14 days have passed since the sun-drenched Ta’ Qali National Stadium played host to Hibernians’ title-clinching victory over St. Andrews FC. That victory meant a 12th Maltese Premier League trophy for the club, who this season were guided to glory by Head Coach Mark Miller, a native of Newcastle, England.
Miller has spent 24 years in Malta – a small, central Mediterranean country, located a short ferry ride from the Italian island of Sicily. During that time, he has played and coached his way to four Maltese Premier League titles, two Maltese Cups, and one Maltese Super Cup, and managed Malta’s national U17 and U21 teams.
The 54-year-old former Newcastle United youth player has attended a number of PSC’s combines and tours in recent years, helping an abundance of PSC players secure trials and contracts with European clubs. And with his side due to enter the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League later this summer, Miller will be on the lookout for talented players to add to his squad when he attends PSC’s upcoming Pro Soccer Combines in New Jersey and Florida.
We recently caught up with Mark to find out about the previous Pro Soccer Combine attendees he’s brought over to Malta, his team’s preparations ahead of the Champions League qualifying rounds, the advice he can give to aspiring professionals, and much more.
Champions: The 2016/17 Hibernians FC players and staff pose proudly with the Maltese Premier League trophy.
Hi, Mark. Congratulations on securing the 2016/17 Maltese Premier League title. What do you put this season’s success down to?
We were the most consistent team in a very inconsistent league. My team stuck together and always bounced back from their setbacks. We were a good group with a good attitude and always had a great approach to games and training sessions. We adapted to various situations with players being suspended or injured and we still managed to get results. Our game model was 1-4-3-3 but we played 1-4-4-2 [a diamond midfield] and it was quite flexible.
How would you compare the standard of Maltese football to the level in the USA and England?
It’s always difficult to compare countries – it depends on several factors – but in Malta we are allowed seven foreign players to play and an unlimited amount to be registered. Games [in the Maltese Premier League] are becoming harder to win and teams are far more evenly matched than before, so the league is tough.
In 2015 Maltese Premier League side Birkirkara progressed to the third qualifying round of the Europa League and defeated English Premier League side West Ham United in the second leg to level proceedings on aggregate. West Ham won the tie after a penalty shootout. This demonstrates the rising standards of Maltese football.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSIoLb4-tKg (West Ham vs Birkirkara highlights).
Every country has its own style of football: in Malta it’s very tactical – teams are analysed well and the coaches have good strategies. With the increase of foreigners playing in the league it has has improved. Culture plays a big part at any level of football, but I feel the more professional you can be, the more you will improve.
What are your preparations ahead of the upcoming Champions League qualifiers?
We recently played our final game of the 2016/17 campaign and will take time to celebrate the league title win. Now, we will rest for three weeks and begin training on May 28. After that, it’ll be just four weeks until our first Champions League game – scheduled for June 28 – I will try to operate a small training camp, but it is difficult as we have players on international duty in early June. It all depends on the draw and where we have to travel: we don’t find out who our opponents are until the June 20 – so preparation and analysis of the other team will have to be completed in eight days. Other preparations will be put on hold while I’m in the States with PSC, looking for potential players to add to my squad.
It’s important to be well-prepared heading into the European qualifiers. We need all of our players to be fit – we’ll have a few extra players with us as they return from loan spells so that makes our squad a little bit more competitive. An extended run in Europe will also bring some much-needed funds into the club – which is always welcomed by the administration.
Hibernians’ players and staff enjoying an open-top bus title celebration.
You’ve been to PSC events in the USA and Europe, signing, trialing, and assisting a number of players. How do you benefit when attending our events?
The combines are great. There is always a talent somewhere and if I can help the player progress and live his dream of coming to Malta and playing in Europe then so be it. The PSC events are a great chance for me to add players to my squad. My track record shows that if I see a player I like, then I usually try to make a move possible. Since I have been at Hibernians I’ve brought in three players from PSC, and most recently we looked at Saalih Muhammad, who we really liked and got to see play against St Gallen, Dusseldorf and during PSC’s Malta Showcase Tour, which I assisted with in January. It’s a great chance for players who are looking for a club to be seen by myself and other clubs who attend the events, hoping to find talent for their teams.
For me, coming to the events also means I meet new people and coaches and we can share our own experiences, making new friends and contacts.
You’ve been working with PSC for a number of years now and have known Paul Taylor (PSC Managing Director) since your time as a professional player in the 1980s in England. Can you tell us a little about your background as a player and different experiences in England, Finland, and Malta?
I played in England many years ago and things have changed so much since my time there: the facilities, the coaching education, and salaries have all drastically improved. I recently returned from a trip to Aston Villa for two days to meet former Manchester United defender Steve Bruce, who I played with back in the 1980s at Gillingham. I was lucky enough to see how Steve’s group of players operate as a team and was able to get a good look at the facilities on offer. There is always something to learn, always new friends to meet, and always new contacts to make, no matter how much experience you have.
For the majority of my career, I played as a winger, before plying my trade in central midfield. I was a player-coach for around five years – which in today’s game would be difficult. I started my coaching license at the age of 26, and by the age of 30, I had the highest qualification available at that time from the English FA.
I think I was lucky because I worked and experienced different cultures, continuously having to adapt. Malta is small, but I played and coached over 50 games in the Europa League with the local teams. I was the national team coach for nine years – working in coaching education and with the youth national teams from under 17 to under 21 levels. On my last count, I worked out that I had coached over 90 international games.
Gustavo Villalobos during PSC’s 2015 Ireland Showcase Tour v Cork City, where he was spotted by Mark Miller.
One of the players you assisted within their professional career was Gustavo Villalobos, who was a success in Malta and is now progressing in the USL with Orange County SC. What are the benefits for American players starting their careers in Europe within countries such as Malta?
The benefits vary, you can use Malta as a platform into Europe but first, you need to establish yourself and do well here. Life here in Malta is good but we are so close to the great European nations that the doors can open at any time. If the player is motivated and hungry he will be successful one way or another. It’s good to taste another culture: adapting and challenging yourself – there is always something to learn.
Gus [Gustavo Villalobos] did fantastic for me, he is such a great lad. I try to keep in touch with him and he did really well for Pembroke and Qormi out here. He is a good example of someone who kept working hard after a few setbacks in his career, and I am delighted to see him doing well with Orange County.
We understand that you’ve just completed your UEFA Pro License after two years. Can you tell us a little about the course and some of the experiences that came along the way during the course?
The country worked hard to bring the license to Malta, normally we would have to travel to Italy or England to get this licence but it’s so difficult to get on the course due to such high demands. It took almost two years for me to complete, and I must say it was the hardest thing I have ever done. To go back to school at my age was not easy – the license was tough and very complex.
We traveled to Belgium and watched how the club and international teams work. We were fortunate enough to meet and interview the national coach [Roberto Martinez] and technical director. They have their game model and develop this into a tactical periodization – it was all very interesting. We traveled to Italy and watched the professional clubs and how they prepare for a week’s training ahead of a weekend game.
UEFA brought four countries together in their Nyon [Switzerland] headquarters to share experiences and put us through tests. We had to prepare a presentation in front of all of the countries participants, analyzing a team competing in the Champions League. We then made a training program to demonstrate how we would play against the opponent, before putting together a practice session to show the end product of our work.
I was fortunate enough to construct the practice session representing Malta. It was tough, and having the weight of the whole country on my shoulders was not easy, but the experience was great. The course was broken down into 12 modules – each consisting of a minimum of 35 hours. We also had to make a 10-week tactical periodization model and write a dissertation on a chosen topic, before a presentation of our thesis and training model. The exam was staged over three days and began with analyzing a match and then finding a way to play against the featured opponent. Day two was theory-based and focused on many of the things we had learned over the duration of the course. As you can guess, it was really tough and it took us out of our comfort zone, but I guess this is how we improve. My thesis was based on leadership and was titled ‘The Modern-Day Manager’. If anybody is interested in reading my thesis I would be more than happy to post a copy.
Mark Miller sharing his knowledge during PSC’s 2016 Portugal and Spain Showcase Tour.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring professional players coming out to PSC events this summer? What can they do to impress you and other coaches?
For me, there are three main areas all players should focus on: attitude, respect and work ethic. In addition, players should listen and observe – it’s free, it costs nothing. You must be like a sponge – take all advice in, process it, then decide what’s good for you. All coaches want to work with players who are coachable, and it’s very important players demonstrate they are coachable during the three days we get to work with them during the combines.
Thank you for your time, Mark. We looking forward to seeing you again this June in New Jersey and Florida!
It was a pleasure. See you soon!
This article was written by Joe Angove – a sports journalist currently working with PSC. Joe’s work has been published and broadcast by The Independent, the BBC, Goal.com, and Plymouth Argyle FC, among other news outlets and sports clubs.