Saturday Interview: Miller's outlook brighter after stint in Land of Rising Sun

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FROM helping Liverpool turn around a 3-0 deficit to win the Champions League final in Istanbul, to celebrating his 60th birthday this summer in Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Tokyo, Alex Miller has certainly lived the high life since leaving Scotland ten years ago.

Having been dogged by accusations of dullness, most obviously manifested in his apparent betrayal of Hibernian's cavalier ideals, it is interesting to note how a career initially rooted in his homeland has veered so dramatically from its roots that he no longer even owns a property here.

He does have a son in Edinburgh, though even this Miller hopes is a temporary arrangement. Greg, the former Hibs and Clydebank midfielder, was recruited to his father's coaching staff during the latter months of his stint with JEF United Chiba. When that ended at the end of July, he returned to Scotland. But Miller, currently domiciled at his villa in Marbella, saw enough in his son to convince him that wherever he goes next, so, too, will Miller junior. But, for the time being at least, the world of football has been denied the Miller & Son partnership blooded in Japan.

"That was the most disappointing thing about the whole scenario," says the former Hibernian and St Mirren manager. "He had four years at Ibrox when Jim Sinclair was appointed to head up youth development, while he was also a coach at Hibs. I had never seen Greg coach but everyone told me he had very good qualities. So I took him to Japan. The players all loved him, and it's Greg who I felt bad for. It was uncanny; in game situations his thoughts were more or less parallel to my own.

"You just need a chance sometimes, and in football he is not a big name. But the big names do not always make the best coaches. If I go into another job I would take him, and not because he is my son. Why would I want to place that pressure on my family, and myself? I would take him because he is top-notch, an asset."

Strangely, while Greg and his father were both resident in Japan as recently as this summer, another son, Graeme, will be the only member of the Miller clan present in Yokohama this morning when Scotland kick-off against Japan. Sensing a good opportunity to visit his family, Graeme booked tickets to coincide with the fixture but, due to circumstances outwith his control, has been greeted by a typhoon rather than a welcoming party of familiar faces. Miller was sacked in July after machinations behind the scenes and with his side deposited back at the wrong end of the J.League. It meant the end of his adventures after just over a year in the Far East, and saw him bid farewell to his apartment in Makuhari, outside Tokyo.

"I got a lot of letters from the players to say they were sorry to see me go, and to say 'thank you' for re-structuring their career and giving them back confidence in themselves," says Miller.

The facts certainly point to Miller's restorative powers. When he joined JEF United Chiba in May 2008 they were seemingly without hope at the bottom of the league. But a 23-game run in which they collected 38 points saw them avoid relegation on the last day, and even this took a four-goal salvo in the last 20 minutes of the campaign.

"I was working with the same personnel as the previous coach," points out Miller. "I didn't want to know what had happened under the previous regime. We structured the training, studied the opposition and we rehearsed all week what we were going to do on a Saturday. I worked at Liverpool for nine years with two good managers. You learn. There is no use falling out with your players. They are the only players you have to work with. They bought into it, I gave them days off, and at the end of the season we were flying."

In a country so rooted to routine and defined by the commitment to work – or at least being seen to work – the concept of a day off was not received with great enthusiasm by Miller's superiors. But he argued that periods of recovery are as vital to an athlete as training sessions.

"They didn't think I should give the players a day off, but in modern-day football you need rest," he says. "They (the Japanese] don't believe in taking any more than a week off all year. We played on Saturday, trained Sunday, and I wanted to give the players Monday off. When they (club officials] start to interfere like that, I just say 'no, no'. It was disappointing because I loved it. And it is, contrary to opinion, a very good league."

Crowds of more than 40,000 are common, he points out, while JEF United Chiba saw their crowds rise from 10,000 to a near-capacity 18,000 during Miller's time. He does not regret leaving Liverpool, where he assisted Rafa Benitez, to be his own man, even if his reign in Japan was brought to a premature end. His coaching career had begun in the Far East, so there was some logic in his resuming his managerial career there, a decade after being sacked by Aberdeen.

"When I finished as a player with Rangers I had a spell in Hong Kong," he recalls. "I went as a player and the day I arrived the coach quit, so they had no-one to take training. I was in the final year of my A licence so I took the training for three or four days, and became coach for three months. But it wasn't for me at that stage, and neither was that part of the world.

"I had been at Ibrox for 17 years, played under five managers. There had only been eight managers in Rangers' history at that time, and I had worked under five of them. I started under Scot Symon, then Davie White, Willie Waddell, Jock Wallace and John Greig. I was also ten years at Hibs and nine at Liverpool. I don't really move around a lot."

As far as some Hibs fans are concerned, more's the pity. But Miller offers a robust defence of his time at Easter Road. With the 1991 Skol Cup, won amid the kind of financial distress which threatened the club's very existence, he provided the success-starved fans with a first trophy for almost 20 years. "I know people say he didn't do this, he didn't do that," he says.

"But when I was a manager in Scotland, Rangers had all their big stars. It was hard with the money we had. We won a trophy, were in Europe a few times, and built a roof on the terrace across from the main stand and constructed the two end stands. Look at Hearts, who had about eight internationalists at the time. You can only work with what you have. But I brought in good players; Darren Jackson, Keith Wright, Andy Goram, Michael O'Neill, Kevin McAllister and Mickey Weir."

But where his CV really begins to pack a punch are between the years 1999 and 2008. Here Miller is able to log the details of his Liverpool sojourn, which include a Uefa Cup title as well as Champions League glory. Although the league title remained elusive, there was domestic success in the shape of two FA Cup victories. The sight of Miller sitting next to Benitez, and before him Gerard Houllier, on the Liverpool bench was guaranteed to jolt awake those Scottish fans dozing in front of Match of the Day. It is useful to have Miller explain how he came to be deposited at Anfield, and at the centre of some of the enduring football stories this decade has had to offer. Not only was Miller present when Liverpool overturned AC Milan's three-goal half-time lead in the Champions League final four years ago, but he was also part of the Anfield set-up for the Gary McAllister-inspired 5-4 victory over Deportivo Alaves in the 2001 Uefa Cup final.

"I went from a housing scheme in Glasgow to a Champions League medal," he reflects. "That was the ultimate. When I was with Scotland, assisting Craig Brown, Gerard Houllier was seconded by Uefa to look at the training methods during Euro 96, and was handed our section. He came to our training sessions and asked us questions. Then out of the blue he phoned me and offered me a role at Liverpool.

"My original role in name was 'chief scout'. But there was no way I was going to leave to go from a manager to scout. If you knew Gerard's ego, you would understand why he didn't want anything too technical in my title. So I said: 'Call me what you like'. What I did was watch the opposition, and then outlined the strengths and weaknesses that I saw to the players on a Friday. And I worked with the young players every day, and took the reserve team on match days. I had a hands-on role. It was director of football, really.

"When Rafa came he spoke to the senior England players like Stevie Gerrard, (Jamie] Carragher and (Michael] Owen. And they gave me a good reference. Rafa did not know me from a bar of soap, but we discussed football and he brought me on to his coaching staff."

Miller believes he has one more manager's job left in him and is eager to offer insight into how Japan can be overcome, Scotland B team or not. "Japan's strengths are in midfield," he says. "They move the ball quickly and have players who can see pictures in their heads. You cannot allow them to have possession in there. You might think 'sit back and let them come'. But I would not do that. If you give Japan most of the ball they will definitely hurt you."

Get intae them, in other words. The football sophisticate has not left the Glasgow housing scheme completely behind.