Interview: Willie Miller on conquering Celtic Park

If Derek McInnes needs advice on how to beat Celtic in their own backyard ahead of today’s match, he could do worse than talk to a Don who made something of a habit of it
Willie Miller was on the winning side 14 times in Glasgow over his long and illustrious career. Picture: Ian GeorgesonWillie Miller was on the winning side 14 times in Glasgow over his long and illustrious career. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Willie Miller was on the winning side 14 times in Glasgow over his long and illustrious career. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Willie Miller fixes me with a look. It’s not quite the dead-eyed stare he would dole out to irritating strikers and indecisive referees in one of the most committed and combative of football careers, but it’s a look nonetheless.

“Are you sure I wasn’t playing in that one?” he says, referring to the match known to Aberdeen fans as “The Walker McCall Game”. I’ve just produced The Aberdeen Football Companion by Clive Leatherdale – known to The Scotsman sports desk as “The Leatherdale” – and, never finding this excellent volume to be wrong before, it says he wasn’t.

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“Are you absolutely sure?” he continues, grabbing the book to scrutinise the line-ups for the November 1980 match at Celtic Park which the Dons won 2-0, both goals coming from the unfeasibly tall and bouffant McCall. Jim Leighton played, and Alex McLeish and big Doug Rougvie and the usual gang, but where was the captain? “I remember so much about it. Walker’s goals, the hard work done for them by Mark McGhee – and then that nutter from the Jungle running onto the park to banjo wee Gordon [Strachan]… ”

Aberdeen captain Willie Miller holds up the trophy after the Aberdeen v Celtic Scottish Cup final in 1984. Picture: Donald MacLeodAberdeen captain Willie Miller holds up the trophy after the Aberdeen v Celtic Scottish Cup final in 1984. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Aberdeen captain Willie Miller holds up the trophy after the Aberdeen v Celtic Scottish Cup final in 1984. Picture: Donald MacLeod

I can tell he isn’t happy. I can tell he wants me to go back to the office and dig out the newspaper files to check the match report. I’m about to say to him: “Come on, man, you beat Celtic 14 times in Glasgow all told. With your frizzy black hair, suave moustache and George Michael-out-of-Wham! satin-look shorts, you pretty much owned them. I’m sure no one’s ever matched that, before or since – can’t you let even one victory go?” But this is Willie Miller we’re talking about. To borrow a catchphrase from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, a TV comedy from his pomp, he didn’t get where he is today by not showing complete ruthlessness towards Celtic in their own backyard.

Originally it was his backyard, too. Miller grew up in a tenement in Bridgeton so Celtic Park was the first football ground to impact on him. “It was a Rangers area so matchdays could be quite, shall we say, colourful. The red, white and blue would be draped from windows to see the Celtic fans merrily on their way.

“We lived in Marquis Street, top floor of a tenement, outside loos. The family across the landing from us, the Cusacks, were Catholic and you knew Celtic had won when the Irish songs started up and wouldn’t stop. Ruby, the woman downstairs, played in the Salvation Army band and she’d respond by banging her tambourine as loudly as possible. All in all, quite a racket for a Saturday night, but such was life.”

We’re having afternoon lattes in an Aberdeen hotel like a couple of sweetie-wifies. Well, one sweetie-wife and Willie Miller, the best penalty-box defender in the world, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest-ever Don, say the fans. Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen go down to Celtic Park today, hoping to kickstart their title challenge. It’s the sternest of tests but maybe this is what they need. Certainly Miller, now 60 and one of our better telly and radio pundits, is the ideal man to ask how you win there.

From his debut appearance at Celtic Park in 1974 to his last 16 years later, others would grab the headlines with their goals in the fixture, including Drew Jarvie, Stewart Kennedy, Dom Sullivan, Dixie Deans, Johannes Edvaldsson and Joe Craig, but none could match his desire to keep coming back for more. Those 14 victories included four at Hampden en route to glory in both the Scottish Cup and League Cup, but it was the Parkhead games which were always the most explosive, resulting in mass bookings and sendings off, terrace trouble and tunnel ding-dongs. Celtic Park and collecting all the points was the first key staging-post in the progress of football’s greatest manager, and Miller loved it every time.

He thinks he only visited once as a lad, not being especially football daft. “My mum would like you to think I was quite academic until about the age of ten,” he laughs. “My dad, who was a tool-maker at Rolls-Royce at Hillington, wasn’t interested in football at all but I think it was him who took me to that game. The massive crowd was pretty frightening but someone would shout ‘Watch out for the boy’ and the big arms would come out to protect you.”

He describes growing up in Glasgow’s East End in similar terms. “It was tough but I was looked after. I don’t think people these days would understand how there could be this strong, close community which nevertheless had such an edge to it. If you lived in the East End in the 1960s you were aware of the danger that just walking down the street could provoke.

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“It was the time of the gangs: the Tongs, the Spur and others. I didn’t witness any nastiness but I remember being shocked after I left to see a boy I knew from school in the papers for a razor attack. He was a nice lad; we’d played football together. I suppose you’d say the East End was character-forming; it made you independent, This wasn’t an independence you necessarily enjoyed and – nothing against the people who were fabulous – I thought there had to be somewhere better. Celtic showed an interest in me but I’d grown up quick with a hankering to move.”

Miller arrived at Pittodrie just in time to see the Scottish Cup – won in 1970 – being returned to Hampden for the next recipients although he would of course get to hold the trophy later. Only with one hand, mind you – the Willie Miller trademark. I tell him this habit made for some memorable images and confirmed him as a cocky bugger. “Thanks very much,” he says. “Did I fancy myself? Probably I did. I fancied I was a decent footballer who was part of something special. I was cocky but playing for a provincial club I had to be. Plus, lifting cups one-handed ensured my face was in the photos. Guys who used two hands sometimes obscured theirs.”

Eddie Turnbull exited Pittodrie soon after the cup and Jimmy Bonthrone was Miller’s boss for that first game at Celtic Park, a 2-0 defeat. Ally MacLeod took over for what was a harem-scarem campaign in 1975-76, the first in the ten-team Premier League. Miller was appointed skipper and right away led his men to back-to-back victories over the Old Firm, the goals at Parkhead coming from Jarvie and Arthur Graham. But they flirted with relegation and only saved themselves on goal difference on the final day.

Miller stresses he was part of the “bad times” at Aberdeen as well as the good. Suddenly required to make two visits per season to Celtic Park, the Dons followed that win with a draw in which our man was sent off. “I kicked Roy Aitken up in the air, not an easy thing to do. The same Roy who I played with for Scotland who was my assistant when I became Aberdeen manager. I was only sent off three times – the other two because I got involved with Frank McGarvey when he was at St Mirren; one of my most difficult opponents and a right pest. But the incident with Roy was unlike me as I wouldn’t normally boot someone off the ball. Frustration got the better of me, as they would some of the Celtic players when we started turning the tables on them.”

I have a theory, and it’s not an especially stunning one: it is that Willie Miller was never afflicted by moments of self-doubt. “No, I don’t think I was. When I made my debut [19-year-old substitute against Morton; as a striker] I wasn’t nervous, just very happy to be there.” He thanks his “mentors”, Bobby Clark and George Murray, for their wisdom and encouragement. “Bobby was a great guy, a huge believer, and I was lucky to have him playing behind me. Both he and George had won the Scottish Cup with Aberdeen – against Celtic – and were a tremendous help to me.”

Clark, he continues, possessed “sensible belief” while manager MacLeod had “insane belief”. “Ally whipped up enthusiasm and gave everyone hope, which can work in the short term but then it will burn out.” He did, though, mastermind the 1976 League Cup triumph – over Celtic – to commence the greatest era in Aberdeen’s history.

Captain Miller would have to do his share of mentoring while the Jungle roared. “There were were one or two doubters which could hold us back but most were believers.” Gordon Strachan wasn’t shy and retiring on these occasions and the Celtic faithful – at that point,anyway – hated him for it. Doug Rougvie used to enrage the Jungle by warming up in front of it, toothless grin spread across his face, and Miller of course got his share of abuse. “I loved hearing them booing, it inspired you. Mind you, I didn’t often wander too close to the Jungle. Really, when we played there we should have given them big Rougvie for the whole match – left-back in the first half then swapped him over to the right!” Then, enter Fergie.

Miller has had two autobiographies published, both with a Ferguson foreword. Perhaps struggling to find the words the second time, the great man came up with this corker of a backhanded compliment: “Willie did not have great pace, had no great height for a central defender and was not a great passer of the ball. For all that nobody – but nobody – could get past him.”

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Miller chuckles at this. “I took a while to get a relationship going with a few of my managers, Billy McNeill and also Alex. I was never the greatest of trainers for one thing. But let’s examine what he said there. I mean, he’s probably accurate up to a point… no, he’s spot-on! But I think I got better. More savvy about what my strengths were.”

The early days of the Fergie-Miller association began with the manager seeming to pine for Jackie Copland back at St Mirren. “At training it would be: ‘Jackie used to set up at corners like this...’ Or: ‘Is that what you do for free-kicks, Willie? Let me tell you about Jackie’s way... ’ I could only take that for so long. Eventually I had a word and to be fair he stopped. I guess it was just a wind-up; he was testing me.”

The exchanges of views between boss and skipper would occasionally get more full, more frank. Losing to Partick Thistle at Firhill, Miller criticised Ferguson’s defensive system at half-time. “He’s always been a four-at-the-back man but that day we were trying to play with three and it wasn’t working. The rest of the guys got fed up of us shouting at each other and he told me to shut up. I said I wouldn’t, which, honestly, was unusual for me. ‘Shut up,’ he said, ‘or you’re not going back out there.’ So I took off my top and jumped in the bath.”

How, then, did Miller survive when some at Manchester United who incurred Fergie’s wrath did not? “The manager is always going to win these arguments. You either smoke the pipe of peace or he gets rid of you. So on the Monday we smoked the pipe. I told him I regretted the row happening mid-match; that was wrong.” The manager resisted the urge to espouse the Jackie Copland method of quibbling tactics and the incident was forgotten about.

Let’s get back to Celtic Park, though, because it was all happening there. Mild-mannered Danny McGrain was being sent off for chopping down Peter Weir. Bobby Clark was being clobbered in the tunnel by a mystery assailant who sprinted off in the direction of the home changing-room. The teenage Eric Black would net a brilliant Parkhead hat-trick. Celtic would regain the upper hand in the fixture but Aberdeen would still emerge as champions. Celts-Dons games would come thick and fast and Fergie’s presence cranked up the ferocity some more.

In his first season in charge a Scottish Cup replay win with goals from Duncan Davidson and Steve Archibald – in the third meeting of the teams in 11 days – was pivotal for the manager as he strove towards his first degree in football psychology en route to his first title.

“Alex would hammer into us the importance of beating the Old Firm in Glasgow,” adds Miller. “It was his mantra – well, one of them because he had loads. He told us that we couldn’t simply be as good as Celtic in these games; we had to be better than them, because we weren’t just playing their eleven guys.

“There was the hostile crowd and the influence it could have on the referees. Billy McNeill, when he became manager of Celtic having previously been our boss, reckoned that they never got any decisions at home. Now, you’re laughing and I’m laughing because that had to be a joke: Celtic did get decisions. It happens in football and we’re not talking about referees being corrupt. When something is borderline it often goes the way of the home side with the big support.

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“So Alex would tell us that the world was against us. ‘They’re at it again,’ he would say, meaning pretty much everyone: referees, the football establishment, the biased west coast press. There was a siege mentality and he had us all in the bunker. I’m sure he showed us headlines after the first cup-tie about how Celtic were going to finish the job at Parkhead and it would have been the same the following season after the first of the double-header.” Because of a postponement, Aberdeen had to travel to the East End twice in the league in quick succession. The conspiracy theorist – or indeed Fergie – might have deemed the rescheduling an attempt to derail his team’s championship charge. It didn’t work: almost 90,000 saw the Dons win 2-1, then 3-1.

Miller would sign off at Celtic Park in 1990 with yet another victory. He doesn’t see why Aberdeen can’t win today and “go on and make their own history” but, of course, they’ll have to do with without the flame-haired imp who was such a red rag to the home support, the gummy giant with the provocative bend ’n’ stretch routine and the captain who silenced the Jungle on at least ten occasions.

Just don’t say he learned it all from Jackie Copland.