Miller Mathieson: The Miller’s Tale

Miller Mathieson’s name is synonymous with the most successful era in Stenhousemuir’s history. Between 1991 and 1996, the forward formed part of the team who secured the club’s most famous result and the only silverware in their 128-year existence. Arguably the last great Warriors striker, I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to reminisce with him on his seven-year senior career with Stenhousemuir, Clyde and Alloa Athletic.

We meet at an Italian restaurant on Edinburgh’s George Street. Mathieson, now a managing director with a commercial real estate firm, is charming and thoroughly engaging throughout our conversation. He is warm and amiable and seems genuinely delighted to talk about his “glory days”.

Mathieson did not immediately begin his football career in the senior ranks. As a teenager, he played for Aberdeen’s Banks O’Dee and won a cap for Scotland’s junior squad before moving to Edinburgh in 1986. After several successful seasons with Edinburgh United, he was invited to join Hibernian. Despite spending a relatively fruitful year in their reserve squad and attracting attention from a handful of First Division clubs, it was a fairly miserable experience.

“I scored lots of goals and I got to play with Alan Rough, Gordon Rae and Joe McBride, but I never prioritised football,” Mathieson asserts. “I was balancing up my proper job with just playing football for fun. I wouldn’t go full-time, but Hibs were all geared up for full-time football.

“They would phone me up on a Wednesday afternoon and say: ‘We’ve got a game at Parkhead tonight, we’ll pick you up at the Gyle at 5 o’clock’, but I’d have meetings at 4 – could they not have told me this the day before? By the end of the year, I got to the point where I hated it so much.”

Mathieson’s experience with Hibs had been so disappointing that he opted to take a sabbatical from football to concentrate on work and other hobbies. After a nine-month absence, he was coaxed into returning to Edinburgh United for a short spell. At the beginning of the 1991-92 season, he began to draw admiring glances from senior clubs. Stenhousemuir’s manager Dennis Lawson was interested in signing a burly, bustling striker; Mathieson’s name was mentioned in dispatches and a trial match was hastily arranged.

“I actually had a ticket to the rugby World Cup quarter-final between Scotland and Western Samoa that afternoon,” he says. “The call came through from the Edinburgh United secretary and frankly, he tried to put me off taking part. But I just thought what the hell?

“The match at Ochilview was against Arbroath, from memory. I didn’t even get back to the changing room before I was hauled into the office. They didn’t allow me to go back into the changing room until I agreed to sign.”

Despite Lawson’s eagerness to secure the 26-year-old’s signature, Mathieson had his reservations. He was an exceptional forward capable of playing in the upper echelons of the First Division. Stenhousemuir were a club perpetually flirting with the lower reaches of the Second Division and “full of good junior players”, but lacking in outstanding talent. Signing for the Warriors seemed like an unattractive proposition. What convinced you to join them?

“I don’t know,” he smiles. “I just quite liked the idea.”

The fact that his girlfriend at the time (who has since become his wife) lived close by to Ochilview also proved to be a decisive factor in his decision. “Her dad used to watch the Warriors and I remember thinking at the time what he’d say if I turned down the chance to play for Stenny!”

Thrust into a club with an under-pressure manager and an under-achieving squad, Mathieson’s early months at Stenhousemuir were darkly humorous. He describes his time under Lawson as “hilarious” and remembers a particularly violent incident in the aftermath of a heavy defeat.

“There was a bust-up between the manager and a player, a big chunky guy, ex-East Fife,” he says, struggling to remember his name. “Dennis was screaming at him and the player was shouting back: ‘If you want to hit me, then hit me!’ At that point, Dennis hit him and he ended up on the floor. He was so unpopular that a couple of other players started laying into him as well.

“I just sat in the corner wondering what on earth was going on!”

With the Warriors performing poorly and skirting around the bottom of the division, Lawson’s dismissal was inevitable. He was replaced by Terry Christie and the former Meadowbank Thistle manager ushered in the most successful period in the club’s history.

“Under Terry Christie, everything changed for the better very quickly”

“The transformation over the next 12 to 18 months was ridiculous,” Mathieson says firmly. “Everything changed for the better very quickly.

“The first thing he did was bring in good players. He had great clout, great persuasive powers. It had nothing to do with money, definitely not. People across the game respected him. Would we have ever been able to get someone like George McGeachie to come and play for us without Terry? Adrian Sprott? Dave Roseburgh? Probably not.

“Another thing he was good at was working out what people’s strengths were. It wasn’t just his organisation – he worked out what you were good at. You take a Stenhousemuir favourite like good old Tommy Steel. Now, Tommy was actually a very limited footballer but he could run and run forever. He would never stop, and Terry worked on systems and drills to make the most of it.”

Mathieson describes the levels of detail Christie used to go into before matches. At one point, I almost wonder if he’s going to reach for the salt and pepper pots on the table to illustrate the manager’s tactical approach.

“The pre-match team talks would involve 40 minutes of him discussing corners, throw-ins, free-kcks for, free-kicks against,” he explains. “You’re doing this, you’re doing this, you’re doing this, you’re in that zone, you’re in that zone, you’re in that zone.

“For every scenario during a game, we were given very specific instructions – you knew exactly what your job was. On Thursday nights, we would go through the specific things that related to the team we were playing on the Saturday and work on specific drills designed to combat the way they would play.”

I ask Mathieson if Christie was fun to play under. He laughs.

“He wasn’t necessarily fun to play under,” he smiles. “Terry was just so organised, so compulsively, obsessively organised. But when he said to you that you’d played well, you knew he meant it. Other managers would say it as a matter of course but when Terry said it, you knew you it meant something.

“I remember lying on a treatment table not long after he became manager and he said: ‘I was told to sign you for Meadowbank Thistle so many times and every time I came to see you, you were shite and now you’re supposed to be one of my star players.’ He was telling me this a week after I scored four goals against East Stirlingshire!”

From 13th position in 1991-92, to seventh in 1992-93, to third in 1993-94, Stenhousemuir rapidly improved under Christie. The 1994-95 season is likely to be remembered as the best in the club’s history. Under his tutelage, the side engineered a remarkable Scottish Cup run and recorded their most famous result against Aberdeen. So impressive were the Warriors over the course of the year, they achieved national acclaim and after one cup draw, even Celtic’s Tommy Burns was moved to quip: “At least we avoided Stenhousemuir.

After defeating East Stirlingshire and Arbroath in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup, the Warriors were paired with Paul Sturrock’s St Johnstone. The tie at McDiarmid Park finished 1-1 (Adrian Sprott scored a late equaliser directly from a corner kick) but the replay was far from even – on a dank, windswept February night, the Warriors crushed their opposition 4-0. Their performance that evening is hailed as one of their finest ever.

“Of all the matches I’ve played in – regardless of our other bigger wins – that was comfortably the best team performance I’d ever been involved in,” Mathieson beams. “We absolutely played them off the park and we played great football while we were doing it. I don’t think there was another team performance when it quite came together like that.”

The victory earned his team a home tie against Premier League side Aberdeen 11 days later. Aberdeen’s 1994-95 season may have been their annus horriblis, but Roy Aitken’s squad were still replete with talented players such as Theo Snelders, Duncan Shearer and Eoin Jess. Given the fact they had also beaten Rangers the previous week, the Dons went into the game as heavy favourites.

The result, however, was entirely unexpected. Thanks to a brace from Tommy Steel, the hosts recorded one of the most famous cup upsets of the modern era.

“I’ll never forget the match against Aberdeen. It was one of those moments when you scratch you head and wonder if it really happened!”

“I will never ever forget that game,” Mathieson smiles. “It was awesome! Even now… Wow! It was one of those moments when you scratch your head and wonder if it really happened!

“The scoreline didn’t flatter us – we more than justified the 2-0 win. It wasn’t a freak break of the ball and lots of rearguard action.

“They were thinking they were God’s gift but we knew on our pitch we could upset people. At half-time, it was 0-0 and we were thinking that this lot actually weren’t very good. I was playing against John Inglis and Brian Irvine and relatively speaking, I’d had harder games in the Second Division. Our main worries were Shearer and Jess but George McGeachie and Graeme Armstrong mopped up at the back without too many problems.”

Indeed, Mathieson actually had greater difficulties ensuring his friends and family were all in attendance. “I’m originally from Aberdeen and I had to get 50 tickets for everyone coming down – but only on the condition they supported Stenhousemuir,” he laughs. “Two of them refused to take the tickets from me and got theirs from Pittodrie instead because they couldn’t have supported anyone other than Aberdeen!

“It was even one of the very few games my wife came to watch us but she left when we were 2-0 up. She had so little faith in us that she didn’t want to see us lose 3-2!”

The Warriors were drawn at home against Hibernian. Stenhousemuir went into the match quietly confident they could repeat their result against Aberdeen but despite a spirited performance, they were soundly thrashed 0-4 by their visitors.

“At half-time, we went in 0-0 but then George McGeachie went off injured and Kevin Harper had a bit of a field day,” Mathieson says. “In the first half though, we more than matched them. We were very disappointed because we thought we had a fighting chance against them.”

Despite the successful cup run, Stenhousemuir’s league campaign was undone by indifferent form. The club spent the majority of the season moving between the top two positions but after the victory over Aberdeen, Christie’s side won a meagre three out of 13 league matches and finished in a disappointing fourth place. Was the cup run a distraction?

“We probably took our eye off the ball,” Mathieson admits. “That team was good enough to win the league. It had got to the point where there were an awful lot of midweek fixtures – we had players who liked to play football and when we got into February and March and the pitches were getting heavier… We just didn’t win as many games as we should have done.

“When you see the teams that finished ahead of us, they weren’t as good as we were.”

Next season’s endeavour yielded Stenhousemuir’s solitary trophy: the Challenge Cup. En route to the final against Dundee United, the club knocked out Montrose, Dundee and Stirling Albion. The victory over Dundee, a sterling 3-0 win at Dens Park, saw Mathieson score an outrageous solo goal. The strike remains one of the highlights of his career.

“Dens Park!” he yelps excitedly. His eyes light up at its very mention.

“I remember getting the ball on the right wing, about ten yards inside our own half, and I cut inside a couple of players and straightened up my run. They were really flat at the back with Jim Duffy playing as their last man. I ran straight at him, played the ball to one side of him and ran round the other. Jim tried to half me – as he was prone to do – but he missed. The goalie came bombing out of his box but I got to the ball before him, took it really wide then pinged it into an empty net. It was the best goal I ever scored.”

Any notions of a post-match celebration were quickly curtailed. “After the game, I was on the team bus and I had to sit in a row on my own because the next day I had a big presentation for work,” he laughs. “I had to sit by myself, up the back, going through stuff for work! I couldn’t even enjoy the win.”

On a soggy Bonfire Night at McDiarmid Park, Stenhousemuir faced a supremely gifted United. Lining up against some of the most celebrated talent in the SFL in Owen Coyle, Christian Dailly and Steven Pressley, the Warriors went into the game as unfashionable underdogs once again.

“That game was hard work,” Mathieson says. “I remember I felt knackered. They had the majority of the play but we shut them down. It was hard but we were phenomenally well-organised. We were so organised and everybody did the job they had to do. It didn’t matter how tired we all were, everyone did their jobs.”

The match was a tense, stuffy affair, high on industry but low on quality and, inevitably, ended in a stalemate. The contest was settled by penalty kicks – Craig Brewster went first for United but goalkeeper Roddy McKenzie dived low to his left to push it wide. It proved decisive: Eamonn Bannon, Adrian Sprott, Ian Little, George McGeachie and Lloyd Haddow converted their penalties and Stenhousemuir secured the glass decanter.

“The celebrations after the game were the biggest ever,” smiles Mathieson warmly. “Going back to Stenhousemuir after the game was just awesome. The whole game… The stadium was pretty packed, the Norwegians were out in force with the cowbells, running up and down the stand… No… I’ll never forget it.”

Speaking at a dinner to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Challenge Cup win in 2005, Terry Christie hailed the team and claimed if his side were playing nowadays, they would be a solid, upwardly-mobile First Division club.

“Aw, easily,” agrees Mathieson. “I’ve been back to watch a couple of games over the last two or three years and there’s always been a couple of players that might have got a game in our team but as an overall team, with the quality of football, no.”

Despite their cup success, Stenhousemuir finished the season more than 30 points behind champions Stirling Albion in fourth place. Once again, Mathieson finds the team’s uneven league form difficult to explain.

“I don’t know why we weren’t as good as we should have been,” he says softly, shaking his head. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. We must have been more inconsistent but given the experience we had, that shouldn’t have been the case. Stirling Albion were a good side and we had some good games against them that year, but we should never have been so far behind them. I can’t put my finger on it.”

Around the same time, Mathieson began to feel unsettled at Stenhousemuir. “I had got to the point where I got the feeling I was going a little stale,” he admits. “There was more and more being expected of me. In the first two or three seasons, if you did something good you were acknowledged for it but towards the end, if you did something, it was taken for granted.”

Christie had already made contact with Clyde over signing defender Jim Thomson; Mathieson was mooted as a potential makeweight in the transfer, and the striker quietly left the Warriors for the Bully Wee. It proved to be one of the poorest decisions of his career.

“The move to Clyde was a mistake for me. It was horrendous”

“The move to Clyde was a mistake for me,” he says quietly. “It was horrendous.”

Working under manager Alex Smith and his assistant John Brownlie, Mathieson found himself in and out of the team as the pair were either unwilling or unable to get the best from their new striker. “For whatever reason, the way I played football didn’t appeal to Alex or John. I’d start a few games then I’d be left on the bench,” he says.

With the exception of a League Cup tie against Celtic (“They had Van Hoojidonk and Di Canio at the time, and I hit the post after three minutes”) and scoring an extra-time winner in a Scottish Cup tie against Huntly (“Doug Rougvie was their player-manager and he proceeded to assault me for as long as he was on the pitch… He went from being a hero of mine to someone I lost all respect for, he was utterly out of order and didn’t help himself after the game”), Mathieson’s spell at Clyde was ultimately disappointing.

“It was an easy decision to leave them at the end of the season,” he says. “Travelling backwards and forwards from Edinburgh to Broadwood’s not much fun.”

At the beginning of the 1997-98 season, Mathieson moved to Tom Hendrie’s Alloa Athletic and immediately felt comfortable within the set-up at Recreation Park. Hendrie, a disciple of Terry Christie, had played under the Stenhousemuir manager at Meadowbank Thistle and approached matches with the same level of intricate detail.

“I remember my first team talk,” he laughs. “If I closed my eyes, it could have been Terry!”

The player began the season brightly, scoring a handful of goals across the first round of matches but his good form was curtailed after he suffered a serious injury in a match against Albion Rovers. After around ten minutes, he was crudely hacked down by Rovers defender Paul Martin. As Mathieson received treatment, his team-mates remonstrated with the perpetrator, but Martin shrugged: he had been advised by his manager to ensure the striker did not complete the match.

“I’ll never forget it was him,” he says. “Martin said he went out there and did what he was told to by his manager but that’s no excuse. I missed half of the season because of it.” Throughout our conversation, Mathieson has been polite and charming but it’s only at this point his tone changes. When talking about Martin, there is a quiet anger in his voice.

Did Martin apologise to you?

“Was he apologetic about it?” he asks me incredulously. “Are you joking?! No danger!”

Mathieson returned to action towards the end of the season and even scored a hat-trick against East Stirlingshire but as Alloa cantered towards the Third Division championship, the player decided to retire from football.

“In 1998, I was 33, I was married and had one child, I was in a relatively senior position with the company I work for now…” he explains. “Time was getting impossible… I thought if I’m going to take this long to recover from injuries, then enough’s enough. I knew that at that level I could have played on for at least another two years but it just stopped being as much fun.

“I didn’t miss playing at all,” he continues. “I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. The only thing I missed was the banter. I missed the guys. For me, the one thing I really liked about playing football at that level was it kept you in touch with the real world. I could sit in my job and deal with pension funds and lawyers and transactions, but all that mattered at the football was if you were any good and if you got on with the guys. I missed that more than anything.”

Throughout the conversation, it is his time at Stenhousemuir that Mathieson speaks most fondly of. He still speaks highly of his former team-mates and talks at length about Ian Little, Euan Donaldson, Dave Roseburgh, Eamonn Bannon, Max Christie and Gareth Hutchison. But it is Lloyd Haddow (“The stories I could tell you about Lloyd… He was one of the reasons I loved it. He was a massive personality”) and Adrian Sprott whom he seems to hold in the highest regard.

“I remember going to Lloyd’s wedding with Adrian,” he says, chuckling. “We couldn’t really be bothered but we thought we better go, we better show face. It was in Carluke and it’s fair to say that Carluke is… Well, it’s a bit of a Celtic-facing town. And when we sat down at our table, I might as well have been invisible – there was a queue of people lining up for Adrian’s autograph because of that goal he scored against Rangers! He was worshipped from the second he walked in! He loved it that night.”

The player also describes his affection with the Stenhousemuir support and in particular, the club’s Norwegian fans. “I had a great rapport with them,” he explains. “After the Challenge Cup final, there was a huge celebration at the Plough Hotel. They had these bottles of akevitt. I didn’t know what it was until then but Tommy Steel and I were in a horrible mess… The next morning, I was walking through Stenhousemuir, past the Plough where they were all staying, and they were all laughing and taking the piss out of me!

“Ten years later at the anniversary dinner in 2005, they presented me with my own bottle of akevitt. Two years ago, I was at a game with my youngest and it just so happened they were over. They called me up to the back of the stand and presented me with one of their cowbells. It has a Stenhousemuir’s logo on it and it takes pride of place in my house.”

It is not just Stenhousemuir’s Norwegian fans who hold Mathieson in such high regard; he is still a hugely popular figure amongst the club’s domestic support and is widely considered to be one of their finest ever players. While researching Mathieson’s football career, I made a request on Stenhousemuir’s online fans’ forum for more information on his time at Ochilview. Among the comments, words and phrases like “legend” and “sign him up” frequently appeared.

“Every now and again, some of my mates will go onto Google and do a search and see me mentioned in Stenhousemuir’s all-time XI,” he grins. “I love all that! Absolutely love it.

“It’s also great to go back to Ochilview. I love taking my youngest boy along. The fans sometimes come up and say hello, pat my son on the head and ask him: ‘Do you remember how good your dad was? Are you going to be as good as your dad?’ It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant for people to remember me like that.”

Craig G Telfer

Craig G Telfer

Craig is a keen supporter of Stenhousemuir and still harbours romantic notions towards the club's infamous 2005-06 season. His fictional heroes include Daniel Plainview, John Marston and Pat Mustard.

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  • Reply July 30, 2012

    Gasman

    Great article,remember Millar at Hibs,thought he d be a star ,thought that about Andy Donald and others too,didn’t fancy that boy Fletcher,just shows I can pick a player.keep these articles coming ,great site

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