Lee Miller is currently in the midst of his third spell at Falkirk. This time however, he is back in a player/co-manager role along side former teammate and former club captain David McCracken and his career has come full circle from when he first started his career at Falkirk 20 years ago.
Reflecting on a career that saw him play with a number of big clubs as well as playing in European competitions and getting involved with the international setup, Lee takes us back to where it all started as a teenager trying to make his way in football:
“My first memories are from when I was at Boy’s Club level, under 14s, with my local club, Wishaw Boy’s Club. Scouts come out to watch us and they took a few players to train with Falkirk. I was one of them along with a couple of others. I would go on a Friday night to train on the astro turf at Brockville with Ian McIntyre who I’ve got a great relationship with.
“I used to train there, play games, the odd tournament here and there and it kind of just went from there. I was still at school at the time and was thought of as one of the better players along with a couple of others. We eventually got our Youth Training Scheme (YTS), with a professional contract as well so as soon as we left school we were straight into it.”
Last week David McCracken told us how different the upbringing of young players was back when he was breaking through, how much he enjoyed it, and how it shaped him as a player. Lee’s view is no different. Youth players had a tough time trying to make something of themselves and would find themselves doing the more menial jobs, often receiving rough treatment from those around them. Despite all that Lee remembers his time with the youth team as being some of the best days of his life:
“They’re the best days of your life in the youth team, they really are. You were getting paid cash in hand at the end of the week and it was actually Sarah Scott who used to hand me my wages every week, she’s now doing all the Junior Bairns stuff.
“It’s mad to think back to how it was all done. My dad would drop me off at the train station, I’d get the train into Falkirk to train and do jobs. It’s totally changed for youth players coming through, we had kitchen duty, we’d sweep the corridors, mop the changing rooms, everything down to the physio room.
“We had to tidy that too, and if it wasn’t tidied properly the physio, who was Alec McQueen at the time, would just set about you. There was a kind of prison gym in Brockville, and he’d say, “right, into the gym, lights out, let’s go for it”, and he just used to batter all the young boys and it was hilarious, it was an upbringing that was totally different to what it is now. There was a respect there, if you went into the first team changing room you would get shouted at, slagged, sometimes you’d get a clip round the ear, and it was all part of growing up and growing into a first team player.”
One reason that Lee enjoyed being at Falkirk so much at the beginning was the number of more experienced players at the club who he could learn from, and he seemed to be one of the younger players that was well liked among the older players. One first team player in particular stood out as a role model:
“Mark Kerr was like a big brother to all the younger ones coming through because he’d been in the first team as a young boy doing his thing, doing really well. You’d get asked now and again to go and train with the first team if you were doing well and he would make sure you were looked after, make sure you were alright, and he’s always been like that throughout his career.
“It was such a good experience because there were a lot of older pros there like Jamie McQuilken, Colin McDonald, Kevin Christie, Davie Nichols – he used to terrorise the young boys. I was one the well liked ones because when I did go up into the first team I held my own, I was a cheeky wee swine when I was younger so I had a bit of swagger about me and I think a lot of the pros respected that.”
“These guys were seasoned pros, if you weren’t doing your job properly, you were told in an aggressive manner and the next time you’d do it properly. That’s kind of gone out of the game a bit I would say. Even from watching Mark Kerr, the way he trained, the way he’d treat the young boys, he always included everybody and I took that on throughout my whole career. When I went down to Bristol City I was one of the younger ones down there but I would always speak to the young boys and give them advice, I always found it was very beneficial for them. I think it’s good to treat everybody the same way. Don’t be arrogant, yes be confident, have confidence in your ability but treat people the way you want to be treated.
It was obvious that Lee was good enough to break into the first team even at such a young age and it didn’t take long for him to be offered a chance, which came along during his second YTS season:
“I made it into the first team during my second season of YTS. The boys who deserved a chance would be taken to away games to rub shoulders with the first team, get used to the environment, carry the hampers, clean the boots, get the balls sorted, all that kind of stuff. It just so happened that I got my chance against Ross County. I’d been doing well in the reserves and the first team had suffered from suspensions and injuries. Alex Totten, who was the manager at the time, put me on up front. I was always a midfielder in those days, I had played up front a couple of times but I was always a box to box midfielder. He said, “can Lee Miller play upfront” and I said “I’ll play anywhere, I don’t care where I’m playing, I’m in the first team, brilliant.”
“So I started against Ross County and we won 4-2, I didn’t score unfortunately but I got Man of the Match and it was such an unbelievable experience. From that day on I was never on the bench, I always started games, which was weird because I’d never made a substitute appearance, before that game I’d only made an appearance in a testimonial. I was chucked in at the deep end and it was sink or swim, fortunately I swam really well.”
Following on from his debut against Ross County, Falkirk ended up finishing the season under bizarre circumstances due to the liquidation of Airdrie. Despite finishing the season at the wrong end of the table, Lee was still on a high as a result of his good performances. However, a new season would bring about changes at the club that spurred Falkirk on to a incredibly successful campaign which was a stark contrast to the previous season:
“We ended up getting relegated that year but stayed up because Airdrie went bust, so it was a strange experience. I was on a high, I was buzzing, I was loving life. We won a good few games, but I was playing really well and getting noticed and there were teams talking about me and it was great.
“The following season Ian McCall came in. We had the likes of Coyle, Yogi, Kevin James, so many quality players came in and we absolutely strolled the league and I was absolutely flying. Alex Totten was great though, he gave me my chance and he was proper old school, I’ve got a great relationship with Alex to this day.
“I really liked Ian McCall, he took a shine to me. He was more sarcastic and had some good banter about him. When he left, Owen Coyle and Yogi were in charge which was great but I never really thought about it at the time because I was just playing my football and I never thought too much about different things around the club, I just wanted to play football and polish off the league. It was an unbelievable season.”
Despite winning the league that season, Falkirk didn’t get promoted due to Brockville not fitting the criteria for an acceptable Premier League ground. Falkirk unfortunately remained in the first division after the 12 top tier clubs voted against Falkirk ground sharing with Airdrie. As a result of that frustrating end to the season, a few players, including Lee, wanted to move on and find a new challenge:
“The way I left Falkirk, It was just one of those things. I was doing really well, playing really well, with good players. At the end of the season, after we won the league, everybody seemed to be going and I thought, “wait a minute, I don’t really want to be left behind here.” We weren’t bringing in players of the same quality and I thought, “I’m doing really well here, my stock’s high, I need to move on to a new challenge.” I ended up handing in a transfer request which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I loved the club, I loved the fans, I loved everything about it and they gave me my chance but I felt it was time for a fresh challenge and a fresh start.
“We were on a pre-season trip in the Czech Republic, playing pre-season games and my head was all over the place. The fans were singing my name and there was talk about me going different places and at the time I thought “I’d love to stay, I’d love to go and win the league again”, but the whole disappointment of winning the league but not getting promoted affected a lot of people involved with the cub and I was one of them. I just wanted to ply my trade elsewhere.”
Wanting a fresh start led to Lee moving down south for a couple of years before coming back to Scotland to turn out for Hearts. A great start at Hearts and a string of great performances attracted the interest of Walter Smith who gave Lee a call up to the Scotland squad:
“When I came back up from Bristol I went to Hearts and I hit the ground running, everything I touched was a goal. I was playing really well and the fans loved me and there was talk about going to different clubs and that’s when I got the opportunity and Walter Smith chose me for the Scotland Squad. I was always kind of in and about it from there on in. I never played, never came on or anything but I was training with the best players in Scotland, I was loving it. If I was ever asked to go with Scotland I never ever called off because I loved going away with these top quality players, rubbing shoulders with them, asking them for advice and just watching how they trained. Barry Ferguson, Darren fletcher, all these pros that were at the highest level, I’d watch them and the demands they put on everybody and the quality they had as players and people. That was a big experience and I loved my time with Scotland.”
After his loan spell at Hearts and a season with Dundee United, Lee moved further north to Aberdeen. Lee found quite a bit of success in the north-east and is still fondly remembered by Aberdeen fans. In 2008 He finished the season as Aberdeen’s top scorer and scored against Rangers to secure a European spot for his team:
“In terms of turning out for Aberdeen and playing in Europe, I came a long way from getting relegated in the first division, staying up, winning the first division, staying down, it was mad the way my first couple of seasons went. The Aberdeen days, being in Europe, was obviously one of the biggest highlights of my career. It went really well and I held my own in Europe against top quality players and it was a fantastic experience.”
After another few spells south of the border and a stint with Kilmarnock, Lee got the opportunity to come back to Falkirk having been away for 12 years. Lee missed Falkirk during his time away and often thought about returning. When the opportunity came in 2015, he could’t refuse:
“While I was away, Falkirk results were always the ones I’d check for. Because I started at the club and I’ve got such an affiliation with the fans and the club I always thought about going back. When the opportunity came up I was excited, I was like a school boy going back to school. I was brought through during the Brockville days and even though I’d been back and played at the Falkirk Stadium, but I hadn’t been as a player for Falkirk so it was different in that respect. The people behind the scenes, the likes of Alex Totten, Jean that does the 50/50, Sarah Scott, there were loads of people that were still there who were there when I was coming up as a boy and it was like going back home, it was such a nice feeling being welcomed back by the fans as well.
“Falkirk is a family experience. It’s a family oriented club, it’s always been like that. It runs throughout the whole club, the background staff, everything to do with it has always been geared towards that. Falkirk fans love having a young player coming through to say he’s one of our own, coming through the academy and we’re hopefully going to try and bring that back at some point because that was a massive thing for us and for Falkirk in general.
“I think it’s a special place and everybody will tell you it’s more than a football club and the stuff they do out with it is incredible too.”
Now, back again for the third time, Lee and his fellow co-manager David McCracken are doing the best they can to take the club they love back to the top of Scottish football:
“I’ve played with Cracks at a few clubs, we’ve always had a good relationship as friends and it’s mad how things end up working out.
“You always put pressure on yourself no matter what but the fact that the club means so much to us, it’s important, we want to do the best we can because we feel the club should be up in the biggest league. To me, the club is a sleeping giant and we should be up playing in the premier league.”