They say you should never meet your heroes, but in March this year, editor Glen Wilson was able to do just that for issue 69 of popular STAND, and was far from disappointed. Barry Miller was Rovers’ club captain whilst the side was exiled in non-league just over a decade ago. Still living in Doncaster, he is now back with Rovers once again as the club chaplain, and remains one of the nicest men you will ever meet.
“How’re you, ok?”
“Good, though I’d be better if I didn’t have to look at that every time I come in here”
Barry Miller is pointing at a huge picture of Jamie Coppinger’s title-winning goal at Brentford that spans the width of the Keepmoat Stadium’s East Stand staircase. Though he may be a former Rovers captain, a Doncaster resident, and the current club chaplain, Barry Miller is also a Brentford fan. And so, though he tells me he enjoys coming to the Keepmoat, he doesn’t much enjoy climbing this particular staircase when he’s here.
The team he supports are also the team where it all began for Barry Miller. Growing up in Ealing he joined the Bees as an apprentice, but was released after two years and found himself playing in local non-league football with Epsom & Ewell; “It was a really low league, but playing with my brother and a few mates I really enjoyed it. It was going well so I remember phoning up the Wokingham manager and saying ‘are you looking for a right back?’ And his words were ‘why, do you know any?’”
Luckily Wokingham chose to take Barry on and from there he went on to join Conference stalwarts Farnborough and continued to enjoy his football. “The manager there was fantastic, the best manager I played with, his name was Allen Taylor, he’s not well known but he was like me dad really. And it was kind of what I needed at that time as my head had gone a bit, so I went there and I really enjoyed it, it sorted me out.”
A semi-pro as he was, how did it feel to have professional clubs starting to look at him. Was he aware of their interest? “Well there were rumours that teams were watching me, but nothing really happened.” And when it did, misfortune seemed to get in Barry’s way. “There was one point when Bristol Rovers put in an offer for me and I spoke to Ian Holloway to arrange to go down, but on the Saturday before I was due to go down training with them I did my cartilage. I tackled Tim Ryan when he was playing for Southport – I tried hooking the ball and I ended up kicking him and I did my cartilage. So Holloway had wanted to sign me, but then because I was injured that fell through.”
Eventually Barry did move on, signed by a then third-tier Gillingham side in 1999. The stats I’ve looked up pre interview suggest Barry had a decent run in the Gills team initially but he remembers it differently. “It was horrible. My confidence had been shot. I’d come from Farnborough where I was flying, then I went to Gillingham and it was like I’d never kicked a ball before. Even trying to flick the ball up I just couldn’t do it. I was still in West London, and I used to travel in with Barry Ashby and Junior Lewis, but it was a horrible journey, I used to hate going round the M25. It still sends shivers down my spine.”
Barry’s subsequent loan to Woking, a Conference side on his side of London, was ultimately, it seems, more of a relief than anything. “Just getting away from Gillingham was great to be honest. I was on loan there for most of the season and I was just like ‘extend it, extend it, extend it’ I don’t wanna go back. I didn’t even want to go back to the end of season do, you know.”
He did go back though, and having been told by new boss Andy Hessenthaler that he was going to be given a chance at the Gills, Barry’s confidence returned, though sadly the chance to show how never did and so when the opportunity came to join Rovers he jumped at it. “I was playing really well, but they just weren’t gonna play me, and then they played a youth team player ahead of me a couple of games and so when Steve Wignall phoned up the training ground I said yeah I’ll come up tomorrow. I went up on the train either that night or the next night to come and watch the next game.”
Come the following Saturday Barry was on the Rovers bench, and came on at half-time to brighten an otherwise terrible afternoon for Doncaster fans. “I just loved playing again, you know it was just good to come somewhere where you were actually wanted. They actually came and signed me… and it was a massive club wasn’t it, probably the biggest non- league club.”
People talk about the fans being a 12th man for a team, an added advantage, but you get the feeling with Barry that support from the fans present a 12th man in the form of an additional team-mate, a friendly arm on the shoulder. It becomes clear from just a few minutes talking to Barry that when he feels wanted then he is happy and relaxed, and when he is happy and relaxed he plays his best football.
“The fans were fantastic, and I’m not just saying that as a typical footballer, because I’m talking to you here, you know… because seriously the fans were great I always felt I had a good rapport them and I used to try and mix with them, and my wife got on with them all too.” Was he aware of the nicknames the fans had given him? He gives an embarrassed laugh. “Yeah, ‘Covered in Monkeys’ from the lads behind the dugout [ed – an extended reference to Barry being a huge rock in defence, like the one in Gibraltar], and then the guys on the other side y used to do ‘halaam, halaam’ as well. Do you know what, it was just nice to know that I was wanted, in a sense.”
That said, Barry’s first experience of Rovers fans, when playing for Farnborough, wasn’t as welcoming. “I remember going out the tunnel and there was this old woman shouting at us and swearing at us – Mrs Robinson – she had those little knitted dolls sat in front of her on the barrier. She used to swear at you and moan, and you thought flipping hell, and then I still came and signed for you.”
I ask Barry if he had a favourite memory from playing for Rovers, and he pauses for a long time trying to remember. When a stand out moment does come to him, inevitably it involves the Rovers fans. “I remember the second season I was here, we played Boston at home and I gave away a penalty and Dave Penney took me off. We were playing Stevenage the Saturday after at home, and he dropped me, and I was sub. With abouttwo minutes to go I was like “Get me on, get me on, get me on”, and when I came on the fans just went mad, and I have to say it was like, shivers and tingles down my spine. Everyone on the Pop Stand, and behind me at the back of the dugouts too, but you know you come on facing that, and they just erupted, singing my name, and that was just… it’s not an amazing moment for anyone else, but it was just special, to know that I was appreciated, because everyone likes to be told they’re good at things.”
Though loved by the fans, it was injury that ultimately curtailed Barry’s time at Rovers as he had to sit on the sidelines and watch as Rovers finally fought their way back to the League. “It was hard being injured, because I was told to give up playing, I don’t think many people knew that. I’d had two operations it weren’t recovering so that season was a nightmare. And Dave Penney just didn’t take a liking to me, he just didn’t fancy me. That’s football, it happens, and that’s fine, I don’t mind, you know there are far worse things that happen in the world, but I was gutted when I left, because the fans here were fantastic.”
Released by Rovers Barry went on to play locally, firstly with Gainsborough and then with a strong Hucknall Town side – his performances there earning him further spells in the Conference with Leigh and Burton before he decided to call it a day in 2006 age 30.
Was retiring from football a tough decision? “No. I’d had enough. We’d just had a baby daughter, and I’d been fourteen years travelling around, and I just thought, no. I was at Ilkeston, and not been great, they thought I’d had a heart attack twice, though it turned out it was panic attacks… I’d had tests, been rushed to hospital and the club had tried to stop me getting paid, and I just thought I’ve had enough of this, so I retired and that was it.”
Post football Barry has focussed his attention on work with Bentley Baptist Church, I ask him if religion has always been part of his life. “My missus grew up in a church family, but I didn’t have a clue. My mum and dad separated when I was thirteen, and I’d gone off the rails, drinking, drugs, my mates were nicking cars and I was with them, I was just messed up really, and then I met her and it was amazing. I started going to church with her and it just made sense, it was what I was looking for. I kind of flitted in and out, but then ten years ago, I had a real experience, a real change in my life, and it was from new really, and then I started working for Bentley Baptist Church, which is a really lovely little church. We’d go out on a night and see the prostitutes, the drug addicts, alcoholics you know, have a wander round chat to people”.
Though no longer with Bentley Baptist Church Barry still serves and now works in a local primary school in the town, his kids’ school. “I went in on a Monday and just said look, what do you need doing so you can get on and teach, so I do laminating, gluing and sticking, mopping up wee, cleaning up the sand, whatever, I’d do anything just to help. I also take some kids for reading, so I sit with them and read… well, try and read.” So there’s a group of kids in Doncaster now with London accents? “You know it’s funny, I do phonetics with them and there’s a ‘U’ and they all go “uh” and then I say ‘barth’ and they all correct me and say ‘bath’, so I have to teach them in a Yorkshire accent, the way they speak, but I love it.”
So what does the chaplaincy work involve? “I’m just a shoulder to cry on really for anyone who’s got any issues. Every Thursday I come in, I come down to the stadium first and wander round here, and then I go up to the training ground Football is a macho environment, all the way through, even the fans are like ‘I’m a man, I go to the football’, and they’re not ones to talk. So if someone is struggling in me at least they got someone away from it that they can talk to about anything and I’m not going to go on the tannoy and blurt it out.”
Was that on offer when he was playing, is it something he could have benefitted from? “When I was an apprentice, because I was young, I was a bit of a mess you know and I needed that, but it wasn’t there and I wish it had been. There’s a lot of depression in football, I’ve struggled with it in the past, and especially with Gary Speed’s shocking death, it is there, but never talked about. And even in the fans you know, you don’t know who’s suffering out there,” he says pointing out the window to the fans arriving in the stadium. “But some people, when I walk around, will have a chat with me, and I’m just here for people who need that, my heart is there, I just want to help.”
As we get set to wrap up Barry stands and looks out the window towards the pitch. “I come here now and I watch, and you know, I would love just one more game… I probably wouldn’t fit in the kit no more… but its every supporters dream isn’t it… I know we were joking about Brentford, and yeah I grew up a Brentford fan, but Donny is always going to have something special in my heart, and no matter what’s gone on in the past, I’d just love to get out in front of the fans again, that’d be great.”
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