St Johnstone midfielder Chris Millar is aiming high despite last week’s defeat to Lithuanian side FK Trakai in Perth, the Saintees are on their travels this evening as they look to progress through to the next round – with the experienced campaigner believing that the Group Stages is a realistic target for the Scottish Premiership side.
The 34-year-old is in his testimonial season with the Perthshire club after joining from Greenock Morton in the summer of 2008.
“When I first signed for the club, Derek McInnes was the manager – speaking to him, and seeing the squad we had, and I just felt it was the right move for me as I had been at Morton for 5 years and I was wanting a fresh challenge. I saw St Johnstone as a club I could kick on again with and try reach the top level in Scotland; it has worked out to be a perfect move for me – I have done things in the last 9 seasons that I could only have dreamt about before: I have played in Europe, won the Scottish Cup… but also as a club, we have established ourselves as a top six side the past 5 or 6 seasons. When we got promotion, we had to try and establish ourselves – first and foremost, that first season was about staying in the division and it was a good season for us, I think we finished 8th. After that, we’ve continued to progress again – getting into the top six and staying there. It has been steady progression; getting things into the club, as well, off the pitch – the new astrotutf out the front of the stadium, bringing in a Sports Scientist and GPS systems and so on…over the 9 years I have been here, there has been steady progression on and off the pitch. Sometimes, money can bring success quicker but this club is well-run and St Johnstone have been the ones to set an example to other clubs of similar or higher stature, that, if you get the right infrastructure in place and you build up a squad gradually, then that will hopefully keep you on an even keel and progressing. This is a club the whole of Perthshire can be proud of.”
In the summer of 2012, St Johnstone qualified for European football for the first time since Millar had joined the then First Division side.
“As a player, no matter what level you are at, you want to win things and be successful. For me personally, I had won the Third and Second Division’s with Morton before winning the First with Saints. I had got to semi-finals as well, but, for us to reach Europe that season – after the club not being in the competition for many years – then it was a great achievement. As a player, you can’t test yourself any more than playing in European competitions; I think it is great that over the past few seasons, we have been able to regularly do that. I think it captures the imagination of the support, as they are great games to be involved in, so it adds a little bit to the crowd. It is a different type of match for everyone involved compared to a normal league match, it is great for a player to have that on their CV and it is great to be involved in it.”
Millar has suffered the highs and the lows over his three European stints with St Johnstone so far. Millar discusses some of his memories with us, ahead of tonight’s second leg.
“Against Eskisehirspor we knew it’d be difficult. We knew it was a different type of football – very technical but very patient. Also, even though we were playing at night, it was still around 30 degrees within the stadium. They had a good crowd, a very hostile crowd to be honest. When we turned up, they had around 1500 fans already in the ground an hour and a half before kick off, so, we knew it was going to be a good atmosphere to play in. The experiences you gain from playing these sorts of games allows you to learn that little bit more. It wetted our appetites. Everybody at the club and the supporters wanted more: I know we went out of the tie but the club has kept in contact and they have a great working relationship now so it was a positive experience for everybody. When the draw was made and we knew it was going to be Rosenberg, we thought straight away that it was going to be tough as I think just a couple of years before that tie, they were playing in the Champions League Quarter Final…we knew their European experience and class. We went across there and we felt a sense of they were taking us lightly straight from the warm-up: I don’t know if they were but we felt that they were, as a team. They only had around 4,000 fans in the ground and the players just looked lackadaisical. The first 5 minutes we played really well and I would say we deserved to go into half-time leading. They were 10 games into their season I think and it was our first competitive match so we tired a little in the second half, but, we dug in well and hung on for a great away win. That night was unbelievable. Then, the following week I got injured in training and missed the second leg – Stevie May came in for me and scored the winner so it was a little bit of fate too. That goal allowed him to kick on, he had an amazing season and deservedly got a move down to England, so, it was brilliant again for everyone involved but to get that big a scalp was great.”
Millar added: “[on the defeat against Minsk to knock them out of the Europa League] it was difficult for us to take because we were the better side than them. That was the frustrating thing – we had knocked out Rosenberg and then lose to a team who, in our eyes, were inferior opposition. Their goal was preventable and that is the thing with football – it is small margins. Penalty-Shootouts are a lottery and nobody is to blame for that as if you are brave enough to step up and the keeper saves it then fair enough – it is a high pressure situation. That is the thing that still rankles with all us boys who are still here: we should have got through but we have learnt from that game and that experience and we have moved on to this seasons campaign now.”
The lessons learnt over the past couple of seasons had saw Millar warn against complacency prior to the first leg with the Lithuanian’s.
“I can’t speak on behalf of other teams, but, I think Trakai will be looking at us and thinking that it is a negotiable tie but, to be fair, so are we. No matter who you get drawn against though, you must show your opposition respect and even if it is a team you perceive as lesser than you, you cannot be complacent. Teams at this level are always well organised, fit and I think the one thing we have learnt is that they follow instructions really well – they are all disciplined. We know the second leg isn’t going to be easy – we know we have to play to our best and our potential. First and foremost, it was vital we had got something from the home leg, that was our main objective as well as trying not to concede an away goal. We knew as much as we could about them as we had videos sent across to us via email by our Sports Scientist. The gaffer had highlighted their weaknesses and how we could exploit them, so we were prepared on who we were going to face. At St Johnstone, we don’t take any team for granted, but, we are disappointed to get a negative result from the first leg.”
Millar feels playing the second leg at home would’ve been more convenient for the Saintees.
“If you were to offer me the choice, I prefer to play away first as if you can get a good result from the first leg, such as a 1-1 and an away goal, or even a 1-0 win, you are coming into the game on the front foot and with an advantage as you know exactly what you need to do. I didn’t think they would come out gung-ho at our place last week and I was surprised when they did. I felt they’d be well organised and try hit on the counter-attack to get a vital away goal. I had looked at their away form prior to the first leg and it was excellent. They hardly concede any goals. However, now we have had the first 90 minutes we know exactly who has the advantage tonight.”
Millar felt that with only 19 days off, the Saints were well equipped heading into the first leg, 7 days ago.
“We didn’t get a lot of downtime in the summer, so de-conditioning hardly occurred as it isn’t as if we had had four or five weeks off. The boys had came back in good condition and were looking sharp. The numbers in the tests were really good and we hardly picked up any injuries throughout pre-season, either, so, the gaffer basically had a full squad to choose from. In terms of preparation and match sharpness, it is probably the most ready we had been over the past five or six seasons. However, we all know that pre-season friendlies isn’t the same intensity as competitive games and with them being 10 or so games into their season, we knew they’d have that little edge on us and unfortunately it showed in the end. The game is over 180 minutes and nothing is settled from the first game, however. We hadn’t lost in pre-season and were heading into the first leg with confidence, but last week’s result hasn’t dented that in any way. Whatever happens tonight, there will be no excuses as we are as prepared as we can be.”
With Millar admitting he relishes these games more, he is as determined as ever to make sure the Saints turn the tie around.
“I am getting on a bit – I’m 34 – so I appreciate these games more now. I might not play in many more European ties so I have to relish them. I feel I enjoy the big games and I have always performed. I feel ready, if I am called upon this evening, to play to the best of my ability; I wouldn’t say I am nervous but there is an anticipation and an excitement about the game and I am really looking forward to it.”
Saints getting into European competition is not something in which Millar sees as an achievement, with the man from Greenock determined to take the club further if at all possible.
“You have got to aim high. We are not naive, we know it won’t be easy, but we should be looking to get to the Group Stages. Only 3 teams out of 500, I think, have ever done it, since it started. We know the odds are stacked against us, but, if you go into these games with a mindset of “I am happy to just be here” then you might as well not turn up – you always want to play against bigger teams and better teams; you always want to challenge yourself and progress to try achieve things, so, as a team, we want to get as far as we can. We can’t look forward too far, though, as we are still in the midst of this first tie. We need to take care of Trakai first and if we do, then we can see where we go from there but for me, personally, I want to get as far as possible and I am sure it is the same with the rest of the boys. Reaching the Group Stage would be an unbelievable and it is something we have to try and aim for.”