wasn’t enough for him; he did pre-pre-season routines. “Before we had to report back to Ibrox I’d train at Clydebank, who were part-time and so started early, and that would give me two weeks on the other guys. I’d got a chance to become a footballer and wanted to make the most of it. I know I wasn’t the best player but a few of my managers reckoned I was the best professional.” Did the other guys, though, think he was a swot? “They probably did, but what they found more odd was that I didn’t drink. I was the only teetotal at Ibrox. I didn’t swear either – Derek Johnstone was astonished at that.”
But I’ve saved the best for last: Miller used to sell ice cream. From a van. With chimes. Incredibly, this was while he was still playing. He’d have just finished a match, maybe even an Old Firm conflagration of a game, and he’d be going round the Clydebank schemes, tinkling his merry melodies, sprinkling hundreds-and-thousands on the cones.
He explains: “My playing days were coming to an end and, while I was still thinking about coaching, I wasn’t sure if that was going to happen. Maybe it would have to be business. I thought I’d better start learning about VAT and suchlike. The van, which became available through a friend of my other brother, Andy, seemed like a good way to start. Ann would do Clydebank High School at lunchtime and, at nights, I’d work Goldenhill and Hardgate.” Did Glasgow’s ice cream wars raspberry-ripple in his direction? “Once someone tried to come on to my run but I got it stopped. I’ll not tell you how! Of course I got some funny looks from folk. ‘Hang on, didn’t I see you fall over the ball at Ibrox today?’ ”
He’s being hard on himself. Miller wasn’t Clodoaldo but successive Rangers managers, six in all, felt they couldn’t do without his clattering commitment. Then he went all the way to Hong Kong Rangers to find the boss had gone missing so he ended doing the job, an accidental start to the career he’d always fancied. He has coached in Paisley and Siberia. At Hibs, where there was a takeover threat, a liquidation threat and a demanding support, he once famously declared: “It’s not a manager they want, it’s a messiah.” The crowning moment, to the surprise of many, came in Istanbul ten years ago this Monday when, as the canny Scottish voice whispering in Rafa Benitez’s ear, Liverpool won the Champions League. “As they put the medal round my neck I did think to myself: ‘Not bad for a boy from Drumchapel’.” And the story isn’t over yet. “I’m a fit guy. I’m watching football all the time. I know the game. I’d love another job.”
Born the middle of five children, his tale really started when the school janitor turned a deaf ear to his hammering of a ball against a playground shed, a routine he usually performed alone. “The jannie knew I wouldn’t break a window because I was too frightened of my dad.” This was Jimmy, an electrician at the John Brown shipyard who worked on the QE2, as did Miller during his apprenticeship, although he laughs: “Ann can’t believe I’d have qualified. I’m hopeless at anything mechanical and leave it all to her.” True enough, the washing-machine starts beeping during our chat and he struggles to make it stop, as does your correspondent.
His father and grandfather were Gers men; Ibrox was a ferry ride across the Clyde and Miller remembers being taken to see Derek Ibbotson break the four-minute mile on the cinder track during the Rangers Sports, the regular summer athletics meet at the stadium. But the old man went alone to the Real Madrid-Eintracht Frankfurt final at Hampden, thinking the crowd would be too big for his boy. “I cried my eyes out at having to miss it.”
There was a certain strictness at home to which Miller willingly adhered, as he enjoyed the discipline of the Boys’ Brigade. And maybe there was a telling moment in his development following the misadventures of the other footballer in the family. “My big brother Jimmy was a midfielder, went to Barnsley but he was a bit silly, getting involved with drinking and the dancing. I decided I wouldn’t be going to England.” Or touching alcohol. Much later he would sip from the Skol Cup and the European Cup but Siberia with Sibir Novosibirsk proved an alarming experience. “At half past five on a Friday everyone got blind drunk.”
The promising Miller, of Clydebank Strollers, was all set to sign for Jock Stein at Celtic, only for Rangers to nick him the night before. “There were no hard feelings. Jock said to me later: ‘You’ve joined a great club, son. Good luck to you’.” Aware of his limitations, he was, as the club motto has it, ready. “At the start of the 1970-71 season, away to Motherwell, Willie Mathieson got injured. [Willie] Waddell asked the bench: ‘Can any of you guys play defence?’ I told him I’d done it right through school and juveniles – a complete lie.” He was picked for the Scottish Cup final at the end of that campaign and wasn’t about to give up his place, broken jaw or not. “I smashed it in three places colliding with [Celtic’s] Jim Brogan. Ach, it was only my jaw, nothing serious. I remember picking up the ball for a throw-in and a woman in the crowd screaming: ‘Oh my god, look at his face!’ I saw it at half-time; it was all distorted. I had concussion as well. The staff examined me but I said I wasn’t coming off and that was the end of the matter. At the Victoria Infirmary, I got the team bus to drive past on the way to the replay so I could wave to them from the balcony but unfortunately we lost that one.”
That was the season of the Ibrox Disaster. Miller played 18 games in a row but wasn’t selected for the dreadful day, something he will never stop being grateful for. “My brother Jimmy was at the match and had actually been on stairway 13 minutes before. If I’d been playing he would have stayed right to the end and might not be alive today, but he left early to go to a New Year party. I gave out ten tickets for that game and three of the guys Jimmy had been with, including my old Clydebank coach Johnny Gardiner, never came back. Terrible, just terrible.”
Miller stares down the loch and I do the same. He composes himself and rummages through his memories for something to lighten the mood, albeit that medicine balls feature heavily. “My first manager was Scot Symon and you wonder how we ever won anything but we did. First day back training it was walk a lap, jog, four of each, finish. Then we played baseball so if your side were batting you got a suntan.
“Compare that with the first day under Jock Wallace. Bunny-hops up the terracing, then with a partner. I got Greigy [John Greig], a real heavy boy, and guys were falling over the wall. Then compare that with the first day down at Gullane.
“Seven-thirty we left Ibrox, jackets and ties as usual, picking up the Edinburgh guys at the east end of Princes Street where everyone – greedy footballers – grabbed an egg-and-sausage roll, not knowing what was ahead of them, and Jock wasn’t about to let on. I think I had a piece of toast. Then Jock got the driver to stop at Wallyford. ‘I’m just nipping in to see my mum’’, he said, and came back with a piece.”
Miller is giggling at the memory of Wallace munching away at the front of the bus. This is not a picture many of us have seen. “When we got to Gullane we had to change into our kit in the car park in full view of the day-trippers while Jock rammed poles into the sand. Running across the dunes was bloody hard and I was really fit. Jock kept hold of one pole and Derek Johnstone would get a whack: ‘Lift yer f****n’ knees up!’ A young lad, George Walker, collapsed. He got given oxygen but then it was: ‘On yer f****n’ feet!’ ”
There was a break for lunch, a nice hotel, with the shell-shocked Gers ascertaining the afternoon session would consist of “just five-a-side” before diving in. “Greedy footballers – they all had minestrone soup, steak and kidney pie, rhubarb tart and custard. And the afternoon was Murder Hill!” Miller gazes up at his ceiling to illustrate the gradient. “Sixteen times we had to horse up it. Another boy, Davie Armour, was sick and that set off a chain reaction. Some guys hated Jock’s training. Willie Henderson did two laps of Ibrox, called him a ‘mad bastard’, grabbed his clothes off the hook, hailed a taxi, the next day was pictured in the Daily Record in Tenerife with his wife and that was the finish of Willie. But I absolutely loved it.”
Miller was never truly loved by the entire Hibs support and the problem for some was his Rangers background. What did these fans think he was doing at Easter Road – scheming for his old club as a mole? In hindsight, he thinks he should have revealed he had no money. “I had guys on £350 a week when Hearts were paying [Pasquale] Bruno £4000. After we won the Skol Cup, I said to Tom Farmer: ‘Give me £5 million and I’ll split the Old Firm’. ‘I don’t think so’, he said. In my last three years at the club, my net spend was just £40,000.”
Other supporters thought his tactics didn’t allow for much flair but Miller points out he didn’t have Turnbull’s Tornadoes at his disposal and that, in any case, he brought many more attack-minded players to the club than defenders, including Keith Wright, Darren Jackson, Michael O’Neill and Steve Archibald, with the latter prompting a wry smile.
“A great player, but Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox warned me he’d be aye chapping on my door wanting a wage rise. In the office at Aberdeen they had what they called ‘Archie’s chair’ because he was sat in it most days. He told me he had to be the best-paid at Hibs so I gave him £601, which made him the highest by a quid, and generally we got on okay, but there was a wee problem in an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle when he wanted to come off. He went to the toilets at half-time and I told my staff: ‘Don’t let anyone else in here.’ He wasn’t injured. I told him folk would think he was a coward. ‘Get back out there and make yourself a hero’, I said. He grumped but he did it. He scored and we won.” Why didn’t Miller relate how he once played the second half with a bust jaw? “Because I’m not a self-publicist!” he laughs. Nevertheless, he’s given a good account of himself today.
I really must be going; the grandkids will be arriving any minute. Family comes first for Miller, the proud father of sons Graeme and Greg, young players at Hibs during his time there, but football is a very close second, with Ann providing one more illustration of her husband’s obsession to rival Bill Shankly himself: “One of our first dates was watching Vale of Leithen in a juniors game. Oh yes, the last of the great romantics!”
Miller and I finally get reacquainted with the loch as he waves me off and it’s sparkling in the sunshine. “Good weather for ice cream,” he says. “Do you know that on a day like this I’d sell 42 gallons of the stuff?”
You surely can’t do that if you’re in any way dour.