Big Players Step Up

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He jumped over the advertising board and, arms outstretched, succumbed to the hands and hearts of the fans. The sheer joy or perhaps relief that compels a player to lose all inhibitions and jump into the grasping crowds I can appreciate as a fan, but the trust that must exist between player and crowd is harder to explain; even more so when you consider the animosity that had existed historically and more recently between them and this player.

Kenny Miller has possibly experienced more with our club than another player would in their entire careers. He arrived fresh-faced with hopeful enthusiasm and left just as abruptly without so much as a groan or gasp from the fans. Crossing the old-firm divide caused relations to sour as he became the target of scathing vitriol. If you wear the blue jersey it's inconceivable that you'd ever consider wearing the hooped rag. He turned away from the dark side and, after another uneventful spell in England, returned under a chorus of boos. He quickly won us over with some of the best performances of his career, until again, he left, but this time we were gutted to see him go. A third spell soon beckoned and he arrived with the hope that his goals would fire us into the Premiership. His form since has been frustrating, mirroring the team in many respects.

Kenny Miller's first spell showed promise and burned bright for a time, but quickly fizzed out. Miller arrived in 2000 for a then-modest £2 Million fee after winning the Scottish PFA Young Player Of The Year award. He started slowly and was restricted to a collection of substitute appearances. However, there was a spell in October/November of that year were he showed impressive form, scoring 9 goals in only 6 games, including a quite remarkable 5 goals in a single game against St Mirren. Unfortunately his form fizzled out and only one more goal followed during his first season, with injury, fall-outs with management and a certain Tore Andre Flo the main cause. Apart from that early golden spell, it was an average debut season. He finished with 35 appearances, the majority of which were from the bench. There were only 3 appearances the next season before he was loaned out to Wolverhampton, before moving permanently for £3 Million 2 months later.

A spell across the old-firm divide--becoming only the third player to cross the divide since World War 2, following Alfie Conn and Maurice Johnston--threatened to sever relations for good. A £2 Million fee was agreed between Rangers and Derby, paving the way for his return, becoming the only player to cross the divide twice in the modern era. It was certainly not popular--especially after the antics after scoring against us at Celtic Park. There was an inherent hatred towards the man because of his actions, which was predictable and not entirely uncalled for: how much trust can one place in a man that had played for your most hated rival? Many fans tried to justify their opposition to his return by masquerading their hatred as objective judgement, suggesting he was a poor player, a 'headless chicken' and the like. At this time his critics were many and vociferous, and one always felt a chorus of boos was always on the tip-of-the-tongue. It takes a brave man to enter a hostile atmosphere willingly.

Miller's second spell started the same as his first, slowly in terms of goal returns and, curiously, at home to FBK Kaunas. His critics abounded, but they were swiftly brought on side after Miller netted a brace in the first old-firm game of the season. A sublimely controlled volley into the far corner was the cause of wild celebrations as Rangers took the lead. It was telling that his first instinct was to whirl away and head straight for the jubilant fans, stewards flailing about trying to separate a magnetic attraction. His first season saw a disappointing return of 13 goals in 43 games, but that old-firm brace saw an upturn in his standing with fans. The second year saw a marginal improvement with 21 in 49 games, but crucially another 3 old-firm goals followed, including another brace. His final season was short, but was undoubtedly a purple patch in his whole career, notching 11 goals in his opening 7 games. He finished his season with 22 goals in 25 games, and, despite leaving for Turkey during the January transfer window, Miller finished top scorer in the SPL.

The third spell has been nothing short of disappointing, and has in many ways mirrored the performance of the team as a whole: ageing, lacking confidence and lacking quality. Miller was tasked with spearheading a return to the top division. The first 15 games yielded 5 goals, and the team was merely ticking along without really setting the league alight. A goalless middle spell for Miller coincided with an atrocious spell for the team including 5 defeats and only 3 wins. The season started out with so much promise after an unbeaten season previously, and with a front pairing of Boyd and Miller it was expected to be more than enough to see us win the league at a canter. It wasn't to be. His critics resurfaced.

Miller's game has evolved over the years. When he began it was all about pure speed; he was light-weight, but his speed could get him past anyone. His second spell saw him mature and become a lot stronger. Miller's purple patch in that final half-season saw him prowl the shoulders of defenders; he still had the pace, but his power during this spell was phenomenal, out-muscling many a defender to slot the ball into the net. Miller's first touch has always been lacking, but he always had the raw pace and strength to mitigate this failing. Unfortunately, these attributes have somewhat left him this year as his age has finally caught up with him.

The last few months have seen an upturn in the performance of the team, and crucially, the results. A third place finish condemned us to the play-offs as our only route to promotion. The games against our nearest rivals in the league were big games; not so much in themselves because we couldn't overturn Hibs, but more for our own momentum. Big players step up in big games. Kenny Miller was one of those big players, scoring 4 goals in 11 games since the 2-0 victory at Easter Road in late March. In itself this is not a great record; it's not bad, but it's not great. What is great is the importance of the goals. The goal against Hibs sealed a win that gave us a chance of finishing second. A goal against Champions Hearts gave us another morale-boosting win, and another goal against Hearts followed as we drew at Tynecastle--disappointing considering we were 2-0 up with 10 minutes to go, but remarkable in the course of an extremely poor season.

Miller's critics and detractors abound--and I have been one of them--as he has been symptomatic of a team that has failed in so many ways this season. He's an easy scapegoat. His pace and power may have left him, and his first touch has never been there, but he reads the game well and his use of the ball has been good. Kenny Miller is a big game player, and his experience and goals have been invaluable. Who else would have caressed the ball with the outside of his foot to win us a cagey play-off game against Hibs? Who else would we trust to take that chance? He jumped over the advertising board and, arms outstretched, succumbed to the hands and hearts of the fans. The trust exists because Miller has done it time and time again. Big players step up.

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