“It’s crazy in football – I don’t think people realize that your life literally changes in a matter of hours.”
When Rob Milson signed for Aberdeen on a fixed-term contract in January 2011, the club was going through a difficult period in its history.
Sentiment among supporters, hungover from the disastrous Mark McGhee reign, had turned from anger to indifference.
Craig Brown had been brought in by Stewart Milne after being persuaded by Sir Alex Ferguson to take the job to stabilize the ship and set to work in his first Pittodrie transfer window.
Milsom, then 24, was one of Brown’s first recruits. The former Scotland coach had become aware of the midfielder in almost old-school fashion.
There was no database trawling or video sifting through, just a simple phone call from Brown to David Moyes, Everton manager at the time.
Milsom played reserve team football at Fulham after recovering from a cruciate ligament injury after two consecutive loan spells in the English lower leagues and one in Finland, and in a twist of fate – unbeknownst to him – he impressed a watching Moyes.
“I played against Everton as a reserve team,” he exclusively recalls Soccer Scotland.
“The move to Aberdeen came about because Billy McKinlay was obviously my reserve team manager and David Moyes was Everton’s first team manager at the time.
“Craig Brown had just got the job at Aberdeen and he mentioned to David Moyes, ‘Do you have anyone at Everton?’
“And I think he said, ‘I saw a game today and there was a boy playing for Fulham who will be good for you, you’d better talk to Billy’.
“Billy spoke to me about the opportunity and it was obviously very different going up to Scotland.
“I knew a little bit about Aberdeen but I didn’t know how big the club was.
“They have big games against Celtic and Rangers and other big clubs up there, Hearts and Hibs and I had tried League One and League Two and I didn’t enjoy it at the time so I thought why not?
“Let’s go and give this and crack and see how it goes.”
When he first caught the interest, his first instinct was to google the club.
Something about that initial research drew him to Aberdeen, but it wasn’t until he spent some time in the city that he began to understand the size of the club.
“I looked at the stadium,” he says. “I knew it was a great stadium.
“I had a vague idea of the history of European competitions, Sir Alex Ferguson coming from Aberdeen and stuff like that, but I wasn’t entirely clear on the scale of what they had achieved and the size of the club for a couple of weeks, of talks with people within the club and across the city across Aberdeen itself.
“To be honest, I didn’t really realize how big the club was.”
Milsom, now 35 and playing in the second division with Sutton United, flew to Aberdeen on a Wednesday night and met his team-mates on Thursday before making his debut against St Mirren on Saturday.
The Dons defeated the Buddies 2-0 thanks to a double from Scott Vernon and an impressive midfield performance from their new signing and began to open a healthy gap between them and the bottom of the table.
Brown and Archie Knox, his assistant at the time, were in the process of stabilizing the club after McGhee and did so quickly and efficiently.
“They were brilliant with me,” says Milsom. “Craig, he didn’t really tell me much in terms of gaming, he gave me the freedom to go out and play my own game and express myself, obviously within a structure.
“You knew if you didn’t work hard enough, Archie would be the one who would weigh you down pretty badly.
“From what I’ve heard Archie had softened up a bit compared to Rangers and Everton at this point.
“They were great characters. Archie was so funny, great guy. He texted me out of the blue not too long ago before I played with Notts County in the play-offs, which was a nice touch.”
Milsom immediately became a mainstay in the Dons’ starting XI and would extend his contract by two years.
With his driving skills in midfield, he made himself popular with the Red Army.
“I can’t praise the fans enough,” says Milsom. “Especially in my first year at the club, up until I got the nasty injury, I don’t think I missed a game in God knows how many games.
“I was trying to provide that energy, to walk around and do my best for the team. I think they appreciated that.
“I know you can’t please everyone, but that’s how I felt in the games back then.
“Everyone seemed really supportive. You’ll bring your grocery store in and everyone will want to chat with you or say ‘Well done’. I felt like I had a good connection with the fans.
“Of course it got difficult when I got injured and was out for quite a long time.
“I never got back into shape at club which was unfortunate but for the first year, year and a half that I was fit it was great.”
For a 24-year-old, Milsom hadn’t played many senior games when he arrived in north-east Scotland.
That all changed in Aberdeen until another major setback saw Milsom sidelined for a long time.
On his 25th birthday in January 2012, he suffered a severe knee injury under the most gruesome circumstances.
Aberdeen had beaten Dundee United 2-1 at Tannadice, a game in which Kari Arnason scored an impressive long-distance win for the away side.
Milsom shares an insight into the mental turmoil of fighting back against such an injury.
“A boy came in and hit my other knee from the other side and I knew straight away what I had done because it felt similar to what I had done before.
“I tried to move on but I knew in the back of my mind it wasn’t right so I walked away and had surgery and it was a four month recovery.
“Four months is a long time, but when I went through the 12 months before that, it felt like I could do it — that’s no problem.”
However, after four months, there were greater difficulties and another operation was required.
He returned but continued to struggle in the pre-season friendlies, which meant more surgeries.
“It ended up being about 10 months,” he says.
“To be honest, at that point I think the club just lost a bit of confidence in me.
“During that time I worked so hard in the gym to be able to play and get fit again and when I got my opportunity I felt like I took it.
“When I first came back there was a game against Hibs and I became man of the match thinking things are great.
“But I think then the club had lost a bit of faith in me, which was difficult, and then Derek McInnes obviously came on towards the end of that season and I hadn’t played many games.
“It was a disappointing end. I would have liked to have had another year, another pre-season to get myself back on track and get back to that.
“I went from there to Rotherham and had a pre-season and then I went on and had a really good season. I think I just needed that fresh start again.”
McInnes, who was set to become Aberdeen boss for eight years, was appointed in March 2013, replacing Brown when he decided to retire.
Willo Flood and Barry Robson, both midfielders at the time, were signed by McInnes as part of a squad reshuffle.
Milsom didn’t have a chance to prove himself.
“I think Derek McInnes wanted to bring his own players,” he explains.
“I obviously haven’t played in a long time.
“At the end of the day I don’t know what happened or what conversations they had with the people upstairs or whatever but my contract wasn’t renewed.
“If it could have been extended, I would have gladly stayed.
“The conversation was that Derek McInnes had his own goals that he would try and sign and he would be in touch with me throughout the summer.
“So I called him to say listen I’ve been talking to Rotherham where are you?
“He said, ‘I think it’s best if you sign for Rotherham.’
“Obviously if the chat had gone, ‘I really want you to stay with Aberdeen, that’s the contract,’ yes I would have signed it straight away.”
Milsom, who is still in touch with two of his old team-mates at Arnason and Fraser Fyvie, still looks back fondly on his time at the club despite the end.
He says: “When I played everything was great. When I wasn’t playing and I was injured I found it tough just because I was frustrated that I couldn’t play and help the team.
“Overall I like it, but with a little – I don’t know what to really call it. [I’m] just a bit disappointed that the injury happened and it lasted so long.
“There was nothing I could really do about it, so there’s nothing I particularly regret, but it’s just evaporated a bit.
“Because I feel like if I had gotten a bunch of games one more time I could have gotten back to that level and continued from where I was before I got injured.”
Concluding our chat, Milsom, who has made 59 appearances for the club, says Aberdeen will always be his Scottish team.
“100 percent,” he adds without hesitation.
“I’m going to get my little boy an Aberdeen top. That will be his Scottish club for sure.
“I feel like your first club where you go somewhere, you play regularly and you feel like you are doing well, that always stays with you and stays close to your heart.
“That was my club where my career really started.”
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