A Letter From America – The Story Of Bob Millar

In 1735 a proclamation issued by the governor of New York invited ‘loyal Protestant Highlanders’ to settle in the Hudson and the Northern Lakes’ lands. Thousands answered the call and with this increased infusion of immigrant Scottish Highlanders, eight percent of the New York population by 1790 hailed from Scotia. 

The shipping world took note and so the packet ships were born as many fled crop failure, land and job shortages, rising taxes and famine across the British Isles for the perceived land of economic opportunity. These vessels carried cargo, mail and ordinary folk in steerage, below deck where the rats thrived in damp, dark and crowded conditions with limited sanitation. All there was to do for the clans was to dream of their first glimpse of American soil.

“I spent the evening thinking about, All the blood that flowed away, Across the ocean to the second chance’ – The Proclaimers – Letter From America.

One of those who would make that journey to the so-called promised land was a certain Robert Millar of Paisley, a footballer who had begun his career as an inside-left starring for his local team St. Mirren between 1909 and 1911. The club, named after Paisley’s patron saint, was formed in 1875 with its initial sporting interests being cricket and rugby. By 1877 with the popularity of football growing in Scotland, St. Mirren fielded its first team which included six members of the cricket side against Johnstone Britannia, then became founding members of the Scottish league in 1890.

Before Millar arrived in 1908, St. Mirren reached the Scottish Cup final only to be annihilated 5-1 by Celtic at Hampden Park. This game was fondly remembered for a local newspaper reporter’s antics as he dangled on the stadium roof, trying to save the papers containing his match report.

Millar’s career at the ‘Buddies’ saw him involved in the club’s local cup success winning the County Cup, Paisley Charity Cup and Renfrewshire Cup, all still proudly on show in the club’s trophy cabinet. However, league form was lacking with the club finishing continuously bottom of the top-flight table, its salvation being the absence of relegation during that era.

This frustrating league form infuriated Millar, a gifted inside left who was the one true shining light in the team, and contributed to his departure Stateside. As Millar paid his £12 fare for passage to the land of the free, Scotland’s children were downing their pencils in a call for a reduction in school hours, better heating and free meals. 

Bob Millar, 1914

With his passenger manifest document in his back pocket outlining name, age and destination, Millar’s ship landed at the New York harbour quarantine site. Here doctors would check for the diseases of the day like smallpox and yellow fever, but Millar was given a clean bill of health and headed for Ellis Island. First and second class passengers, those of middle and upper-class stock, were allowed to disembark first. Millar and those in steerage faced the daunting U.S. customs officials, although the Scot was never short of a few words and passed with flying colours.

Millar found work in Pennsylvania at Disston Saw Works, a company founded by Englishman Henry Disston. It had become the original melting plant for steel in America and began producing the first crucible saw steel made in the United States. A bonus for Millar was the Disston Athletic Association created for company employees who had an interest in sports, including football. An exemplar of Victorian utopianism, Disston believed he had an obligation to improve his workers and their families’ lives.

In 1909 the works team Tacony FC had dethroned the Pennsylvania league champions Kensington Hibernians and were crowned amateur American Cup champions. A trio of Scots contributed to this success: captain Hector McDonald, Percy Potts and Scotland junior international Robert Morrisson who between them made up a dynamic half-back line.

By 1912 with Millar finding his feet on the left-wing in Tacony’s colours, the team was striving for an unprecedented third consecutive Pennsylvania league title. On April 13th 1912, this record was achieved against Trenton Caledonians, a team also filled with immigrant Scots, by a single goal margin. Millar easily slotted into one of America’s first great sides and with his stock rising Brooklyn Field of New York approached him.

The Paiselyite arrived in Brooklyn just in time for the first running of the National Challenge Cup that took place between the Autumn of 1913 and the Spring of 1914, with forty teams taking part. The competition was whittled down to a final two of Brooklyn St.Mary’s Celtic, a team named after the church where Brother Walfrid founded Glasgow Celtic, and Brooklyn Field.

Millar had helped his Brooklyn side navigate its way to the final which took place at Coats Field in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on May 16th, 1914. The local scribes set the scene: ‘Long before the captains had met in the center of the field… every vantage point within the spacious enclosure was taken up with humanity.’ Among the masses were a number of local football dignitaries, including Thomas Bagnall, President of the New York Amateur American Football Association, and USFA supremo Dr. Rudolph G. Manning, here to see who would be crowned the true football champions of America.

After the pressmen snapped their team photographs and a moving picture machine was set up in the grandstand to film this historic occasion, Thomas Campion kicked off for the Celtic of Brooklyn. Alas, it was their opponents who started the brighter and took the lead after two minutes. Bob Millar did the damage by striking a fierce shot on goal that Celtic keeper Frank Mather struggled to keep out. Before the net-minder had an opportunity to collect his initial parry, Percy Adamson pounced to net for the Field.

Bob Millar & his Brooklyn Field teammates

The game was a tenacious affair and spilled over with bouts of rough play,  the Pawtucket Times mentioning how ‘Millar tripped with his feet and chopped with his elbows’. Big Bob certainly wasn’t afraid to mix it! Such play culminated in a penalty awarded to Brooklyn Celtic after 25 minutes, with star forward Roddy O’Halloran upended by keeper Matthews as he closed in on the Field goal. Campion slotted away the penalty to level for the ‘Hoops’ and the score remained tied until the referee whistled for the break.

In a tense second half, Celtic were forced to defend desperately against the marauding Brooklyn Field men who were dominating the proceedings. With only minutes remaining before extra-time, Millar picked up the ball on the left and centred for James Ford who lept ‘salmon-like’ to head the ball past the despairing Matthews, creating American history and sending the Field fans into raptures. In their post-match summary, the newspapers all singled out Millar as the star man who was instrumental in everything Brooklyn Field did well.

Millar cut ties with Brooklyn Field that September of 1914 and started turning out instead for the ‘steelworkers’ of Bethlehem Steel. In his debut season there he set a US record in netting fifty-nine goals in thirty-four league and cup games, as Bethlehem were crowned National Challenge Cup champions. Millar picked up his second championship medal, again defeating Brooklyn Celtic 3-1 with the Scotsman scoring the first goal. Meanwhile America under Woodrow Wilson had its eyes turned towards what was happening in Europe as the Great War trundled on.

A playing career of more than a decade would finish at the New York Giants in 1925, Millar witnessing both the arrival of the professional American League Association and its quick demise against the backdrop of the Great Depression of 1929. The Giants themselves would fold in 1932, a year after playing Scottish cup holders Glasgow Celtic at the Polo Grounds in New York; the great Jimmy McGrory delighting the New Yorkers with his skills and scored twice, while John Thomson starred in goals as Celtic triumphed 3-2.

Millar turned his attentions to management after hanging up his boots and was appointed to the top job in U.S. football, becoming American football boss in 1928. He had been capped twice by his adopted country, both games against neighbours Canada and one which brought a 6-1 demolition. In the summer of 1930, Bob Millar led his American team at the inaugural World Cup held in Uruguay. The team left for the championships by boat on the SS Mugaro and were joined by the Mexican team who joined from the port of Veracruz. Millar was very critical of the facilities on the boat with no open deck for exercising and small cramped bathrooms.

Casting aside these logistical issues, in their opening game the US defeated Belgium 3-0 then followed up with a win against Paraguay by the same scoreline. As news filtered back home and interest in the team’s exploits grew, now only Argentina stood in front of Millar and a World Cup Final. Unfortunately for the Americans, Argentina represented a formidable opponent and, inspired by two-goal Guillermo Stábile, swept to a 6-1 victory.

Bob Millar with his US Team

On the day Millar and his team were furious with the roughhouse tactics of the los Albicelestes. Star forward Raphael Tracey had his leg broken after ten minutes but incredibly played on for the whole first half. The American dressing room resembled a casualty ward with Jimmy Douglas in agony with a knee injury and Bert Patenaude lying prostrate across the floor in agony due to a stomach injury – he would later be hospitalised; meanwhile Andy Auld bemoaned the loss of four teeth. That evening in the heat of Montevideo Bob Millar decided he would retire from football altogether and on his return to U.S. soil opened a bar on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

In 1950 a small group of ex-footballers in Philadelphia came up with the idea of a ‘National Football Hall of Fame’ to honour and recognise those who had contributed to the sport throughout the U.S. The first-ever inductee was Bob Millar, the man from Paisley who had starred for nine different clubs Stateside after passing through Ellis Island. His CV included winning the U.S. Open Cup four times and smashing all goal scoring records in the 1914/15 season with Bethlehem – and of course he went on to manage his adopted country to its first World Cup appearance.

Today, at the Toyota Stadium in Dallas is housed the National Hall of Fame museum where thousands come to learn about the history of football in America, and an important part of that history and that museum is Robert Millar – the man who conquered the land of the free.

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