Bamber Bridge manager Jamie Milligan (right) with assistant and former teammate John Hills. Photo: Bamber Bridge FC

Although long since acquainted with coaching, as 2019 wound down, Jamie Milligan’s managerial start came into clear sight with Bamber Bridge. It marked a return to a club he had already enjoyed success with previously, and just as soon as he gets the chance, the ex-Everton and Blackpool man cannot wait to take this promising beginning off the pause button.

“Phil Jevons at Everton, me and him were really good mates when we were younger, and we had a night out,” Jamie Milligan takes up the story, a decent way into his walk around the coastal surroundings of Lytham St Annes, and a further couple of decades on from this unforgettable escapade.

“We went back to his after, and Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) was asleep in his bed! We were like ‘I can’t believe this’.

“I think what happened was, Gazza was on a night out in Liverpool, got lost, asked some local lads ‘is there any Everton players that live round here?’ He knocked on Jevo’s mum and dad’s door, dad’s let him in, had a few beers with him and put him to bed!”

The high spirits of a night out sent soaring by the discovery upstairs of arguably England’s most gifted footballer in living memory, but even with that, there was no suggestion of turning the tables on one of the ex-Tottenham Hotspur star’s famous pranks and introducing him to a bucket of water. In fact, no real thought of disturbing him at all: “We just left him; just went in a different room. I wasn’t gonna wake Gazza up, he’s a legend!”

From such brushes with elite company, to debuting away at the Premier League champions, coming up at a famous old club was not a bad hand to be dealt, as career groundings go. Given his first-team introduction by Walter Smith, two decades on, Jamie is now a manager in his own right, and fingers crossed, he will never encounter anything to rival the way his first season has ended.

Prior to the shutdown of the game two months ago, and subsequent null and voiding of the season at Steps 3-7 of non-league, his burgeoning tenure as Bamber Bridge boss had given every reason for encouragement. The seasoned midfield campaigner had won promotion to the Northern Premier Division and an NPL Cup with the Lancashire club under Neil Reynolds before later linking up with him at FC United.

The Brig vacancy was one he had initially wanted when Reynolds left in late-2018, and when it sprang up last December after Joey Collins stepped down, so too did acquaintances he never knew he had!

“Yeah, it was a bit mad. I spoke to Reno about it and he said ‘wait for your phone, you’ll never be off it for that first two weeks, you’ll hate it,’ and he was dead right.

“People I’ve never spoke to, people I don’t even know, agents, ‘I’ve got this lad for you.’ It was a bit overawing at times but it’s one of them, you’ve got to get used to it.

“Then it calmed down a bit and I started enjoying it.”

When the noise subsided a little, the ex-Stockport County club captain could also reflect on five wins from the first eight league games, lifting his side away from trouble and naturally leading to glances at a possible gatecrashing of the play-off party. Victories over promotion contenders FC United (3-0) and Lancaster City (3-2) were especially impressive.

A couple of decades spent mixing it at various levels of English football certainly requires some survival instincts, and Jamie knows as well as anybody the harsh realities that exist, but by the same token, an ‘agricultural’ approach will never float his boat.

“When we went in, me and my assistant (ex-Blackpool teammate) John Hills, they were in the relegation zone. The main thing was getting out of it, but I didn’t wanna just go in there and just battle our way out, I want to try and stamp something down there and build something for next season.

“The way we’ve got them playing, the lads have loved it. I’ve said it all along, if I ever got a job, I’m not a ‘win at all costs’ manager; I want to try and build something and for them to turn up to training and enjoy it.

“The way we play, we’re gonna get beat now and again, I accept that. Even the first few games when the lads are making mistakes from what we’re trying to do, I just said to them ‘that’ll be my fault, I’ll take that, because I’m asking you to do it, and we’ll get better at that sort of thing.’

“I’ve loved it since we’ve gone in, absolutely loved it.”

The former Fleetwood Town man was playing at AFC Blackpool before taking the Brig reins. Handling much of the coaching during his previous spell, he believes he was helped by the familiarity he already had with the personnel.

“I think I was lucky that I knew the squad anyway through playing there. There was no sort of ice to break, it was straight in, ‘this is how we’re gonna play, this is how we’re gonna do it.’

“They’ve took to it. At the end of the day, when teams do well, managers will get the plaudits, but it’s all about the players for me.”

On that last point, it was something he saw the value of from the very start.

“I loved my youth-team days when I was at Everton; 16-18, we had the best set of lads and we won the Youth Cup, we won everything. That was probably the best time of my career, and also, probably my late-20s/early-30s when I was at Fleetwood, when we got promoted into the League.

“That was another time we had a good set of lads, and I’m big on that really. You’ve got clubs who’ve got big budgets, I just think if you can get a good set of lads that are together, and build something that way, that can nick you ten points a season.”

If you’re reading Non-League Daily, you probably don’t need convincing of the appeal of the game at this level, though there is no denying that it is a world or two away from a Sky Sports ‘Super Sunday’ game in the Premier League. That, though, was where Jamie’s first game as a professional arrived, in November 1998, as Everton took on an Arsenal side at Highbury who had won the double just a few months earlier.

In truth, that the Toffees only lost 1-0 that day – a teenage Nicolas Anelka on target early on – was something from the minor miracle category, but it was no less memorable for the Blackpool-born 18-year-old who came on after 84 minutes. Who did he replace? Future World Cup winner Marco Materazzi of course.

In opposition when he entered the action were Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit – likely still steadily coming down from World Cup glory with France earlier that year – not to mention the likes of flying Dutchman Marc Overmars, and a young Swede called Fredrik Ljungberg.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” Jamie recalls. “I remember they always put the underfloor heating on in the away changing room, so the changing room was roasting.”

“I got named as a sub – I was training with the first team a while – and you’re coming up against all these players and that was the first time I thought ‘do I belong here?’ I only got on for the last few minutes but I’ll never forget it, it was some experience.”

There would be three more Premier League outings. Coming on at Coventry City, and at Goodison Park against Newcastle United that same month, he would feature at home to Middlesbrough for what was ultimately his final appearance, but would have to wait some 18 months for it.

Like a school leaver, it was into the big, wide world next, and though a move to local club Blackpool brought a Division Three play-off final success over Leyton Orient within a couple of months, the transition from Premier League prospect to Football League was anything but accommodating. Jamie explains as he is asked about the approach from a manager he feels got the best from him.

“In our younger days, we had a coach/manager called Colin Harvey, who’s an Everton legend, and he was so strict with you, but you’d also love him. I think that’s so hard to get as a manager; players to be scared of you but get on with you.

“He got the best out of us when we were young lads, and when I left Everton, went to Blackpool, I sort of stopped working hard, which had been taught to me from an early age. When you go from that Premier League club to stepping down, it’s so hard to adapt, mentally as well.

“At the time, I wasn’t strong enough mentally for it, that sort of football. Later on, Micky Mellon grabbed me (at Fleetwood), and he got me going again, got me working hard and doing the things I’m good at.”

That time with Blackpool also ended with a stark taste of just how much of a sudden uppercut the game can give you sometimes. His manager at the time was Steve McMahon, Liverpool great and one of the select few to represent England at a World Cup, though even an unquestionable understanding of the game does not necessarily mean being adept at managing players and people. Jamie offers his thoughts on working with the former midfielder.

“I didn’t mind him. When I first went there, he was good, because he was all about the ball, because he grew up playing football, ‘that’s how we’re gonna play,’ and we had some really good players there.

“Man-management I don’t think was great, to be honest, but that’s one of them. I remember knocking on his office and asking about why I’m not playing instead of somebody else, and that was me finished.

“That sort of thing, that one conversation, finishes you.”

The most testing spell, however, was actually some years later, and interestingly enough, during a time of success, with a team up the coast making it to the Football League.

“I think it was when Fleetwood went full-time. That was a little bit of a nightmare for me, that, because I’d built up my business, with the academy (a multi-sports coaching company with ex-Everton colleague Gavin McCann), and that was going really well.

“What they were offering at the time, I didn’t really wanna go full-time and sacrifice my business, so I sort of had to leave, when I didn’t wanna leave. I signed for AFC Fylde after that; it was alright but my heart wasn’t in it there.

“Luckily enough, (Fleetwood chairman, Andy) Pilley came back and said ‘what would it take for you to come back?’ sort of thing, and we sorted something out and I ended up going back there. That sort of time there, though, it wasn’t great, and when I went back to Fleetwood, I’d done my knee as well, so I was out for eight/nine months straight away.

“So, that was probably my worst time as a footballer, I think.”

Despite the cautionary ‘no friends in football’ saying, if you are fortunate enough, the game can undoubtedly give you some lasting rapports with people. With ex-England international Trevor Sinclair, Jamie currently runs Pro Direct Academy Lancashire, centred on helping 16-21-year-olds build a career through football education, with pathways into the professional and non-league game.

Then there is a former top-flight frontman who lent a helping hand at Bamber Bridge this season. The Blackpool player who made it 4-2 in that aforementioned play-off final win just before Jamie came on – set up, incidentally, by current Brig assistant John Hills – will hopefully be around again next season.

“I’ve known Brett (Ormerod) for years, me and Hillsy played together with him, so I just wanted to get him back involved really. I know he went through a tough time the last few years but he’s one of the nicest lads.

“You won’t meet someone who says a bad word about Brett; they might say a bad word about his gear! But he’s one of the most down-to-earth lads you’ll ever meet, so I was dying to get him back involved.

“I’m sure he will (be involved next season).”

Speaking of old connections, Jamie added to attacking options like leading scorer and club favourite Alistair Waddecar with the signing of Richie Allen in December. The former Salford City and Fleetwood Town man fits the maverick mould as well as anyone, but as those who have worked with him know, the ability is beyond question.

“I’ve played with Richie at Fleetwood, so I’ve known Richie quite well that way and I know what he’s like,” Jamie explained. “When I first got the job, I had to sign him and get him going again, because he’s still at a good age.”

“I was just dead honest with him and I said ‘I’ve been your mate for years, I know what you’re like, you know what I’m like, if you come in and work, I’ll look after you financially.’ The first two-to-four weeks, he was absolutely brilliant.

“He rocks up now and again to training and you don’t see him for the hour! If he can pull his finger out on a Saturday then I’ll let that go.

“It’s one of them, Richie’s Richie, you’ve just got to let him be, but he’s some talent.”

Spending some time on understanding players, he believes, carries far more value than just opening the cheque book, as idealistic as that may sometimes seem when a club can blow everyone else out of the water in a division. Jamie makes the point as he is asked if this time for introspection in football overall could instigate a lasting change in non-league.

“I love non-league football, I really do, but I just think there’s quite a few non-league clubs paying silly money, and they can’t sustain it; the amount of clubs that have gone bust through that. I don’t think the money side is as massive in non-league, I honestly don’t; I just think coach them, make the players better, do it that way.

“I just think it’s a bit lazy sometimes, but South Shields have done it well. They’re a really good club, I’ve come across them quite a few times, I know the managers.

“They do pay good money but they do it right; I know for a fact they do it right because I spoke to them in good length. I think that money side, though, clubs have got to be careful, especially now, not to overpay.

“With a club like Bamber Bridge, it’s no hidden secret, there’s not a lot of money there, but it’s an absolute belting club. The clubhouse is brilliant, the people involved are brilliant, and there’s a new chairman (Brian Ginty) in place now and I’ve spoken to him a few times.

“He’s trying to push different things and trying to get money in a different way and trying to make the club better.”

From footballing icons crashing out upstairs (more of him in the accompanying Q&A to this below…), to promotions, disappointments, and on to a first step into management, there are countless experiences for Jamie to draw upon. He feels he has a lot to give, and can’t wait to get back to doing just that.

In ordinary circumstances (remember them?), there would be precious little time for him to spare, which in plenty of respects, is no bad thing.

“I love playing golf, and just normal stuff – going out with the lads, few beers – but I’m so full on. I’ve got my scholarship programme I do with Trevor Sinclair as well and that’s every day of the week.

“I’ve got my own business on the side of that, managing as well, my two lads at home, my wife. I hardly ever see my family, to be fair, as with a lot of managers.”

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A, and you can find Jamie’s here…

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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