JR ‘'Hi Marc, thanks for taking the time to talk to me at TSF today. You’ve had a much traveled career in football, and now you find yourself the manager of Waterford FC over in Ireland, how’s that going?”
MB ''I am really enjoying my time at Waterford FC so far. It is good football and getting back in there and working with a young squad. It was a sort of, ‘the only way is up,’ scenario when I arrived because we were six points adrift at the bottom of the league, and that was coupled with covid issues which meant we only had 15 available players available. We had to play three games in a week with little preparation time and we managed to turn it around. We gave ourselves a great chance of staying up which is credit to the players and the ownership.
I love the community feel of Waterford FC and I enjoy the League of Ireland. I have signed a two year contract and I am looking forward to the rest of the season. We are also in the quarter finals of the FAI Cup, so things are going well. But as you know with football a bad time is just around the corner so we need to enjoy ourselves and not get too excited.”
JR “Tell me about your time at Millwall FC where you made over 100 appearances in six seasons with the club. At the time, Millwall had put together an incredibly useful group of players…”
MB “Yes that’s right, the highlight was when we got promoted to the Championship, but my whole time there was a highlight. I grew up with a whole team who were all around the same age, we had some experienced players but the point is we were all friends, even today. Being a QPR fan and having been at the club since the age of nine, I signed for Millwall FC at the age of 16, and my Dad, Lee Bircham, was part of the QPR youth setup. He actually sold me to Millwall and I was devastated being a QPR fan.
But my Dad saw it as the best thing for my career as QPR had some good players and they had so many professionals which meant my chances of getting into the reserves and first team was really only a small percentage. I went through a great youth setup at Millwall FC and being the type of player I was, it sort of suited my best aspects really. I played as a midfielder and in the long run it proved to be a great decision by my Dad, but at the time I was devastated.
But what was lucky for me was that Millwall FC went into administration and they got rid of all the old professionals and they gave us youngsters a go. The youngsters that came through were myself, Richard Sadler, Tim Cahill, Lucas Neil, Paul Ifill, Neil Harris, Joe Dolan and Robbie Ryan… so many of us came through at that time, but we would have never have got the chance if the club had not gone in to administration and been forced to get rid of their older players. We managed to have a great four years together, just missing out on promotion to the Premier League.”
JR “You’ve been in the U.K for so long, and the fans were so used to seeing you playing here, particularly for London clubs, that some may not be aware that you were actually able to declare to play international football for Canada…”
MB ‘’True. Looking back it made me a much better player in a technical sense because coming from Millwall FC, playing a 4-4-2 formation with a high press and getting in behind teams was quite usual for the time. But when I went away with Canada, we would play teams like Guatemala and Honduras and although you may think they are rubbish, the games were played in intense heat, so if you gave the ball away you would not see it for another ten minutes because the players were all great technical footballers.
So it brought on my game in the sense of keeping the ball, it showed me how important that aspect of the game is. It focused me on how I have to use my body to win free kicks. It was a great experience not just professionally but personally getting to travel the world and play in the Aztec Stadium in Mexico and also to play in Cuba, Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands. I played in the Gold Cup and I also played in Japan and South Korea. These life experiences make you a more rounded person.
I also managed to get in the Guinness Book Of Records for being the first person ever to score for their country without having set foot in it when I scored against Northern Ireland away at Windsor Park. I made many lifetime friends which is fantastic because sometimes you can get so focused on the fact that this is a results business, but when you do look back you realize that football is a life business too, and you have life experiences that you feel so blessed and honoured to have because you are decent at the sport you love.”
JR “Who stands out both domestically and internationally as players that just seem to play this game a little better than the rest of us?”
MB “I played against Micky Hazard towards the end of his career in a reserve game against Swindon Town and he ran me ragged, twisting and turning me everywhere. I made my debut with one of my heroes, Ray Wilkins, at the Den against Preston North End and seeing the way that he conducted himself was fantastic. I played right wing back on my debut and Ray said to me, ‘Birch, don't worry about anything, just get your head down and I'll put the ball straight in front of you,’ and I am thinking in my head, 'nice one Ray.’
Gary Bramall was a tough opponent at Blackpool AFC given the fact that he was eight feet wide, just like a bouncer. I also faced Rafael Márquez at international level, he played for FC Barcelona and for Mexico. He was a sweeper, and he hit me with a tackle that was a bit naughty and very hard but I got him back in the end! He was so good technically but he was also nasty as well, which I was quite impressed with.
I have learned that all international teams have a nasty streak in them. For instance, in the case of Argentina when they are clearing the ball, I learned that they also want to clear the man too. I learned a lot from being in those types of situations.”
JR “Marc, thanks for chatting to me today and best of luck with Waterford F.C. On which note, are you planning to stay in management, or is there a desire to experience other facets of the game?”
MB “I would just like to coach and manage at the highest level possible, but it has been hard. I have been in a catch 22 scenario where when you are a young coach and to get your chance as a manager normally you have to stay at the club and someone has to be sacked for you to then become the caretaker. For many of my friends that approach has worked, for example Neil Harris, Paul Warne, Sean Dyche. I was going for jobs in the past where I would get down to the last two candidates and I was losing out because I had no experience. My answer was always, ‘how am I supposed to get experience if someone does not take the chance on me?’
I then had a great opportunity to become Technical Director of the Bahamas, but it was hard as the structure and the setup was not professional. But it was a great experience to live in the Bahamas for a year, supported by FIFA. For me you have got to have a short term plan and a long term plan and my short term plan is where I am now at Waterford FC. Here I can show what I can do as manager and what my beliefs are, and it seems to be working as my record has been excellent since I have been here.
If I keep improving here then I might be able to get a job in England. You can't set goals too high, although my ultimate goal is to manage QPR because I support them, I played and captained them, I coached them too, so the next step to complete the set would be to become the manager of the club one day. Then I could die a happy man knowing I have completed the set as a QPR fan.”
James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.