Opinion

Southend is not the end for Milligan, it could be the perfect start

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It was only when my team Blackburn Rovers rolled up at Southend United for the first game of the 2017-18 season that the fact we had been relegated to League One sunk in. The 12,000 capacity Roots Hall Stadium is just an hour or so away from the famous London homes of Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea and Tottenham but it felt like a million miles.

It can still generate quite an atmosphere though when the team gets going, as Mark Milligan is going to find out.

The team may need the Australian captain more than he needs them at the moment, but it does not have to be a major step down from Hibernian even if the midfielder may miss the beautiful Scottish capital.

At least it will remind that English football is not just about the Premier League.

That glitzy behemoth is watched and followed around the world but there is much more to the game than that.

Indeed, English football’s beating heart can be found further down a long, vibrant and rich football pyramid.

Only a handful of Asian leagues can beat League One’s average crowd last season of close to 9,000.

In terms of standards on the pitch, the English lower tiers have improved in recent years.

With the influx of foreign coaches higher up the ladder, young domestic coaching talent is having to start lower and with the advancements made in coaching education in recent years, there are ambitious and forward-thinking tacticians around - the football is not all hoof and hope.

And that is why the move is interesting. Eyebrows will be raised at the prospect of the captain of Australia playing in the third tier of English football but there is clearly something else in mind.

In the short-term Milligan gets a season on the pitch in England’s third tier but after that there is the option of a coaching role.

The Socceroos star has been earmarked as a future coach and while there are plenty of options and destinations around the world, starting at a place like Southend is sure to provide plenty of education and experience.

The midfielder has played all around Asia. There have been spells in China (where fans nicknamed him ‘Popeye’ due to his long throws), Japan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

There is plenty of experience and know-how to pass on from those football cultures.

There is plenty more to learn. For example, seeing what it is like to take a team through an intense 46-game season with the chase for promotion, or the play-offs or relegation is something that will stand ‘Millsy’ in fine stead.

Keeping what can quickly become a stretched squad as fresh as possible when games are coming thick and fast and still trying to work on things in training is not easy.

There are off-the-pitch considerations too such as the fact that Southend is a team that has to fight with the big London clubs for local support.

Also, being near the capital is a great thing for any aspiring coach. In London there is so much football to watch, seminars to attend and people to meet, and that is even before you take into consideration that Europe is right there on your doorstep.

Even little old Southend airport has direct, quick and cheap flights to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Milan and Paris.

It would be great to have more Australian coaches working in the upper echelons of European football.

History has shown that going straight from the A-League to a decent European job is tricky.

Unfortunately, even success in Asia is not likely to be enough, though Ange Postecoglou may show that it is possible in the not-too-distant future.

So starting in the lower leagues of England will provide plenty of experience and education that can be added to a fine playing career which will enable Milligan to go and work anywhere in the world.

It would also be a first step on the English coaching ladder and who knows where that will lead?

Someone will be the first Australian coach to take charge of a Premier League team and there is no reason why, in a few years, that someone can’t be Mark Milligan.

Southend could be the beginning of something special.