From Gillingham, Doncaster And Darlington To… Malta: Mark Millers European Adventure
Whenever a shortlist of England’s finest managerial exports is drawn up, that of Mark Miller isn’t a name you would expect to feature. He hasn’t shaped the whole playing philosophy of a nation like Jimmy Hogan or laid the foundations of one of the greatest European sides as Vic Buckingham did. Indeed, his name is unlikely to register much outside of Malta, where his managerial career has been played out. Yet, if one of the criteria that led to the appointment of England’s national team manager was his success with semi-professional Scandinavian sides then surely Miller’s achievements in similar conditions are worthy of recognition and respect.
There will be few in England who will recall Miller’s playing career that passed – rapidly – through Whitley Bay, Gillingham, Doncaster and Darlington after coming through Newcastle youths’ system. However in Malta, where he moved as a twenty two year old, it is a completely different matter. Paired with arguably Malta’ finest ever player in Carmel Busuttil, Miller won two league titles, an FA Trophy and a Super Cup. After three success filled years the striker moved to Floriana and it was there, at the age of thirty that he took his first steps in management. Again, success was immediate as he led his team through an unbeaten season that ended with a league and cup double. Another FA Trophy followed the next season whilst another championship was won three years later although by this time he had moved to Sliema Wanderers.
A year later he joined Hibernians but that too turned out to be a relatively short stay as his talents had been noticed by the Malta Football Association and Miller was given the task of managing the national youth teams. Although wins were difficult to come by, during the eight years spent in the national set up Miller’s reputation was enhanced by his ability to help players develop. It was that reputation that made him the ideal candidate to take over at Hibernians, a club looking to rebuild using its florid youth system. Once again, success was immediate as Hibernians surprisingly won the league title in his first year there. A season of transition followed before Miller remodelled the side and was rewarded with another fantastic campaign even though this time second was the best they could achieve.
For all that success, however, it is his current job at Valletta that will probably be the defining appointment of his career. Bankrolled by local businessman Victor Sciriha, Valletta have assembled the strongest squad on the island bringing in the best local players along with top quality – by the league’s standards at least – foreigners. Two years in a row, they’ve have won the Maltese championship losing just one game in the process. At one point, Valletta’s unbeaten run stretched to thirty seven games, a run that, tellingly, was ended by Miller’s Hibernians. Yet that dominance hasn’t been enough. Sciriha is a very ambitious man who wants to win everything. It is that ambition that led him to leave Marsaxlokk, the club from a small seaside town that he transformed into Maltese champions, to go to Valletta who have the biggest support on the island. And it is that ambition that let him to dismiss previous manager Jesmond Zerafa even though he had delivered on almost all counts.
Almost, but not all. There have been two significant blots in Valletta’s track record over these past two years. The first was a defeat in a highly-charged final of the FA Trophy against bitter rivals and neighbours Floriana two year back. The second was last season’s elimination by Qormi at semi-final stage in the same competition in one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history. That defeat denied Valletta the opportunity to take on Hibernians in the final although by that time Miller was no longer in charge: he had been dismissed when, after their own semi-final, the committee there was informed of his desire to take over at Valletta once the season ended. Amid claims and counter-claims, the controversy overshadowed Hibernians’ build-up to the final (that they won comfortably) whilst confirming Valletta’s reputation as a club quick to flash money in order to get what they want.
Regardless, that chain of events mean that it unlikely that Zerafa’s dismissal had much to do with his Trophy defeats and more with the desire to be even better. With his experience in Malta, Miller is seen as someone who won’t have any difficulty settling in. Yet he remains a foreigner and as such someone he will always be perceived as being that little bit more professional and disciplined. Which makes him the ideal man to take the project forward. What that entails is greater than ‘simple’ league wins. Valletta want local success but most of all they’re eyeing history. Each title win edges them closer to Sliema Wanderers’ record 26 league titles (Valletta are currently on 21). Beating that total to become the undisputed kings of Maltese football is what fuels them.
Valletta have perhaps another, unspoken, ambition: the Champions League. Whilst satisfying, local dominance can also become repetitive and it is easy to envisage a point where it becomes boring. Europe is another thing. Traditionally Maltese clubs have struggled on a continental stage but Valletta’s riches means that they’re not really a typical Maltese team. Perhaps more significantly, they’ve seen the progress achieved by Cypriot clubs who up till recently were also considered whipping boys and been encouraged what they’ve done. So Miller has come in to help achieve that. Already this season Valletta ran up what was by far the biggest margin of a win by a Maltese club in European competition when they beat Andorran side Lusitans 8-0. Reality set in when they were drawn against Partizan Belgrade but they hope that eventually they’ll manage to bridge that gap too. Doing that is what Miller has to do. And If he were to manage to achieve that, then it is fair to assume he’d be more regularly mentioned among England’s finest managerial exports.
Paul Grech is the author of Blueprint for Football, a blog that aims a melting pot of ideas about developing players in search of the common ingredients for success. He may also be followed on Twitter here.
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