'Backroom guy' Miller now leading from the front as Academy chairman
Pat Miller’s connection to Wick Academy goes back four and a half decades. In that time he has been goalkeeper, player/manager, co-manager during the club’s first season in the Highland League, manager in his own right, general manager, kitman, physio and, in his sixties, “apprentice groundsman”. Now he is getting to grips with a role he never expected to have – as club chairman.
“I’m a backroom guy, I’m the boy from the boot room, as you might call it, so coming into this position has been a wee bit of a shock and I’ve been trying to play catch-up,” says Miller, sitting in the boardroom at an otherwise deserted Harmsworth Park on a midweek night.
“I’ll never class myself as ‘the boss’. I’ll just class myself as part of a committee that wants to do as much as we can for Wick Academy. We’re all volunteers. We’ve got to keep people happy – supporters, managers, coaches. It’s not about one person. A chairman is just a figurehead."
The emphasis is on progression. Academy finished a creditable seventh in the table in 2018/19 and the target for the new campaign will be to push higher, aiming for the top four.
At the same time, Miller (66) will be looking to continue the work of his predecessors in developing youth football through Caithness United and the successful Academy under-17s – who were recently crowned as SHFL U17 North champions for a second year in a row. He is also making moves to build stronger links with the county’s North Caledonian and summer league clubs.
“Because we finished seventh this year we will be looking for progression,” Miller says. “This is not coming from me as an individual – this is coming from us, the committee, and the goal obviously is to do better than the season before.
“We all know football is a fickle game. Two injuries could put the kibosh on the whole thing, or two great signings and you’re flying.
“But there will be an emphasis on getting better. If it’s one place better or four better, fine. But it’ll be about getting into a better position.”
Several promising teenagers established themselves in the first-team squad during the latter part of last season and Miller sees this trend continuing.
“The hard part just now for them is sitting on the bench because they want to play football,” he says.
“Wick Academy since my first days have always tried to develop youth football, and I’m happy to say that we always have done that. In my time [as manager] I was lucky that I got seven guys in one season from the under-18s – it was an under-18 team in those days. Seven guys in one season is near enough unheard of – I think Manchester United maybe were the last team to do it!
“We will always want to develop youth football. Donald Allan is our youth coordinator now and he is a really good liaison man. Donald is working well and he’s developing the relationships a lot more.
Wick Academy since my first days have always tried to develop youth football.
“The progression is there. When the under-15s finish with Caithness United, inevitably most of them come to the Wick Academy under-17s. Our biggest problem is that 17 to first team is a major hurdle.”
Meanwhile, manager Tom McKenna and his co-assistant managers Richard Hughes and Ross Suttar all have their contracts up for renewal and Miller will be sitting down with them soon.
A highlight of the season just past was an eight-game unbeaten league run between early January and late March. The Scorries also reached the semi-finals of the Highland League Cup. Against that, there was the frustration of too many points dropped against teams in the lower half of the table – but Miller insists the club will never make unreasonable demands of managers and coaches.
“I can safely say that anybody that gets the manager’s job with Wick Academy won’t be looking over his shoulder because of a bad result. A bad season is another matter. But when we appoint people there’s a lot of thought goes into what we do,” he says.
“We’ve been lucky. Tom isn’t actually from Caithness, but he lives in Caithness and that’s the first one we’ve had for a few years. We’ve been prepared to go down the line to look for managers because of the qualifications of the guys. Kirky [Davie Kirkwood], Barry [Wilson], Gordy [Connelly], they’ve all had experience that a manager in Caithness doesn’t get.
“It’s always nice to do well but we wouldn’t be running with the knives out if we had a string of bad results. It’s over what happens in a season, not what happens over a couple of weeks.”
Miller himself knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end when the knives have been out under previous Academy regimes. He has spoken in the past of his dismay at being “dumped” as manager and, famously, “stabbed in the back”. Yet after every setback he has returned to serve the club in one capacity or another. It shows great loyalty – helped by a healthy tendency not to bear grudges.
“Life’s too short, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “Carrying things like that, it would just murder you inside, wouldn’t it?”
Miller was appointed as chairman after James Innes announced he was standing down. Other boardroom changes saw Stewart Gunn coming in as vice-chairman and Mel Roger as secretary.
“The manager is sorting players and training sessions and games and I’m doing the other side of it now, trying to make sure that we’ve got buses and we’ve got people who are going to turn up to go on the gates,” says Miller, emphasising that it’s a very much collective effort by everyone at the club.
"For me, being the chairman is all about delegation.
"It’s actually a well-oiled machine. And the secretary has got to be well clued up just because of the SFA rules and regulations that they’re sticking on us.”
The priorities were different when Miller became player/manager in the mid-eighties, 10 years before the club’s aspiration of playing Highland League football became a reality.
“I’d be up here lining the park, putting the nets up, and I never saw a soul. I used to get Dave Geddes, Ali Mackay, whoever I could find to give me a hand because in those days it was sawdust that you put on the lines,” Miller recalls. “So you had to go down to Rob Sutherland [at the Wick woodyard] in the morning and get two bags of sawdust and we had a little hopper thing that did the lines.
“I realised I wasn’t doing myself or the team any favours as player/manager, even though I was still a better goalkeeper than the guy I took in. But it was better to be on the sidelines if you were dropping people, shouting at people.
“We weren’t in the best of straits. By the time I’d been maybe five years as manager we only had about five of a committee. In fact I used to press people to come to an AGM – I was dragging people along.”
Miller and John MacDonald were co-managers in Academy’s debut Highland League campaign in 1994/95, although that arrangement lasted just one season. Miller had thrown himself into the task of getting Harmsworth Park up to the required standard, including helping to dismantle a grandstand and pylons at Inverness Thistle’s redundant ground and take them up the road to be installed at Wick.
On the park, the team put on a respectable showing once they’d adjusted to the step up from the North Caledonian League. Academy attracted big crowds and gained plenty of goodwill from the community.
“When they got rid of us after the first season in the Highland League, that was the only time I really thought, ‘That’s it, I’ve had a good time.’
“I was a wee bit upset because the people that were on the committee at the time were all people that I had coerced into doing something for the club. So I felt a wee bit… I wouldn’t say betrayed, but I just felt that’s no way to treat somebody that has been doing things.”
The business of getting things done has continued all the same, though. In recent years Miller’s multitude of responsibilities extended to working with groundsman Dane Robertson on pitch maintenance – a demanding year-round operation that is perhaps easy to take for granted by fans arriving on a match day.
“Our playing surface has been quite poor over the last couple of years and it’s always after the Christmas period when it starts getting a bit heavy,” Miller admits. “When you’re forced to play on a park that’s iffy, you’re doing damage. You’re cutting it up.
“We do know that drains have to be repaired and inserted, but this year we’ve gone on quite a major job. The main thing is that we’ve done a scarify on the park and it’s not cheap.”
Indeed, more than £3000 is being invested this summer in an upgrade being carried out by a pitch specialist who has worked on leading English grounds. Miller proceeds to outline the technical aspects of scarifying and vertidraining and other work, which – all being well – will result in a much-improved Harmsworth surface.
“We’ve always had bits of the park that have held water,” he says. “We’re doing this and if it works, brilliant. If it doesn’t work, what do we do next year? Do we look to put more drains in? But the guy seems quite confident.”
Miller makes it clear that an artificial playing surface at Harmsworth Park is not on the agenda. Would a move to a new stadium ever be an option?
“No,” he replies emphatically. “This is our ground.”
And so the work continues: “Dane and I have started chipping the south stand, just to paint up the girders, because they’re starting to flake – we’re doing some remedial work just to keep the place tidy. Being on the coast, salt water and steel aren’t best buddies, so we’re doing that.”
It’s another example of Miller’s commitment and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in. Two years ago he retired from the day job as a utilities project manager at Dounreay and he says the time since has “gone in a blink”.
However, he intends to scale back some of his Academy duties now that he is chairman – and has given an undertaking to that effect to his wife Patty, who herself is a volunteer on boardroom hospitality.
Miller is starting to fulfil that pledge by fixing up two “trainees” to carry out boot-room duties.
“I’m hoping not to be kitman but it’ll be hard to give it up because I have my own way of doing things,” he says. “I might be a tracksuit chairman for away games.
“One of the concessions with my wife to take the job was that I had to give up some tasks. I will try to abide by that rule. But I don’t know if I can stick to it.”
It’s a football club, but it’s a business, and we’ve got to be diligent.
BALANCING the books will continue to be a priority for Wick Academy under new chairman Pat Miller.
In recent years some Highland League clubs have benefited from serious investment, making it harder for others – including Academy – to sustain a title challenge.
“The last five years have shown that money does win you leagues,” Miller says. “Formartine are the only club that can’t seem to do it. But the guys that have had money have always done well.
“Unless some millionaire drops into our laps we’re never going to be in that position, so we will work within our budgets and we’ll give incentives to the players and the coaches to get us into a better position.
“It’s a football team, and everything is about results. We don’t say we’re going to win the league this year – we say, ‘Let’s get into the top four and see where we go from there.'
“It’s a football club, but it’s a business, and it has got to be run in a business manner.
“We’ve got to be diligent, we’ve got to make sure that we don’t go over budget, we cut cloth when we have to. I’ve always trusted the people that sit round this table on a meeting night, that they would get us there.
“Then you come in and actually find out how much you’re putting out on wages, how much you’re putting out on buses, what you’re paying for meals, and you think: how do we do it? Honestly… And then I think: we have got great sponsors, and I’m obviously a bit biased but I think we’ve got the best supporters. We get 300, 400, 500, it all depends on who is coming up, but we’re getting a good steady income.
“We go to some places – I could name quite a few clubs – where they’re getting by with 90 or 100 people, or 150 people, and they’re thinking they’ve got a good crowd that day. We’d be disappointed. One of our guys won the 50/50 draw at an away game last season and he got handed £15! They handed it to him in the boardroom and every one of us, to a man, our jaws dropped.
“We live from year to year and I think quite a lot of Highland League clubs would love to have our bank balance.
“This year our books are down because we hadn’t got a run in the Scottish Cup. Get three games in the Scottish Cup and you’ve got twelve grand in the bank, and whatever you’ve made through the gates. So if you don’t get a run in the cup you’re instantly scrambling for £10,000.
“We’re still very healthy. We’re not anywhere in the red. But we have to keep on going and keep balancing the books because at some stage we will be putting money out on ground works. We’ve got a tea hut that needs updated and we’ve got other bits and pieces.”
Maintaining positive links with the business community will be vital, and Miller is equally appreciative of the fans’ input.
“We get good numbers for our boardroom packages, we do well renewing the board sponsors, but it’s not always businesses,” he says. “Somebody phoned me this week and asked if he and 12 of his mates could book the Keith game for the last game of the season. People are looking that ahead.”
He adds: “Now I’m in the position where I have to make sure we’re keeping that relationship with the businesses. And I realise we’ve got to answer to Joe Public because they have a voice as well.
“We all have an opinion, and I appreciate that. We’re not all right, but everybody has an opinion and everybody has got their favourites.
“I can live with people saying, ‘Academy were rubbish today, they hadn’t got so-and-so playing, or they played the wrong tactics.’ Well, that’s why we employ a manager. Though we’re all good at picking teams ourselves, somebody has to carry the can. It’s football!
“I have my own ideas but I would never ever interfere with what the manager or the coaches do because that’s why we employ the guys.”
Miller on… Cove Rangers and the 17-team Highland League
Cove Rangers have a special place in the history of Wick Academy, having provided the opposition for the first Highland League match at Harmsworth Park in 1994 when Pat Miller and John MacDonald were the Scorries’ co-managers. But there will be no more meetings with Cove for the foreseeable future after the Aberdeen side came through the end-of-season SPFL pyramid play-offs to gain promotion to League Two.
Miller was pleased to read the comments of Cove co-manager Graeme Mathieson, who said Cove would miss their trips to Wick in particular because they’d always enjoyed the hospitality they were given at Harmsworth Park.
“Mathieson paid us a great compliment so I was delighted with that from Cove, who a lot of people think are big-time Charlies,” Miller says.
Cove’s elevation means there is now a 17-team Highland League but the Wick chairman is “not overly concerned” about the odd number which will mean one club being left idle in every round of fixtures. Miller recalls that “we’ve been there before” when there was a 15-team league.
“For me, and I hope it works out, it might mean that we don’t have to play so many Wednesday night games and we don’t lose out on sponsorship, because sponsorship on a Wednesday night is very difficult,” he says.
Miller is among those who expect Cove to go “flying up” League Two, but he points out that theoretically there could be a conundrum for the Highland League at some future point if it expands to 18 teams and then a north club drops down from the SPFL.
“In theory we could have a 19-team league and then I would really be frightened because a 19-team league is near enough unworkable on the constraints of the pyramid system because you’ve got to be finished the season by the middle of April,” he says.
“That would lead to a 20-team league and a split. And I know 95 per cent of the Highland League don’t want a split because it would devalue it, it would demean it, and it would break it up.”
Miller on… Fort William and the Highland League 'gulf'
It was another painful season for the perennial strugglers Fort William, leading to speculation over how much longer the Lochaber club can continue to operate at Highland League level.
“Unfortunately Fort William are in a horrible position,” Pat Miller says. “They don’t get crowds, they don’t have much of a committee, but somebody somewhere is actually giving them sponsorship which is going to keep them alive.
“But you fear that if they get a few 10 or 11-0 drubbings at the start of the season will they carry on?
“I take my hat off to them for staying and keeping going because it must tear the life out of coaches, players and supporters, knowing that your team is going to get a drubbing every second week, or every week.”
He adds: “People make out that there’s a gulf, but the teams that Academy have struggled against in the last two years have been the teams that have been in the lower reaches of the league. We go to Formartine and beat them, we go to Fraserburgh and beat them, and then we go to Deveronvale and get beaten. There’s no rhyme or reason to that.
“I think the Highland League is a great league because the bottom can beat the top, or run them close.”
Miller on… Fraserburgh
Wick Academy’s first Highland League match under the chairmanship of Pat Miller will be away to Fraserburgh on the opening day of the 2019/20 campaign. It’s a tough fixture against the side who finished third in 2018/19 – four places above Wick – but the Scorries have a very decent record at Bellslea Park and did the double over the Broch last term.
Academy have a special relationship with Fraserburgh, who in 1994 were instrumental in the Caithness club’s successful bid for Highland League status.
Miller, who was Wick’s co-manager in that first Highland League season, says: “If it wasn’t for them we’d have never got in – it was that close.
“I can never eulogise enough about Fraserburgh. We battle hard with them on the park, but they are damn good to us off the park.
“I’ve always had a great time at Fraserburgh and I know some really special people there.”