Friday night football under the lights at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. Jason Holt sets Lee Wallace free down the left-hand side. The left-back’s lofted cross passes over Martyn Waghorn, appearing to drift harmlessly away from danger. However, out of sight, Kenny Miller had peeled off Carl Tremarco into space.
Bring the ball under control and try to get a shot across Owain Fon Williams? No, score first time.
The 36-year-old kept his eye on the flight of the cross, expertly meeting the ball with the top of his boot, and sending it flying past Fon Williams. It is a template for volleyed goals. It should be included in manuals on how to execute a volley.
It was a special goal, that there is no doubt. What made it more special was that it was Miller’s 100th in a Rangers top over three spells. It could have been viewed by many as a fleeting moment of a career coming to its close. But that wasn’t the case.
Miller is enjoying an Indian summer, one which shows no sign of slowing. After that Inverness encounter in October, Miller’s goal proving to be be the winner, Mark Warburton discussed the possibility of Miller continuing playing into his fifth decade.
“It was a tremendous finish from Kenny,” said Warburton. “How Kenny trains, how he conducts himself, how he looks after himself, his mentoring role with the younger players on and off the pitch and the respect he has in the dressing room is all very important.”
Rangers and Warburton have been pilloried at times this season. Off field issues, namely the now departed Joey Barton, have not helped matters, nor has the impact of certain summer signings, namely Joey Barton. On the field the club have suffered a hangover from the end to last season’s campaign. Following the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Celtic, Rangers failed to win any of their remaining four leagues games as well as losing the cup final to Hibernian.
The side has looked disjointed following promotion and have struggled away from home, having won only two of seven league games on the road. While they haven’t lost a home game in more than a year some of their performances in front of their own fans have been met with frustration and disapproval. They have proved effective at keeping teams out, despite reservations about their defensive set-up, but somewhat surprisingly is the lack of clear cut chances created.
Josh Windass has been an excellent addition in the middle of midfield and Harry Forrester has shown quality in glimpses, but others, such as Barrie McKay, have found the step up more troubling. There isn’t the same space afforded to Rangers with Warburton noting that the players in the top-flight are much more switched on to what the team faced in the Championship.
His most reliable forward and, perhaps, consistent performer, has been Miller. The soon to be 37-year-old has rolled back the years, while showing aspects of his game which have been overlooked or simply not realised by many.
Other than a particularly good run of form, the passing of time is perhaps the best thing to happen to a footballer’s career. Nostalgia shines brighter than the present. As a Scotland forward, Miller was often derided for his poor finishing but in the grand scheme of things 18 goals in 69 is a decent return for a player who offered so much more than his goals.
His indefatigable spirit and energy and willingness to play the lone striker role made him the ideal counter-attacking striker for both Alex McLeish and Walter Smith. He may have been isolated but his attitude to hound opposition defenders, chase balls and hold up play was incredibly beneficial to Scotland’s strategy. He has been arguably one of the most important players in the last decade and a half for Scotland.
His club career was equally successful, from initially bursting onto the scene at Hibs to helping Wolverhampton Wanderers into the Premiership for the first time since 1972. He’s had experience abroad with both Bursaspor in Turkey and Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS. And testament to his character and attitude, he crossed the Old Firm divide and back again for three spells at Ibrox as well as a season at Celtic.
His career average of a goal every three games is respectable considering the work he put in linking play, running channels and providing a foil for midfielders and his team in general to play off. But as a footballer you want to be remembered for more than simply being able to run around and cover ground. You want to be remembered for offering much more substance. Having played out the country for more than three years, plus another two in the Championship Miller’s qualities have been somewhat hidden. Until now.
Bayern Munich and Germany forward Thomas Muller described himself as a Raumdeuter. A space-interpreter. While Miller isn’t quite of the standard of the master, and does not score as prolifically as his German counter-part (caveat, Muller’s goals have dried up of late), there are similarities, proving there is much more to his game than simply being a pest.
There haven’t been the goals of his second spell at Ibrox, including the startling 21 goals in 18 league games which earned him a January move to Bursaspor and the league’s top goal scorer award, but there’s been an intelligence and technical ability which has made him undroppable as fellow attackers have floundered.
Miller still offers those traits which makes him so reliable and trustworthy to coaches; he works within team structures and follows the game plan laid out. But the extra layers to his game has allowed him to function really well in a front three.
Rangers’ attacking play is all about space, fluidity and movement. Miller is very good at moving laterally, playing combinations, creating space through his movement to open gaps for team mates to exploit. A lot of the time he doesn’t even require the ball to be effective, instead using his experience and nous to drift into areas, taking opposition players with him. This has been particularly rewarding for Wallace darting in off the left into the box and Waghorn moving infield from a right-flank position.
At times over his career he could be quite loose with possession but he treats the ball a lot better when it comes into his feet. Often coming up against low blocks and compact defending, Miller has been adept at playing in tight areas, and it helps that he is perpetual motion.
This ability to work along the line and find space against Partick Thistle’s three-man defence on Saturday will be integral if Rangers are to move into second-place with Aberdeen on cup duty. It will help Miller, Warburton and Rangers if his team mates raised their level the way he has.
When Miller spoke of wanting to help Rangers back into the Premiership and win the league he would have been scoffed at due to his age. Yet, both his excellent professionalism and conditioning, as well as his ever-expanding game suggests he will continue to be a thorn in the side of Celtic for a while yet. Maybe his Indian summer will end with him riding off into the sunset with fifth Scottish league title.