Alex Miller packed more emotion into his seven months in charge of JEF United Chiba last season than most coaches manage in their entire careers, but the Scotsman believes the experience may prove the making of his team.
Miller arrived in Chiba when Croatian Josip Kuze paid the price for winning only two points from his first 11 matches at the club, and the former Hibernian manager spent the rest of the season picking up the pieces.
An impressive run of five straight wins pulled JEF clear of the relegation zone in October, but a subsequent wobble sank the Chiba club back into the mire. Only a win against FC Tokyo on the final day coupled with defeats for Jubilo Iwata and Tokyo Verdy would be good enough to secure survival.
At 2-0 down to the capital city side, JEF’s season-long struggle looked doomed to failure. But then an incredible 11-minute goal rush gave Miller’s side a 4-2 lead just as Jubilo and Verdy fell behind in their matches, and the J. League’s greatest escape became a miraculous reality.
Miller believes his team can use the experience to its advantage in the coming season.
“We know now how to win matches,” he said. “We had to win a lot under pressure last year, and I think last year will help the players as far as handling the pressure.
“I’ve learned more about my own players — in adversity who you can trust and who you can’t, who gets nervous who doesn’t get nervous, who can handle the big occasion.”
Not that Miller is keen to repeat last season’s ordeal.
“It’s very important to get off to a good start,” he said. “We have a hard game against Gamba Osaka to start, and they have got good experience of playing away from home.
“When you play Champions League you get good experience from playing away from home. You handle pressure, you know how to organize your team accordingly — that’s how the top teams have been involved in the European Champions League.”
Miller has strengthened his squad with experienced heads such as Masaki Chugo from Kashima Antlers, and the manager believes the increased competition will force his players to maintain their edge.
“I see a difference in the training environment because they’re trying to show me they should be in the team,” he said. “They’re competing against each other — I want your place and you want my place.
“Chugo brings good passing ability. We’ve also got Alex from Kashiwa who is quite experienced and can play a few positions. We have a small squad so we need players who can play in numerous positions.”
Miller insists he was confident his team could do its part once it drew level with FC Tokyo on the final day, but nevertheless refused to believe survival had been achieved until he was absolutely sure.
“What was going through my mind was that sometimes football can be a cruel game,” he said. “I thought if we could get to 2-2 then it’s respectability, but when it went to 2-2 I knew we would win, no problem.
“The TV gentleman told me that we had stayed in J1. I didn’t want to believe him because I had a friend in Scotland that actually celebrated promotion out on the pitch and then was told the score was 1-1. He thought the other team got beat 1-0 and he was up, but it wasn’t and he was still in the same division.
“So I had that in my mind and I wasn’t going to dance about and look stupid. Eventually it came up on the screen but by that time I couldn’t do it because I was just physically and mentally drained. It was a roller-coaster season.”
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