'I'm happy I did it': Ahead of Preston North End loan move, Liam Millar reflects on Basel gamble
It was a huge decision for Liam Millar to make.
After patiently biding his time in the Liverpool system, waiting for an opportunity, the then 21-year-old winger had a big choice to make as the summer of 2021 approached.
He'd already gone through a pair of loan stints away from Liverpool, one to Scottish Premiership side Kilmarnock, and the other to EFL League 1 side Charlton Athletic. As such, Millar had also gotten a taste of what first-team football looked like on those stops.
Yet, other than an FA Cup appearance back in the 2019-2020 season, he’d yet to find that opportunity to play regular first-team football back with his parent club.
To be fair, that’s not that surprising - Liverpool was in a pretty good spot at the time, having made back-to-back UEFA Champions League finals in 2018 and 2019, winning the latter, while also nabbing a Premier League title in the 2019-2020 season.
Plus, with the form that Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah were in up front, they were well-stocked at the forward position, making it hard for Millar to even dream of being able to push his way into the XI anytime soon.
Therefore, he had a decision - stick around and try to hope an opportunity somehow opened up, at the risk of waiting a long time to do so and stagnating, or taking the gamble to go elsewhere to establish himself as a professional player at a club, even if it was one not as prestigious as Liverpool.
So after much thought, he decided to try the latter, making the jump over to Swiss side, FC Basel, joining them on a permanent deal.
And safe to say that the move paid off for him. From scoring double-digit goals in his first season, to helping his team go on a deep run in Europe last year, he’s more than established himself as a solid contributor at the professional level.
Liam Millar into double digits with a banger 💥— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) April 10, 2022
The 🇨🇦 forward stayed hot for FC Basel today, scoring his 10th goal of the year (all comps), continuing a fantastic season. He just can’t stop scoring
Here is the goal, great finish in the box#CanMNTpic.twitter.com/jxRXBbcqGi
Given that he was able to even make his triumphant return to England this past week, signing in the Championship with Preston North End, it shows the value of his decision to head abroad, one he’s very pleased he did.
“At Liverpool, I waited my time,” Millar explained to OneSoccer this past week. “I went on my loans, had a decent loan at Charlton, and my first loan at Kilmarnock also wasn't so bad, but yeah, I was trying to bide my time and wait for an opportunity. At some point in youth football, though, you have to wonder if there’s really a pathway for me, is there really a place for me to break into this first team.”
“At the time, the Liverpool wingers were Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, who were two of the best players in the world, so it was always going to be difficult to break through into that position. So I made the decision when Basel came knocking, I knew that it was a big club in Switzerland, so it was a big opportunity for me, something that I really didn't want to turn down.”
“And since coming to Basel, I've made more of a name for myself, I think I've shown people that I do have the potential to become a good player, so I did exactly what I wanted to do by coming here, it was a great decision, and I'm happy I did it.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean he looks back on his Liverpool stint with any regrets, as he only has pride in how things went there.
From working with club legends in the academy, to becoming the first Canadian to play for Liverpool, and everything else he experienced in between, Millar looks back on those days with pride.
“To work with someone like Steven (Gerrard) was a big honour for me,” he explained. “Growing up, there were a couple of players I used to watch and admire, such as Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Steven Gerrard was one of them. And to be able to be coached by somebody who played at such a high level, who has won a Champions League and did so many things in his career was such a surreal thing. As a person, he was exactly how you’d think he’d be, too, which was amazing to see.”
“And to play at Liverpool, who are very prestigious, it was a high level, so it’s something that I'm forever grateful for. I learned so many things during my time there like, from working with Steven Gerrard, Kenny Daglish, Robbie Fowler, so it was an amazing experience. Then, to also make my debut, I think I was also the first Canadian to play for Liverpool at the time, and that was a big achievement for me, and that was a great time for me, I learned so much, and it was a real honour.”
Yet, while Millar’s move to Basel did end up paying off, it’s also worth noting that it was always going to be a big gamble for him.
It’s never easy to make a move like that one, especially when you’re moving to a new country, and have to adapt to a different level of play.
From an outsider's perspective, it may look easy, but between the adaptation a player must go on and off the pitch, it can be a lot to balance.
But for Millar, he was able to quickly find his feet despite that. Doing well in adjusting to the level of his new club, he ended up having a dream first campaign in Switzerland, finishing with 10 goals and five assists across all competitions.
Safe to say, that helped him immensely in his adaptation, as it can be a lot harder to adjust to a new country when struggling to get on the field or find form, giving him a leg up in that process, as he quickly became a go-to guy for his new side.
“Yeah, I felt the respect almost immediately when you're producing numbers like that, and you're playing the way that I was playing, and it was a feeling that I’d never really had before,” Millar explained. “But that's also something that I wanted by going to Switzerland, to experience new things and have an experience being more of that kind of guy on that kind of team.”
“At the time, it was so new to me, so I never knew how to react or deal with it, such as how to deal with how my ego would be, as you never know about these things, right? So it was just a really good experience in terms of what it's like to be more dependable and influential sometimes. So yeah, it was a really good experience, that whole season was amazing for me, I really enjoyed it.”
Liam Millar with the header 💥— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 20, 2022
Millar is making sure he heads into 🇨🇦 camp in great form today, as he’s picked up FC Basel’s opening goal vs Grasshoppers, his 9th goal of the season (all comps)
Here it is. Great back post header from him#CanMNT 🔜pic.twitter.com/8rcaMc9rcU
From there, however, Millar faced one of the toughest realities of the professional game in his second season - adversity. Halfway through his debut campaign, Basel’s head coach, Patrick Rahmen, had been let go, leaving interim manager Guille Abascal to step in for the rest of the way.
Then, heading into the new season, a new manager, Alex Frei, was brought in, and with it came different ideas and philosophies.
All of a sudden, after thriving the year prior as a left winger in a 4-2-3-1, his preferred position, Millar was asked to play more as a wing back, giving him a whole different set of responsibilities.
Then, his minutes dropped, too, as he adjusted to that new role with varying levels of success. Plus, with the club struggling, going from a title contender the year prior to a midtable team, it only added to his misery.
Unsurprisingly, Frei didn’t last very long, as he was replaced by Heiko Vogel in February of 2023, but all of that made for a chaotic start to the season for Millar and his teammates.
But once Vogel came in, things changed, in a big way. Unfortunately, that didn’t have an effect on their Swiss League hopes - those were far out of reach at that point - but his magic would take hold in a different competition - the UEFA Conference League.
There, Basel had their sights set on the trophy, as they’d done well to get out of the group under Frei, and were eager to tackle the knockout stages, which began shortly after Vogel’s appointment.
And in that, they’d catch lightning in a bottle, making a surprise run to the semi-finals, defeating Trabzonspor, Slovan Bratislava and OGC Nice along the way before falling to Fiorentina, with their elimination only coming off a goal scored in the 10th minute of added time of second half extra time in the second leg.
After struggling all season long, it was a magical journey for the club, who had caught the attention of many with their play, nearly marking an underdog story for the ages in the process.
“Honestly, it was amazing,” Millar reminisced of the Conference League run. “When we got out of the group stage and finished second, we were disappointed not to finish first in the group. We felt like we should have, but we dropped points away to Slovan Bratislava, which wasn’t great, and we weren't happy about that, so we then got Trabzonspor in the playoffs, and everybody kind of already wrote us off, saying we were going to lose that game, but then we won the tie.”
“Then, we played Bratislava again, where we had a point to prove, and then we beat them. After, we played OGC Nice, and everybody was saying, oh, we’re going to lose to Nice, but then we went and we beat them, and after that win, I think everybody had the belief that we could really go all the way. Then, in the semi-finals, we played Fiorentina away in Florence, and we won that game 2-1, and there a lot of us were thinking, wow, it’s becoming real, you know? So then we went home, and that was just one of those games where when you look back at it, the minor details are what killed us in the end, which was so disappointing.”
“They scored in the 120th-plus minute to win the game, and it was unbelievable, as we’d made it through the whole game, and we were so close to going to penalties, and then they scored after 120 minutes. But yeah, they were a quality team, they went to the final and they did well, and it was an amazing experience to go through, as for myself, playing in a European semi final was a big thing, not many people in their careers get to say that they've played in one, so that was special.”
Because of that, it was a good end to the season for Millar, who probably never saw that coming after how things started.
Yet, that wasn’t the only moment he’ll look back on with fondness from 2022-2023.
Of course, however, it’s worth noting that the other one wasn’t with Basel, but instead with the CanMNT - their long-awaited return to the World Cup.
After 36 years away from the tournament, they’d done well to make it back for the 2022 edition after a historic qualifying campaign, one where Millar made seven appearances along the way.
Because of that, he was hoping to be a part of the final squad for the tournament proper, completing a long-awaited dream of his.
And while he certainly had a good shot at doing so given that he was included in all but one window throughout qualifiers, there was just one problem - his early-season form with Basel had put him on the fringes of the squad, making his inclusion a doubt.
Yet, thanks to a late push, Millar managed to put that behind him, making that World Cup squad, allowing him to join his Canadian teammates in their return to the big stage.
And there, with a lot of his family present, he even saw the field for nine minutes in Canada’s opener against Belgium, marking a moment he’ll never forget.
“At the time, I was a little bit concerned about whether I was going to make the squad or not,” he explained. “My first season with Basel in 2021-2022 was really good, I played really well, so John (Herdman) gave me a couple of chances.”
“But because of the way I was playing in the first half of the 2022-2023 season, and even the whole of last season, to be honest, I wasn't really happy with the way I was playing, so that was probably one of the most nerve-wracking times of my life because it was such a big moment in Canadian history, and such a big moment in my life also, and I was just hoping and praying that I would make it, so when I found out that I was going, I almost started crying, I was so excited, so happy that I made it, knowing that all my hard work paid off for that moment.”
“When I was a kid growing up in Brampton, did I ever think I would play in a World Cup for Canada? If you asked a younger me that question, I probably would have said no, so the fact that it did happen was such a dream come true.”
A journey nearly five years in the making, starting back in 2018 when he made his senior debut in a March friendly against New Zealand (which just happened to be John Herdman’s first game with the CanMNT), it was a moment to never forget for Millar.
As someone who had always wanted to don the Red and White of Canada since he was a kid growing up in Brampton, it had not only felt like a dream come true because of the fact that it was the World Cup, but because he’d always had a desire to want to make history with Canada, too.
From his first camp with his country, and even before that, that much had always been clear for Millar, which was something that certainly likely stuck with Herdman throughout the years.
“When I was a kid growing up, I’d always wanted to play for Canada,” he explained. “I've always wanted to have Canadian role models and to have a chance like this, so it was always clear that I was going to play for Canada, it was never really a doubt. Before I committed to Canada, I did have a little bit of interest from England, but nothing serious. I talked to them once, and we had a good conversation, but it wasn’t anything serious, so when John came calling me for his first camp, I was ready.”
“The first email John sent actually went to my dad, so my dad told me ‘Hey, you're on the preliminary roster for the Canadian Men's National Team,’ and I couldn’t believe it, as it was amazing just to be on the wide list. But as I told my dad, I was playing for Canada’s U18s at the time, so there was no way I got selected, but it was just cool to even be on the roster.”
“Yet, a couple of days later, I got the email saying I made the final squad roster, and I was in disbelief, I couldn’t believe it. It was John Herdman’s first camp as Canada coach, I’d never met him before, I’d never spoken to him, but then he’d invited me to the camp. So I went to that camp, and that’s where my relationship with John started, he said to me ‘Look, Liam, you have nothing to lose here, go play with absolute freedom and clarity, just play your game’, and that's something I never forgot, throughout that whole camp.”
“I was myself, and I probably had, my best-ever two weeks with Canada, because I was playing with so much freedom, being as creative as possible, and because of that in the game vs. New Zealand, I played really well, you know, I was unlucky not to score in the game, but I think I played really well.”
“But yeah, it was an amazing experience, I honestly couldn't believe it, and from that moment onwards, I felt that we could push on from there, so I’m happy I established myself over time to prove that I could continue to come back, even if I was still a U18 player at the time.”
And that passion isn’t going away anytime soon for Millar.
Just look at this summer, for example, where he represented Canada in the 2023 Gold Cup.
There, he played a big role as Canada looked to win their first trophy since 2000, and even though they came up short in the quarter-finals in an entertaining clash against the US, he had a tournament to remember.
Especially because he was able to finally tick off something that he’d been waiting a long time to do up to that point - score his first goal for Canada. He’d had some close calls in his previous 15+ caps, but never breached the target, something that was starting to weigh on Millar as a forward, given that many others who had debuted after him had found a way to find the target, including several defenders and midfielders.
Yet, thanks to a conversation with Junior Hoilett, he’d stayed calm, knowing that when his moment would come, he’d be ready.
Turns out, that’d be against Cuba in the final group stage game, leading to a pretty joyous show of emotion from the winger, one he’ll never forget.
“It was something that was hard for me, because nearly everybody else had scored a goal among those who’d come in when I came in, so I was the last one,” he explained. “But Junior Hoilett was really helpful to me, because he didn't score for his first 15 games for Canada, so he told me not to worry, as when one comes, they all start to come.”
“So I was trying to be as patient as possible to wait for my moment, so when that ball went in the net against Cuba, it was just such a surreal moment for me, I couldn't believe it, and I think you saw my facial expression, I ran over to the bench. It’s such a surreal moment to score for your country, it’s such an amazing thing, so I’m happy that I got to experience that.”
But now, while Millar is eager to build off these recent milestones with Canada, he must do so without the presence of a familiar face - Herdman, who has now taken up a job with Toronto FC, leaving the CanMNT coaching position vacant (Mauro Biello currently sits as interim manager).
Given that Herdman has been all he’s known with the National Team, having made their debuts at the same time, it’s a departure that stung for Millar, who had enjoyed working with his old Canadian bench boss.
Someone who means a lot to him, as he showed when he celebrated that first Canada goal with him, it’ll certainly be strange for him to not have him around.
Yet, while Herdman is no longer with the CanMNT, Millar will be eager to prove to his replacement that he’s worth keeping an eye on as this Canadian team looks ahead to the 2026 World Cup.
Given that he’s still just 23, he still has a lot of growth on the way, as he feels he’s not yet at his prime.
He’ll look to prove that with his latest move to Preston North End, where he’ll look to take the lessons he’s learned over the last few years, from his time at Liverpool to now.
Therefore, much as Herdman is about to tackle a new challenge, Millar is ready to do the same, as he looks to add another chapter to his National Team career, continuing the journey he’s been on over the last few years.
“When I scored my first goal at the Gold Cup, I ran straight over to him and I gave him a little hug,” Millar said of Herdman. “He's a big person in my life, he gave me my debut for Canada, my debut at the World Cup, he was there for my first goal. Everything that's happened to me with the national team, he is a common factor in all of that.”
“So yeah, when I saw the news, I was obviously a little bit upset, I wasn’t expecting it, so it was sad that he has to go, but I also respect that he wants to take on a new challenge, so I wish him nothing but the best, and we’ll keep in touch.”