Mark Milligan may have moved to Adelaide United in the A-League, but his time with NPL’s St George Saints has grown his belief in Australian players.
As a player Mark Milligan epitomised the spirit of the Socceroo’s.
Starting with the golden generation of 2006, he was part of 4 World Cup squads playing under a different coach in each World Cup finals appearance.
But Milligan’s international success may never have happened, if not for the opportunity he was given in the NSW State league, the forerunner to the NPL.
“That’s where my football started, if it wasn’t for the chance that Melita Eagles gave me at the time when I was very young, my footballing journey may never have gone further than that. That was where my chance with the AIS came and from there everything grew.”
Milligan has just completed his first senior coaching stint with St George Saints in the NSW NPL 2 competition. The 36-year-old will draw on this experience for his upcoming role in the A-League as Adelaide United’s assistant coach.
“It’s been very important for me to create that relationship with the players because I do have that understanding of what it is to be an NPL player. It wasn’t just at the start of my career; it was when the NSL finished when Blacktown took me on, and I played in that NPL space.
"It was a very important time for me with the under 20s World Cup coming up at that time and then again when Sutherland Sharks took me on before the 2006 World Cup.”
After he retired from the A-League with Macarthur in 2021, Milligan briefly took on a role with the Rams as an assistant coach. The 36-year-old was then attracted to the St George Saints because of a clear vision outlined by the club’s director of Football Jane Talcevski.
“The direction that both himself and chairman Bruce Spiteri wanted the club to go was something that interested me a great deal. The fact is that they had put together a very young squad in the hope of building something over several years.”
“A lot of NPL club, I’ve found since I’ve been in the system, will go out and recruit players that will bring them immediate success, the players that have been around the league a long time, the bigger names and that’s not sustainable.
"NPL 1 & 2 should be a breeding ground for young players, it should be a place of teaching, a place of learning and I felt that was the direction that Jane wanted the club to go.”
“The only way I feel you attract young talent to a club, is if you are proven in not only developing them but giving them the chance to play senior football and be willing to let them go to progress elsewhere up the food chain, when that time does come.
"If you do this, you will keep attracting the best young players towards the club. That is the ultimate goal.”
St George Saints chairman Bruce Spiteri said Milligan embraced the club’s philosophy and that’s had a marked impact in a short period of time.
“The young players have risen to the occasion and the more experienced players have really appreciated the training intensity and enjoyed the positive style of football and that’s rubbing off on the other coaches and teams, men’s, women’s boys and girl.
“It’s never been one year or two years it has got to be a three-to-five-year plan. That’s applies to any successful business or football club”
Starting with Guus Hiddink in 2006, Millgan played under several world class coaches at club and international level. He was impressed by the way fellow dutchman Bert van Marwijk organised the Socceroos in a short lead up to the 2018 World Cup.
But his biggest influence is from Australia’s greatest coach.
“Coming home from Japan and playing under Ange Postecoglou when I did was a very very important phase in my career, it changed the way I not only played the game but looked at the game.
"It’s been good for my coaching development seeing him since then, seeing the way that we played and the information that we received to now watching his team Celtic play.
“The biggest thing I took from Ange and all the top coaches I played under is that they all had a very firm belief in the way that they played. It didn’t necessarily matter about the formation, it was the playing style, the way they wanted us to perform was very clear.
"The biggest thing I have taken from that whatever formation I play whatever way I play, if I believe in that then the players will buy in.”
The rich history of the St George Saints provided an extra level of connectivity for Milligan.
“Every time I speak to someone another name is brought up that has come through St George, it’s amazing how many players and Australian coaches went through Barton Park”
Coaching the Saints has also galvanized Milligan’s approach to local talent.
“Being at St George has grown my belief in Australian footballers. I truly believe if you show faith in Australian players and provide a platform for them to learn and become better then they will. I have never felt that the expectation I’ve put on my players has exceeded their capabilities, they have grown with me this season”
“For me the most enjoyable brand of football is being on the front foot, having the ball as much as possible going towards goal. I felt this year as the players have grown with it, that’s they type off football they like as well”
According to Spiteri the clubs short to medium term aim is focused on developing boys and girls to the best of their ability. Long term, St George Saints plan to forge overseas links.
“We are speaking to some Hungarian clubs because of the heritage of St George football, and we are discussing with another club in Spain and have some other options in Europe. We want to develop our younger players at St George to a standard where they can benefit from going overseas to trial, play and learn and that applies to our coaches as well”
“We want to be known for developing good footballers both male and female and people look to us to find their next star. We are not looking to be at A League level or the national second division if that gets off the ground, because we don’t have that type of finance.
"People talk about pathways all the time. We want to make sure we build, we show what we are doing, we get to the next step and people see we are serious about what we are doing” Spiteri said.
Milligan will draw on his faith in Australian players in his next coaching chapter at Adelaide United. Long term he wants to keep on pushing the boundaries.
“Adelaide is a fantastic place for me to continue to learn and grow. As a coach I would like to eventually go back overseas which is why late on in my playing career I went to Scotland and England.
"This was as much about creating relationships and connections, creating a pathway further down the track knowing my coaching intent after I retired from playing,”
“It’s a shame Mark got a better offer” Spiteri said “I don’t blame him; we would have loved him to be around for another year to take the club to the next level, but we will build on that and we are thankful for Mark coming on board and doing what he has done in the time he has been here”
For the 80 times capped Socceroo, the last word goes to the St George Saints.
“The people I have met at the club are wonderful people. The vision of the club from Bruce, Jane and the board is the right way to go about things. The club has had some tough times over the past few years, but the history is very important, we need the hang onto that history in Australian football.
"I feel very fortunate being a part of St George and hopefully I will leave the club in better shape than when I came”
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