Interview: Jamie Milligan on Fleetwood v Blackpool

Ahead of the upcoming fixture between Fleetwood Town and Blackpool, utmp caught up with former midfielder and current Bamber Bridge manager Jamie Milligan. Jamie spent two years at Bloomfield Road, between 2001-03, before going on to play 200 games at Fleetwood where he became a club legend at Highbury, helping them to four promotions in nine years.

He’s currently making his first steps in management at Bamber Bridge and is still involved with Pro Direct Academy Lancashire alongside former Pool man Trevor Sinclair – as well as the Milligan & McCann academy which he co-founded with Gavin McCann.

Split loyalties

Coming through the ranks at Everton, Jamie played 29 games for Blackpool between 2001-03, then moved onto Fleetwood, initially on loan in 2004, staying there until 2013. Having grown up in Blackpool, played for us and been involved in our youth academy from a coaching perspective, we’d naturally hope he was still a Seasider at heart, but having played nearly nine years at Highbury, it’s understandable that he has split loyalties.

Milligan said: “I can’t say I don’t like Blackpool because I have supported them and all my mates are Blackpool fans. I still go and watch Blackpool. Although, I still have my allegiances at Fleetwood because I was there for nearly 10 years.  I try and sit on the fence when they play each other.

“I can see Fleetwood winning on Saturday to be honest with you. Just the form they are in, they’re looking so strong. They’ve got some really good players. Obviously it would be ideal for me if both teams could win.”

Much like Blackpool, Fleetwood find themselves with a young manager in charge, though the Cods’ Joey Barton has 100 games’ additional experience on Neil Critchley at this level with 122 vs 22. Milligan has been impressed with both sides this year.

“I’ve seen both sides play this year. I know Joey from when he first came to Fleetwood (in pre-season in 2012) and I trained with him for a little bit. They are both really good managers. It’ll be a great game.

“The way they have been playing and how they have recruited, they have started to come good now. It’s taken a bit of time to get bedded in. It’s going to be a really good game. I went to the one last year actually at Bloomfield Road and it was a brilliant game.”

The following Tuesday sees the Seasiders face the Cod Army in the Papa John’s Trophy – though naturally we’d happily take a loss there if it meant grabbing three points in the league on Saturday to close the four-point gap between the two sides at the moment.

“I’m not sure how seriously either side will take Tuesday’s game but it’s an opportunity for further bragging rights and to get one over each other. I think that one will depend on how the first one goes. They might want to rest some players and give some other ones some exposure so I’m not sure what to expect there.”

Jamie’s playing career

Milly grew up in Blackpool and was one of the most in-demand talents in youth football. He had the pick of some of the country’s top clubs in the early 90s, eventually opting for Everton, where he won the FA Youth Cup in 1998 and made four senior Premier League appearances.

“I came up through playing at YMCA and I had clubs coming in for me since I was a young age but my dad wouldn’t let me go anywhere until I was 14. I eventually started having a look around some of the clubs – me and my Dad met a few managers, Sir Alex Ferguson being one of them. He went for a meal with him. Liverpool came in as well and I could’ve signed for them but I chose Everton because I just enjoyed it so much.”

“It was a really good group of lads. When I look at that group, we probably should have made a lot more appearances for the first team collectively. But back then the first team weren’t doing great, so there wasn’t much opportunity to blood young players through. We all steadily left really which is a real shame. But we all still keep in touch now which is great.”

Milligan departed Merseyside at the age of 21 when his hometown club came calling under the stewardship of Steve McMahon, helping us to promotion from Division Three vs Leyton Orient at the Millenium Stadium, and it’s a time in his career which he has particularly fond memories of.

“There were a couple of clubs that came about at that time. I could’ve stayed another year at Everton. But I was in the squad, then out of the squad, sometimes on the bench and I just wanted to play football. I looked at Blackpool and the way they wanted to play football, and I knew a lot of the lads – John Hills who was one of my best mates – and I’m obviously from there, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me.

“We had some great players – Paul Simpson, Richie Wellens… it really helps when you do have good players and the changing room was great as well.”

But, despite the impressive upbringing through Everton, Milligan’s time in tangerine led to only 29 appearances before he was released after the expiry of his two-year deal.

“It could have gone better for me (at Blackpool). I didn’t have the best of luck when I was there, but it’s one of them. I’ll be honest, I didn’t work hard enough at the start and I had to knuckle down, which I did. I didn’t have the best of luck with injuries – six months before the end of my contract I broke my foot and that was that to be honest which was a shame.”

After leaving the tangerine army, Milligan sought to play regularly, regardless of the level, and had brief spells with Macclesfield, Leigh RMI and Hyde between 2003-05. He nearly returned to Pool in 2005, when Colin Hendry offered him a trial, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

“He just said can I come in and have a few weeks. But, it was two weeks and that was it. I did really well, I scored a few goals and thought I was a shoe in for a year-long contract or something. I just didn’t get one, which I was a bit gutted about. But that’s football, that happens.”

Leading the Cod Army

Despite being linked with clubs higher up the pyramid, it was Fleetwood that Milligan was attracted to, based on the ambition of the club at the time – something Andy Pilley delivered on with four promotions, from the North West Counties League in 2005 to the Conference Premier in 2010.

“I was playing at Hyde with my mate John O’Kane (who he played at Everton and Blackpool with) to stay fit, and Sheffield Wednesday were interested but I did my cruciate playing for Hyde on the Saturday and I was out for a year. Then I went on loan to Fleetwood just to get fit after being out. I met the chairman then heard all the plans and that and really bought into it. Then the rest is history really.”

“The chairman was a complete contrast to the clown at Blackpool at the time. He looks after his players, the staff, everyone at the club. All of the promises he gave me when I first joined, he delivered on all the way through and kept getting the club promoted to the Football League.

“There’s a lot of clubs that are trying to emulate that and do the same. You’ve gotta get the right recruitment, players in and the right manager. Micky Mellon came in and he was the perfect man for the club at the perfect time.”

Youth football on the Fylde Coast

Since setting up the Milligan & McCann Academy in 2005, Jamie has been involved in youth coaching on the Fylde Coast for more than 15 years. He’s also involved with Pro Direct Academy Lancashire alongside former Pool man Trevor Sinclair, who recently featured in the 1-2 Podcast, so it’s non-stop football for him considering he’s also currently managing Bamber Bridge.

“It never stop to be honest. One of them finishes and then the next one starts. Me and Trev do the training in the morning and then I go and do my stuff in the afternoon. And then I’m managing at Bamber Bridge so it’s football all day every day which is how I want it.

“Look, we say you’ve gotta have education and that comes first, no matter what. We get a hold of the grass roots players, they come to us, they do their education. George Thomason plays for Bolton and he’s one of our lads which is brilliant to see. He scored at the weekend. We go further than just developing them, we keep in touch with them and make sure they are alright from that point of view too.”

He also previously headed up the Blackpool FC Academy for two years, handing over the reigns to Ciaran Donnelly who recently returned from Fleetwood Town. Milligan and his team found that their work wasn’t benefitting the first team manager, as the club would let the youngsters go for cheap rather than giving them the pathway.

“Me and Hillsy ran the academy for a couple of years but then I started helping out in different age groups and different teams. When I left I gave Ciaran him his job.

“To be honest the previous chairman was just clueless. He was all about making a few quid and I just didn’t get it at the time. That was a big part of the reason why I ended up back at Fleetwood. We did all the hardwork of getting the players around the first team and then the club ended up just getting rid of them. It just didn’t make any sense to us.

“You look at Fleetwood on the other hand and they’ve done it with a new training ground. They are looking at going Category 2 next year. That’s what Blackpool should be like. It’s a shame really because it’s such a good club with a good fanbase. They should have their own training ground, their own facilities. They should have it all up and running by now but it isn’t which is down to one man and I think everyone knows that.”

Sadler’s Blackpool

Looking to the future, Jamie feels Blackpool are back on the right path under Simon Sadler, and believes that Ciaran Donnelly – previously his understudy -,returning is the start of the club regaining the pulling power for the best talent on the Fylde Coast.

“Hopefully this is the start with Simon Sadler – he’s obviously made huge strides already. I’m sure it’s right at the top of his list to start seeing younger players coming through and he’s obviously appointed Neil Critchley to oversee this and ensure it happens.

“I think it helps that he’s a Blackpool fan – a football fan. It’s only going to go upwards with a great young manager.”

“By getting him (Donnelly) back that’s the first step towards a more professional youth setup. I know what Ciaran’s like – he will give it 100% and work really hard to make it a success.”

Management

Jamie has been in charge of Bamber Bridge for the last 12 months, the majority of which have been during the global pandemic which hasn’t been easy.

“We started really well, but we’re on a bad run at the minute. It seems like every mistake we make we’re getting punished. But we play football in the right way and I tell the lads, if they make a mistake trying to play in the right way, that’s on me and I won’t change. We’ve got some good young players and I rely a lot on favours from my mates really with loans and we brought a few in from our academy.”

The impact of COVID-19 cannot be underestimated for a non-league club, given football was halted in March and it’s been behind closed doors since it resumed in August.

“Our finances have been cut in half. All the players have had to take pay cuts and fair play to them, not one of them left, they have just got on with it. I’ve actually got a meeting with the chairman today (Sunday) to see where we are at with it all. The players can play on Saturday but were not sure if fans are allowed back in yet. So it might have another impact – I don’t know yet. We’ll have to see later on.”

And while Milligan has settled into management like a duck to water, he admits he’s not really thinking about making his way to the top as a manager – he’s got more interest in helping younger players make their way in the game.

“They were near the bottom when I took over, so we were towards the bottom when the season stopped. We have recruited some good players this summer, but it’s not gone great so far this season to be fair and we’ve lost the last six or seven games. It’s just not been happening. We have dominated possession in games and had chances. But at the minute we just keep making mistakes at the back which leads to goals. I think the break has come at a good time for them this month.

“I’m not treating as trying to move up the pyramid. I want the team to play my style of football and I’ve never changed. I tell the players the same, I’ll take the heat from a loss because I want them to play a certain way, a way in which I was brought up.

“I think it’s a great platform for me to help with the academy too – to help them grow and get that exposure. Tuesday and Thursday nights they are playing with men and they are getting exposed to it. You can’t buy that experience.”

Hopefully Jamie’s right in that Blackpool can join Fleetwood in the promotion picture in League One this season – Fleetwood are currently 7th in the league, two points behind sixth placed Ipswich, so surely a win for the Pool on Saturday would give Milligan some satisfaction!

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Published by Tom Johnson

Seaside exile living in Leeds. Been watching the Pool home and away since 2001

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