IT IS TEMPTING to dismiss Charlie Miller as just another casualty, a wild child of Scottish football who could have been a mainstay for Scotland and Rangers but, instead, chose to throw it all away.
That’s not how he sees it. At least, that’s not the full story of how he sees it.
Still, it perhaps sums up Miller’s career that one of British football’s most memorable moments of the last 20 years was performed in a pair of Charlie Miller boots. It’s just that he wasn’t wearing them at the time.
In desperate need of a new pair of Predator boots before a game for Manchester United against Wimbledon in August 1996, David Beckham contacted Adidas, who, with time running short, sent him a pair of custom-made boots meant for Miller that were waiting to be sent to Scotland. Beckham duly went out and scored from the half-way line, a goal replayed countless times since. “They even had ‘Charlie’ embroidered on the tongue,” smiles Miller now.
While there are regrets about not achieving what he might have done, principally for Rangers and Scotland, for whom he earned just one cap, Miller remains impressively upbeat. This is despite the hardships he chronicles, including bereavement, illness to close family members, suicides of friends, bankruptcy and an on-off relationship with wife Caroline, who he first met when they were teenagers in Castlemilk.
They are currently “off”, though Miller, back living with his mother, still needs to be conscious of the time, because he is required to walk Caroline’s dog. “2015 has to be a better year than 2014, it can’t be worse,” he says. “Bereavements, and such like. If you don’t smile you will end up doing something wrong to yourself, so bugger that.”
Miller’s outlook has remained consistently positive, even given the recent revelations that he has gambled away as much as £1million. He retains a keen appetite, tucking into an 8oz steak in a bar in Glasgow’s Rutherglen district.
It is slightly concerning to be meeting Miller in a bar at lunchtime but he sticks to Irn-Bru and looks well. Although he played his last game of professional football as long ago as 2011, for Clyde against Montrose, he has not ballooned in weight, contrary to what those who threw pies at him during his playing days might have expected (he invariably reacted by pulling up his shirt and slapping his belly).
“People come to vent their anger at you so you should be able to wind them up back,” he says. “I got hit by pies at Aberdeen, that was part of the banter. I got called a ‘fat Weegie’, and worse. That was life and I would not complain about it. But I would not expect them [the fans] to go the police if I wound them back up.”
Miller was someone opposition fans loved to hate but also respected, because, like Davie Cooper, as well as not taking himself too seriously, he was blessed with abundant talent. But unlike Cooper, who is generally perceived to have achieved what he should have done, Miller’s tale struggles to escape a nagging sense of ‘what if?’
He broke into the Rangers first team when he was a wide-eyed teenager, having made the transition to Ibrox from the streets of a housing scheme that is popularly described as being Europe’s biggest. Everything was there for the taking. Two-footed, and blessed with excellent peripheral vision, what could go wrong?
He made his debut at just 17, crossed the ball for Brian Laudrup to head in the goal that sealed the Ibrox side’s ninth title in a row at Tannadice in 1997 and yet, by the age of just 22, he’d gone. First there was a loan spell at Leicester City and then he severed ties with Rangers completely with a move to Watford.
“I must be the only footballer in the world who has ever taken a pay cut when going to the Premiership in England,” Miller, now 38, shrugs, with reference to that ill-fated move to Vicarage Road, where both club and manager, Graham Taylor, were not what he expected. “I don’t think it was the right manager. I don’t think it was the right club. Having to wash my own kit? I’d done my apprenticeship.”
Indeed he had. Ally McCoist remembers Miller flying “head first” into the Ibrox dressing room at 16 years old, the inheritor of his own cheeky chappie crown. “Just the mention of Charlie Miller’s name makes me smile,” writes McCoist in the foreword to The Proper Charlie, published last month. It is a book McCoist should ensure is on Lewis Macleod’s Christmas presents list as the Rangers youngster looks to make his way in the game.
“I could probably have been a better athlete, and better behaved, 100 per cent,” reflects Miller, with some understatement, but then he did also win four league titles and a League Cup with Rangers.
Those were different times at Ibrox. Miller was squeezed out of the team by international stars Rangers fans reminisce wistfully about now. But it wasn’t just the competition that stopped him becoming a Rangers stalwart, as McCoist believes he should have done. Miller’s lifestyle choices were hardly helpful, including boozy “Super Sundays”, which sometimes led to him and his drunken friends terrorising poor Simon Donnelly as he practised on a pitch nearby, a poor diet and, even, the odd joint.
How Miller talks about it now is distinguished by a distinct absence of regret. He has remained true to friends made in the streets where he grew up. A recent newspaper serialisation of his book made much of the time he refused to become an informant after a murder in Castlemilk, and having been pressurised to do so by Walter Smith, who, according to Miller, was a friend of one of the officers in charge of the case. It’s a reminder of the type of background from which Miller emerged. “There’s an unwritten rule in Castlemilk where you don’t grass anyone up,” says Miller, who knew little about the incident in any case.
There’s a vulnerability in Miller that more than one person has claimed reminds them of Paul Gascoigne, a former team-mate at Rangers. McCoist, for one, makes the comparison in his foreword. Gascoigne also featured on the night when Miller made one of the unwise choices that hampered his career. For once, Gascoigne made a sensible decision by staying in the restaurant upstairs at a pub called the Fox and Hounds in Houston after a 1-1 draw with Celtic in March 1996.
Miller decided against eating and remained downstairs for “a few bevvies”, with a group that included Jimmy “Five Bellies” Gardner, Gazza’s great friend. This might have been fine had Miller not got involved in an incident with a Celtic fan sporting tattoos of the Pope and the Irish tricolour. Although he was later acquitted of the assault charge and found not proven on breach of the peace, Miller feels this is when he cemented his reputation as a trouble-attracter, if not maker.
“It was a huge turning point,” he laments. “I should have walked away from it but I didn’t. It had a major impact on my career – I missed the Scottish Cup final at the end of that season, when we beat Hearts 5-1.”
But it wasn’t Smith who signalled the end of his Ibrox career. After scoring twice in a man-of-the-match performance at Dens Park against Dundee in 1999, Miller was named on the bench for that weekend’s match against Aberdeen by Dick Advocaat, Smith’s successor. Miller quickly grew frustrated.
“He went and built his team around Barry [Ferguson], I have no qualms about that,” says Miller. “I love Barry to bits, good luck to him. But why couldn’t he have built it round the two of us?”
After a loan spell at Leicester, Miller returned to Ibrox with the intention of fighting for his place at the start of the 1999-2000 season. However, he was prompted to re-think this plan when he received a letter that summer, signed by chairman David Murray, advising him to report to pre-season training with the reserve squad.
After duly doing as instructed, Miller recalls being surprised when Advocaat breezily greeted him in a corridor. “You can f*ck off,” Miller replied.
It’s possibly more than just amateur psychology to wonder whether Miller spent his career looking for father-figures. At times he found what he wanted – he remains close to Alex Smith, who signed him for Dundee United. But Walter Smith disappointed him slightly, as did Advocaat. As for his own father, Miller never knew him. He still doesn’t know his identity.
“Does he know who I am? I don’t know,” says Miller. “Does he want to know who I am? I don’t know. It is one of those ones. I never bothered about it. I had a great family about me. I had two great uncles – a gran who I loved to bits, a mum who I loved to bits.
“My two uncles were my father figures and I had other family figures who were there for me. I never worried about it to be honest. My Uncle Benny and Uncle Jim were always there for me. I did not realise that I was any different to anyone else. I was not unhappy, so it was not a big issue.”
He recalls growing up in Castlemilk with great fondness: “Playing on the ash pitches, getting smashed in the face by a Mitre mouldmaster on a Saturday morning in the freezing cold. Playing on astroturf was a luxury in those days. Kids don’t realise how fortunate they are. It is more of a middle-class game now.
“I am not saying they are pampered – if their parents can give them things, great. But we cannot overlook the fact that there are still great kids in the schemes with parents who cannot afford to take them places. There are food banks out there just now – I just cannot believe there is a need for that in this day and age. Kids have to go to food banks. I bet some of them are right good football players but they do not get noticed because they haven’t got anything.”
Miller was noticed because he was always among the finest players on show, from the days when he scored 67 goals from the left wing for his primary school team when only seven years old. Asked where he played his best football, Miller doesn’t pick Rangers, but opts for either Dundee United or SK Brann Bergen, where he had a successful two-year spell. He helped United avoid relegation in 2002 but admits turning up with a hangover for the club’s crucial end-of-season game with St Johnstone.
“I was drinking in the house. It was stupid. It was one of those things. I was just sitting there and I thought ‘f*ck it’.” Did Smith, his manager, not smell the alcohol on his breath? “He probably just thought it was my aftershave!” says Miller, who missed a penalty in the first half as United went in trailing by two goals at half time.
He recovered to score a goal in the second half as United stormed back to win 3-2 but the story perhaps explains a lot about Miller’s career, although, as he points out: “I have lived in Australia, in Norway, in Belgium – I have been to places in the world I never thought I’d go. Not bad for a Castlemilk lad.”
“I still drink a lot these days,” he adds, matter-of-factly. “I like a drink. I am not going to tell lies. I am retired now. As long as I am not drinking when I am going to speak to people about my work as an agent, and when I am coaching kids. I might have a beer if we are sitting having lunch. I like to sit with my friends in my local. I enjoy it, I don’t deny it.”
But there is little doubt that Miller, again like Gascoigne, is happiest when he is playing football. It is, then, pleasing to hear of his involvement with not just the Charlie Miller Academy, through which he aims to give something back to the game and to under-privileged kids, but also Tynecastle amateurs, a side based in the Easterhouse district of Glasgow. For over a year now they have been able to boast a “C Miller” on the teamsheet. Not only that, there’s also an “A McLaren” – Andy McLaren, Miller’s old Castlemilk compadre and former Dundee United team-mate.
“We played together, made our Scotland debuts [v Poland] together – we have done a lot of things together, on the football field!” says Miller. “I play up front and Andy plays centre-half.”
Illustrating how close they are, McLaren, now teetotal after a torrid struggle with alcohol abuse, a battle he won nearly 15 years ago, is one of the callers through to Miller’s ever-buzzing phone: “You watching the horses?” McLaren asks. Miller still likes a flutter too, despite previous hefty financial hits. “I still gamble,” he says. “I like gambling. I enjoy it. It is a bad habit. But I love doing a football coupon. Racing, football, whatever.”
Miller can only manage the second half of Tynecastle’s cup encounter with Renfrew Thistle today, because he is due to appear on Radio Scotland’s Off the Ball show, the next book-promoting commitment (it was STV’s Riverside show earlier this week, where Miller was billed under the perhaps unlikely twin-title of “footballer and author”).
He seems genuinely thrilled by the book that sits on the table between us, the front cover illustration for which has Miller tugging at the collar of his jacket, in a pose clearly designed to spell out attitude. Actually, in person, he comes across as simply likeable. He is the same footballer you always remember playing with a smile on his face.
• Charlie Miller: The Proper Charlie by Charlie Miller and Scott McDermott (Black & White publishing, £9.99) is available to buy on line and in bookstores now.