Photo: Bamber Bridge FC

It was back in May that we last caught Bamber Bridge boss Jamie Milligan, out on a walk around Lytham St Annes at the time, during the initial national lockdown. The former Everton prospect reflected on a playing career that included Premier League beginnings, Football League action at Blackpool and Fleetwood Town, and returning from a night out to discover a certain England legend and unexpected guest asleep upstairs.

The ex-Stockport County club captain also spoke in detail about the first few months of life as a manager. Seven months later, and into a new season, the foundation remains the same – he relishes watching his Brig team play and taking on board the style he has implemented. He doesn’t, though, gloss over just how uncertain and arduous a season this has been so far, even before results enter the equation.

Here is firsthand insight into non-league managerial life in 2020/21, and more specifically, at a ‘non-elite’ level…

 

We’re talking as the Northern Premier League season remains currently on hold, what have you been able to do with the squad the last few weeks? Has it been much different to during the first lockdown?

We pretty much can’t do anything, like any other non-league team in our position, I imagine. All we can do is set the lads runs to do, that they do on their own; whether they do it or not, it’s out of my hands, they can only do it for themselves. All I can say is after the last lockdown, they came back like absolute Rag Arse Rovers! It’s expected. If that was me and I was still playing now, and I had to go and push myself on my own, I know I couldn’t do it. I needed someone with me, or a team or a group, to do it with me.

With the overall uncertainty game to game, having to pull out of the FA Cup (in September due to a positive COVID test), the drawbacks of crowds being compromised, even just taking results out of it, have you been able to enjoy this season?

Not really, no, not one bit. The first game, we won; brilliant, I enjoyed it, got off to a great start, and then it just slowly went downhill after that. We’ve lost the last seven games on the bounce, I think, in the league, and it’s disappointing losing that many games back-to-back, but we haven’t been battered, we haven’t played badly. We played well against South Shields, got beat, we’ve been nicked by odd goals here and there, mistakes just costing us at the minute. We’re not doing our job at the other end, finishing our chances, and everything just seemed to go against us at that time. It was tough, because when the lads came back after the main lockdown, within that first week, we had three games, I think, without really any proper training. Then the next week, we got nine injuries, and two lads isolating. We were down to 11 players, I had to get two academy lads, 16-year-olds, just to make the numbers up, and Atherton beat us. I’m not taking anything away from them, we were just that low on numbers that there wasn’t a lot we could have done.

Paint the picture of what a match day has been like this season, compared to last. What do you now have to do at the ground, what can’t you do, what have you got to be wary of, and so on?

Yeah, when you go in, normally you’d go and sit down in the changing room, have a laugh with the lads, and you just can’t do that. You can only have certain numbers in the changing room at a certain time, the rest have got to go and wait outside. I’ve got to try and do my team talks on the pitch. It’s just hard, it’s not great, but every manager’s in the same boat. It’s the same for everyone but it’s not ideal.

Have you seen any effect on the players this season, just as people? Does that come into it, where you’re noticing lads finding it tough, or even just other coaches/players you know in the game?

Yeah, totally agree with all that, I’ve seen a difference in the players, 100 per cent, physically and mentally. That’s tough, to pick the players up, because you don’t really know what’s happening at home with them, because we only have them for two days a week. When you’re in a full-time environment, you’ve got sports psychologists, fitness coaches, you’ve got everything to keep an eye on these players and find out what it’s like when they go away from the training ground. We don’t have that, because we don’t see them as much. I spoke to managers in our league as well; a few of them are struggling.

In terms of receiving that important information/key announcements that massively affect your planning as a club, what has been your own experience of that over the past nine months? Are you getting told the necessary stuff in good time or are you generally left wondering what’s going on?

I think the sense of it – and a lot of managers would say the same – is we’ve been a bit left in the dark; we don’t really know what’s going on, quick enough. There’ll be a decision made on a Thursday that we’re playing on a Saturday, and no disrespect to our level, I think we’re getting a bit left in the cold with it all. Higher up, they’re getting financial help, but we’re getting nothing, because we’re not classed as elite; if you’re gonna class Conference North as elite football, something’s wrong. It’s young kids as well, the way they stopped grassroots football, it’s an absolute joke. The young kids have suffered so much through all of this, young grassroots players, and it’s the same with them, it’s a joke, all of it.

To what extent have you had to adapt the work you do away from the club, with for example, the academy you run with Trevor Sinclair (Pro Direct Academy Lancashire)?

Well, my own (multi-sports coaching company) business, that me and Gavin McCann have run for years, that’s been down since the first lockdown. We’ve not been back in the schools at all, so I’ve got three or four part-time coaches to try and look after, who are self-employed, which has been tough as well. We’ve just had zero income, because of it all, and it’s not the schools’ fault, they’re just getting told by the government that it can’t happen. Mine and Trevor’s scholarship programme, that’s still going, it’s never really stopped; odd weeks here and there, because it’s an education programme, but we’re still training every day. It’s great for us, but I can’t see the difference between one and the other, it’s strange.

You talked last time about the phone ringing non-stop when you became a manager, is that happening just as much, or maybe even more, this season?

Pre-season was the most hectic I’ve ever found it in football. Just getting lads in, getting offered lads to come in, money, it was a nightmare. This has been not as bad, but still bad, because you’ve got players phoning you up all the time, ‘When we starting back up? Am I still gonna get paid?’ I can’t give them any answers, that’s the worst bit for me, because I wouldn’t lie to any of them. It has been really hard, but like I say, all the managers at this level are in the same boat.

In terms of having that mix of youth and experience in the squad, the likes of George Thomason before Bolton called him back, then someone like Scott Burton at the other end of the scale, how happy have you been with the balance in that sense?

The experience of Scott is priceless but he’s been injured, so I’ve not been able to use him like I’d want. Then you’ve got the young lads, and I’m more than happy with all of them. The blend’s really good, but there’s always something that’s seemed to go against us. One week we won’t have them fit, one week we won’t have Scott fit; we’ve never really got all our best players on the pitch at the same time yet.

How tempted have you been to throw yourself back in there?!

Yeah, most games, to be fair! I said at the start when I took it that I wouldn’t do that, and there have been games where I could throw myself on for 20 minutes and try and keep the ball a bit better, but I said from the start I wouldn’t do that.

Mark Yeates was an interesting signing, given the level he’s played at not all that many years ago. Is he with you currently, or was it a shorter-term arrangement?

Yeah, he’s still with us, and I’ve said to him ‘come in, get fit, and then see what happens; if someone higher up comes in for you, brilliant.’ He’s enjoyed the training, he’s loved it, he’s a great lad and the lads love him, but it’s been hard for him because he’s come out of full-time football to then not having a wage. It’s hard as well, I suffered the same when I came out of full-time football, your fitness goes. It’s tough, and it’s tough to train on your own and keep yourself fit.

We spoke in May when you were out walking, what have you been enjoying doing outside football lately? How’s life in general been, given the obvious circumstances?

Do you know what? It’s felt worse this time around, this last month or so. It was a bit newer last time and I think everyone’s got a bit sick of it all now, the way there’s different rules here and there. The health and that side of it is the most important thing, but it’s getting a bit much now, to be honest.

Finally, let’s leave it on a bright note. What gives you hope and enthusiasm that this can still be a good season? What feels like real plus points to be focusing on, in a general sense?

I’d love it if they’d just drop the tiers, the vaccine’s come out, and we can gradually get back to normal and get fans watching football, because the fans struggle as well. We’ve got a lot of older people who come and watch, and that’s their day out. It’d be great just to get back playing. I love watching the lads play, I said that to them the last game we had. They’ve took to it and they enjoy playing that way. We’ve just had little mistakes that have absolutely killed us the last six or seven games. You’ve just got to get on with it, but I love watching the lads play and perform, I love watching it on a Saturday, and I just wish we could get going back to normal.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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