While no one could say with confidence Livingston’s gamble of appointing Kenny Miller as player-manager would pay off, it’s still a surprise to see the relationship end quite so abruptly.
It’s not as if his performance in either role of manager or player had drawn unfavourable comment. There’s barely been time for any reasonably fair assessment to be made.
After seven games in charge he seemed, to the casual observer, to be doing pretty well. Livingston equipped themselves more than competently in the Betfred Cup group stage, from which they qualified unbeaten. Meanwhile, two testing league openers were negotiated as well as could be expected.
A comprehensive defeat away to Celtic was followed by a decent draw at home against Kilmarnock. Saturday’s home reversal to Motherwell in the second round of the Betfred Cup was hardly catastrophic either.
Indeed, criticism has been reserved mostly for Livingston’s new synthetic pitch, on which Miller, now 38, was expected to play half this season’s games on. As recently as Saturday Motherwell players were complaining about plastic pellets from the pitch getting in their ears and up their nose.
All this didn’t appear to faze Miller. He was happy to put his still agile body on the line. Some wondered if he would use himself sparingly as he settled into the dual role. Those who reckoned this might be the case clearly don’t know Miller. He has picked himself to start every game. He subbed himself off only three times, always in the latter stages. No surprise here. He said many times his primary objective was to continue playing. It’s why it took Livingston so long to confirm his appointment earlier this summer. Miller was mulling over whether he wished to inflict the baggage of management on himself as well as continue his playing career.
Livingston wanted him to sign separate contracts – one for playing, one for management. He did so. They were said to be comfortable with Miller taking so long to decide what to do because they had alternatives lined up. The club, who expected Miller to work alongside the existing coaching set-up, including first-team coach David Martindale, didn’t seem completely sold on him from the start. In a wide-ranging interview with The Scotsman’s Aidan Smith, published on the morning of what proved Miller’s last game in charge against Motherwell on Saturday, he expressed a desire to continue playing until he was 45. Why shouldn’t he pick himself to play? He was showing up well. He suggested he was leaving younger players in his wake.
“I’m playing up front right now with Lee Miller and are we the oldest strike partnership in Britain? We must be,” he said. “He’s 35 and I’ll be 39 in December but I still move better than him and always have done. Actually, I move better than most of our team, even some of the younger ones.”
This ambition to play into his mid-40s is bound to have startled Livingston, who seemed suddenly keen for him to cease playing immediately.
According to the statement released early yesterday morning, the board requested – only seven weeks after hailing him as their first player-manager – that he switch to the manager’s role full-time. This was never likely to find favour with Miller. He informed them he wasn’t “ready to give up his football career at this time”. And so that was that, reported Livingston. They parted “amicably”.
But this being football, things are rarely what they seem. Tam McManus, Miller’s former team-mate at Hibs, was quick to publicly dispute this version of events. It was far from amicable, he claimed on Twitter.
“Kenny Miller and Livingston didn’t part ‘amicably’,” he wrote. “Nor did he walk away. He was sacked. Nor was he asked to ‘give up playing to solely be the manager’. Nonsense. Take of that what you will.”
Livingston, meanwhile, have sent out some mixed messages. John Ward, a director and investor, later stressed the board had not asked Miller to consider stepping away from playing.
“I think he felt he was not getting time to focus on the playing side of things,” Ward told The Scotsman. “I think he felt he was not managing as he should be. We had an open and honest and clear discussion. And we decided to part company. There is nothing negative in it.
“We did not say he had to stop playing,” he added. “The discussion was whether the balance was right, he is playing every game, every minute. But we did not get together as a board and say he had to stop playing. He maybe realised he was not focusing properly on both sides.”
Whatever really happened (and Miller’s keeping his own counsel so far), it’s the latest intriguing chapter in a 20-year football odyssey, which has already included the novelty of a period with Celtic and three spells at Rangers. As with Miller’s last parting of ways with the Ibrox club only a matter of weeks ago, it’s another unsatisfying, and contentious, exit.
Speaking in The Scotsman on Saturday, he asked to be treated with respect and expected to be judged by the high standards he has set in his own career.
“People in football know me and what I’m about, I’m sure of that,” he said, in reference to reports he can be a disruptive influence. “And you can ask my players at Livi how I’m trying to go about the business of being a manager and hopefully they’ll tell you I’m really, really big on honesty. I was like that before, even more so now given what’s happened over the last few months. A manager should treat his players and staff the right way, with respect and on a human level.”
It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he ended up pulling on the shirt of another Premiership team this weekend. There’s talk of St Mirren being interested in signing him as a player. They were certainly keen prior to Miller opting for what looks increasingly like a poisoned chalice in West Lothian. Who do Alan Stubbs’ side play on Saturday? Livingston.