For a foreign name, Miller is currently a relatively successful one in today’s Russia. The American brewery company of the same name has successfully exported its brand behind the old Iron Curtain to become one of the ocuntry’s most popular alocholic beverages, and Alexei Miller – a Russian born of German heritage – is one of the nation’s most important political figures in his role as CEO of Gazprom, the energy giant which owns Zenit St Petersburg as well as operating as a powerful political tool of the Russian state.
As such, when Sibir Novosibirsk, relegated from the Premier League last season and yet languishing outside of the promotion places in this year’s First Division, chose to appoint former Liverpool coach Alex Miller as their next manager, there was plenty of cause for optimism. After all, Miller did not only have a lucky name on his side, but a wealth of managerial experiecne from across the globe in addition to his role in the Rafa Benitez administration on Merseyside. Miller arrived in Siberia with the mandate to revolutionise football in the region’s capital, determined to build a strong foundation of homegrown players, and to eventually take Sibir back to the top flight. Given his short-term success at Japanese side JEF United, educational if not successful spell at AIK Stockholm, and Scottish League Cup triumph with Hibernian in the 1991-92 season, there were a number of observers who believed Miller to be far from a poor choice.
Equally however, there were detractors before Miller even donned his new training jacket and met his players. More outspoken critics suggested that his appointments was little more than a PR exercise from the Siberians, a left-field appointment destined to fail as a result of Miller’s obvious linguistic deficiences and lack of both recent success and experience in running a big club for any length of time. Although the notion of Miller as a famous foreign coach may be stretching the imaginaton somewhat, the latter points may indeed be valid had Sibir been presented with a wealth of world class coaching talents ready to take the post. However, Novosibirsk will never be the most appealing destination in the footballing world, and both parties should receive credit for being willing to step outside of their comfort zone to try and make the unlikely partnership work.
Despite having two months to prepare his side for the final part of a mammoth season, Miller’s reign did not get off to the best of starts. A depleted Nizhny Novgorod side who could name just four substitutes arrived in Novosibirsk and left with a 3-0 win, a goal roughly every half hour more than sufficient to deliver a crushing blow to the new management. Still, a gutsy 1-1 draw at high-flying Alania followed by a home win against table-topping Mordovia Saransk looked to signal the start of a turnaround, the results against the top two leading some to speculate about a late promotion charge for the Siberians.
However, those faint hopes were quickly crushed in their next game, Miller’s men failing to score as they went down by a single goal at Dinamo Bryansk, and when the same scoreline was repeated at home to Ural Ekaterinburg in their next encounter, the warning signs began to flash brighter. Just eleven days later, the win against Mordovia was a distant memory, as Sibir began to slide slowly down the table, away from the distant dream of a promotion play-off place and back into the lower reaches of the Championship Group that few expected them to make it out of.
Still there was time for a revival, but a 1-1 draw at struggling Torpedo Moscow, another side who have recently parted company with their manager, did little to encourage the Sibir faithful. Another draw against inconsistent Shinnik Yaroslavl, this time at home, was of greater promise, but the Mordovia game remained Miller’s only win, and by this point any hope that the club had of reaching 4th place and an outside chance of promotion were dead and buried. With this in mind, and far from unexpected at the start of Miller’s reign, it was assumed that the rest of the season would allow the new man in charge to blood a few youngsters, drill the players in his tactical system, and try and earn as many points as possible to gain some momentum heading into the 2012-13 campaign.
A late rally and Maxim Astafjev brace in the return fixture in Nizhny Novgorod was not quite enough to stop Sibir suffering a 4-3 defeat, and the following week the same player struck again at home to Alania to give his side a 1-0 lead with half an hour to play. However, five minutes later the scores were tied with an own goal from Igor Klimov, and in the depths of injury time Arsen Khubulov converted a penalty to seal the points for the visitors and keep them in touch with Mordovia and Nizhny Novgorod at the top of the table.
Whilst players and fans alike were probably aiming their thoughts at next season, the corridors of power in Novosibirsk were filled with mumblings of discontent. Their plan evidently involved instant improvement, instead they viewed Miller’s reign as regression. With a single win in nine competitive fixtures and no chance of promotion, the decision was made to limit the damage, sacking the Scotsman after just three months at the helm and bringing the tenure of the first Brit to manage in Russia to an early end.
Whilst his record was undoubtedly poor, there is some sympathy for a man who would have needed time to adapt not only to his team, but also to a new language, culture and level of expectation. For 62 year old Miller the future is unclear, however for the club he leaves behind it is even more so. If they are ever to replace Tom Tomsk as the pre-eminent Siberian club, they will need promotion sooner rather than later, they will need stability, and ten managers in as many years simply does not allow for the continuity necessary. As the First Division becomes increasingly competitive, there is a real risk that they lost the advantages gained from their brief stay in the top flight, and simply settle for midtable medicrity. For the club’s fans, that is simply not an option.