Mills back at Molineux as Wolves Foundation coach

Mills back at Molineux as Wolves Foundation coach Image

Wolves Foundation deliver a wide range of educational programmes both in schools across Wolverhampton but also for students heading into further education. And one of their recent staffing recruits has arrived at Molineux with plenty of previous knowledge of all things Wolves.

The first time Lee Mills came back to Molineux after leaving Wolves, he scored in front of the North Bank to help Bradford secure promotion to the Premier League and condemn his former employers to another year in the Championship.

That was back in the May of 1999, when the Bantams’ 3-2 victory saw them clinch second spot in the Championship leaving Wolves seventh, just agonisingly shy of the play-offs.

Twenty-three years later, Mills’ new impact at Wolves is expected to be slightly more favourable!

He has recently returned to the club to start work as an Education Coach at Wolves Foundation, with a particular responsibility for the BTEC programme run in conjunction with the City of Wolverhampton College.

Having started and finished his professional playing days under the management of Graham Turner at Wolves and Hereford respectively, so too now his career has moved full circle as he returns to Molineux where he spent two-and-a-half years in the early 1990s.

“It’s really nice to be back, and I’m really enjoying it so far,” says 52-year-old Mills.

“The staff and the other coaches have been fantastic in my first few weeks and I’m loving being back.

“It almost feels like fate, everything happens for a reason, and everything has worked out really well.”

Working with students at the Foundation’s Football & Education College Academy offers Mills the chance not just to pass on his coaching expertise to the BTEC students, but also his life experiences, from a career which had very different beginnings to that of many footballers.

Born in Mexborough in South Yorkshire, Mills embarked on an apprenticeship with his local council which included day release to study accountancy.

“That was the job I was aiming to do to be honest, sat behind a desk all the time,” Mills explains.

At the same time however, he was turning out in non-league – the Northern Counties East League to be precise – for Stocksbridge Park Steels, a club which also features Chris Waddle, Jamie Vardy and Scott Hogan in other notable alumni.

Whilst Mills was hugely impressive leading the line, and scored plenty of goals, at the time he was happy enough combining part-time football with the accountancy training.

Then, all of a sudden, life changed.

Mills’ Stocksbridge team-mate and regular provider of ammunition from the wing, Simon Howe, was invited to a trial at Walsall.

It soon transpired that they needed a striker to make up the numbers, and so Mills went along too.

“I played for Walsall Reserves against Wrexham, and scored a hat trick in a 3-3 draw, and poor old Simon had a stinker,” Mills explains.

“After that a few scouts came up to watch me play for Stocksbridge the following weekend, and I scored four in a 4-2 win.

“After that, there was interest from Walsall, then in the Fourth Division, Wolves, in the Second, and Coventry, who were in the Prem.

“My thought was that Coventry was too big a jump, going from effectively Step 7 on the pyramid to the top, and that with Walsall, if I didn’t make it there, I would end up dropping back into non-league.

“I just felt it was worth having a crack at Wolves, where Graham Turner was manager because, as daft as it sounds, if I failed there, I might still have a chance lower down.

“I remember talking to my parents about it, because I’d been happy planning for the accountancy, but my Dad just asked me what’s the worst that could happen.

“I’d be signing a three-year contract to become a professional footballer, and if it didn’t work out, I could just go back home and start again.

“And so it was, that on the Wednesday I was sat behind a desk dunking my Kit Kat in a cup of tea, and five days later I had signed for Wolves.

“Although I couldn’t start at Molineux straightaway – the council made me work a month’s notice!”

Eventually, when he was able to finally make the move, Mills went into a well-stocked department of senior strikers at Wolves including Steve Bull, Andy Mutch, Colin Taylor and Darren Roberts.

His very first game was for the reserves against Aston Villa, played at Molineux at the time when what was in the process of becoming the Billy Wright Stand down the side of the pitch had been knocked down for refurbishment.

Mills was brought down by Ugo Ehiogu for Wolves’ penalty in a 1-1 draw, before a surreal moment at full time.

“Ron Atkinson was at the game as he was the Villa boss at the time, and he came over, shook my hand and said: ‘Well done big man, what’s your name?’

“I responded by asking him for his autograph – that’s how things were for me at the time – this was Ron Atkinson, who managed Sheffield Wednesday, from the area where I grew up.

“My family and friends couldn’t believe it when I told them I’d met Big Ron, and that he’d told me I’d played well!”

Mills progressed to break into the first team, finding the net on his debut in an Anglo Italian Cup tie against Birmingham, and ultimately making 33 senior appearances, 14 of which came from the bench.

He scored four goals in total, the most significant of which came in a giant-killing FA Cup win at then Premier League Ipswich, on a glorious night at Portman Road in March, 1994.

It was a decent effort as well, firing home with his left foot on the half volley as the ball dropped to him inside the penalty area.

It was the first time Wolves had beat top-flight opposition in a cup match for 13 years, and the first FA Cup tie Ipswich had lost at home to a team in a league below them since 1966.

“I’d say that was my first game with the proper first team, as that Birmingham one in the Anglo-Italian was with a lot of fringe players,” Mills recalls.

“It was a big game, in the FA Cup, and was a really good scalp at the time.

“People talk about having dreams and trying to fulfil them and I remember thinking, ‘does it get any better than this’?

“I was still brand new to it all and remember one of the press grabbed me for an interview after the game so I started talking to him – and the team bus left without me.

“I got a phone call from Graham [Turner] asking where I was as they were well on the way back to Wolverhampton.

“I didn’t really know the protocol and just thought I was helping out by doing the press interview – it’s a good job I had scored so the gaffer let me off and they paid for my taxi home!”

Incredibly, despite Wolves reaching the FA Cup quarter finals where they were edged out by Chelsea, Turner’s seven-and-a-half year reign came to an end less than two weeks after that famous Ipswich win, with Graham Taylor taking over.

And Mills credits the former England boss with adding another layer of technical know-how to his game, which served him extremely well for the remainder of his career.

“Back in those days players were pigeon-holed a lot more than now and, as a big, tall striker, it always worked better when I was put alongside someone a bit smaller with a bit of pace,” he explains.

“But I would say that Graham Taylor was one of the biggest influences on my career.

“I moved from having no rhyme or reason to how I played, mainly just doing stuff ‘adhoc’ or on instinct, to Graham showing me where and when I should make my runs and where the ball was likely to come from.

“He did so much work tactically on my running, helping me to conserve energy far better, and it just simplified everything and really helped me progress.

“Five years later I played for Bradford against Graham’s Watford side and scored and I remember him telling me I had come back to haunt him.

“I thanked him there and then because without him I don’t think I would ever have had the successes I enjoyed later in my career.”

Those successes came particularly with Bradford, where Mills top-scored with 24, including that final day effort against Molineux, as they secured second spot in the Championship and promotion to the Premier League.

In between times he had been to Derby and Port Vale – including two FA Cup draws against all-conquering Arsenal before losing on penalties – before becoming the Bantams’ record signing and the first ever for over £1million.

For a few minutes anyway, until Isaiah Rankin checked in for a slightly higher fee a few minutes later!

“That game against Wolves, when I scored to help Bradford get promoted, was a bittersweet moment,” says Mills.

“I wanted us to get promoted but still had a lot of affinity for Wolves and will be forever grateful to the club as I wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for them.

“I certainly wasn’t trying to prove a point or rub anything in with that goal, and I’d been on edge a lot around that game.

“But ultimately it was probably the pinnacle of my career, winning promotion to the Premier League and scoring a goal at Molineux where it had all started.”

Mills would go on and score five goals in the Premier League, and also turn out for Bradford in European competition, in the Intertoto Cup.

One of those games was against Zenit St Petersburg, who had later Arsenal striker Andrei Arshavin making his debut, and while Bradford were ‘played off the park’, it was another achievement off the bucket list for the Mills’ CV.

It was a career which brought over 400 senior appearances, and 127 goals, and also spells with what was a very different Manchester City back in the day, Portsmouth, Coventry and Stoke.

Mills finished up playing in non-league, with Telford and back under Turner at Hereford, and  managed at Bridgnorth Town, before deciding to take a complete break from football for a while.

He ran a couple of businesses with his former partner before, back in 2013, reigniting his passion for football and getting back into the industry.

Having already completed some coaching qualifications whilst at Bridgnorth, Mills started working at Telford College before moving on Dudley College, where he spent six years as Head Coach which also including managing the affiliate team operating in the adult West Midlands (Regional) League, forging close links with Stourbridge FC.

“I realised as I got back into football that what I really enjoy is working with young players, and helping them to improve,” he says.

“How I started, I really needed someone to give me an opportunity, and it’s nice now to be on the other side trying to give others that same opportunity.

“I’ve been through that experience of being a young player and if I can give a bit back and pass on a bit of the knowledge I have picked up along the way, then that is something which really motivates me.”

And that mention of the past brings Mills neatly back to the present, and the role he is now delivering at Wolves Foundation.

The BTEC course, a link-up between the Foundation and the City of Wolverhampton College, offers students the chance to learn about the sports industry by studying in areas such as anatomy and physiology, coaching, sports science and performance

Being part of the Football & Education College Academy also offers the chance to play fixtures in an exclusive EFL league against teams such as Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and many more.

Mills oversees that team which gives him a good opportunity to put his ideas across over a lengthy period of time, both on the training pitch and from the dugout on a matchday.

“Brad [senior education officer Brad Moore] has kindly given me the Year One students to work with, and they are among the best group the Foundation have ever had,” he says.

“It means I will have two years working with them which offers a really good opportunity to get my ideas across and hopefully develop the lads during that timeframe.

“I have been ever so impressed by their quality, some of their play already has been fantastic.

“I am really enjoying it and there really is nowhere else I’d rather be now – I can’t honestly see myself coaching anywhere else.

“It’s strange because in my playing career Graham Turner was my first manager at Wolves and my last at Hereford, and now I am back at Wolves where it all started as well.

“It’s come full circle, but what a club Wolves is now, and how much it has changed since my time before.

“When I was here then, there were about 30 staff in total, no training ground and the Billy Wright Stand was still being built.

“The club seems to have developed in every capacity you could ever imagine, and the supporters must be very proud of what has been achieved.

“And so, to come back now, and start working for the Foundation, I couldn’t have written the script better if I tried – it’s perfect.”

As seen by that Wolves goal at Ipswich, and then returning to help Bradford secure promotion on his old stomping ground, writing his own scripts is something that Mills is particularly good at.

With his return to Molineux, it is now the Wolves Foundation students who will be able to tap into his knowledge and expertise as they set out with the aim of making their own impact in the footballing world.

*Interested in finding out more about the BTEC College Academy?  Click here and complete the form to receive more information.

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