Ask any knowledgeable observer in the world of non-league football for a list of the best players to have graced the semi-pro game, then one name is likely to crop up time and time again.
Cultured midfielder and current Bamber Bridge star Jamie Milligan has been undeniably one of the stand-out performers outside of the four divisions of the Football League over the past decade or so.
There is not much Milligan has not accomplished in non-league football – mind you what did you expect from someone who was good enough to grace the Premier League with Everton as a youngster?
A member of the prodigious Everton youth team which won the 1998 FA Youth Cup – beating Blackburn Rovers 5-3 on aggregate in the final – Milligan grew up at Goodison Park playing alongside players such as Leon Osman, Richard Dunne and Francis Jeffers.
Like many of his team-mates, Milligan later went on to graduate to the Toffees first team – making his debut as a substitute against Premier League champions of the time Arsenal at Highbury in 1998.
Unfortunately, the Lytham lad was unable to make more of a mark on Merseyside and was sold to Blackpool after making just four appearances.
Although injuries affected his time at Bloomfield Road, he still enjoyed some good times and appeared at the Millennium Stadium in the 2001 Third Division play-off final as the Tangerines won promotion by beating Leyton Orient 4-2.
Despite his spell in the professional game, Milligan is most remembered for being a stalwart of Fleetwood Town’s astonishing rise from non-league pretenders to Football League outfit.
In seven years with the Cod Army, he won countless promotions and departed in 2013 having skippered the club from the NPL Premier Division to League Two.
“It’s a really nice feeling when I hear people say that I’m one of the best players they have played with in non-league,” Milligan said. “I’ve always been one to try to help out my team-mates, especially the younger lads.
“Non-league football is tough because a lot of young players come into it having been released from a professional club and they find themselves getting whacked about.
“It is not something they have been used to because they have come from academy football, which is all nice and a little bit false really.
“I kind of understand that coming from the professional game.”
Despite being able to call himself a former Premier League footballer and his glittering non-league career, are there any hints of regret that he did not make more of an impact in the professional game.
“Looking back I probably should have made more appearances than what I did in the Football League but I can’t complain too much really.
“I’m more than happy with what I’ve been able to do in my football career. I feel like, I’ve been dead lucky. A lot of people would probably love to have done what I have been able to achieve.
“My debut at Arsenal was all a bit surreal if I’m being honest with you.
“I had been in and around the first team squad because I had been doing really well in the youth team.
“I managed to get on for the last five or 10 minutes at Highbury and I didn’t have chance to be nervous really.
“Arsenal were at the time the Premier League champions – they had some great players in the team.
“Mark Overmars, Tony Adams, Patrick Viera, Emmanuel Petit, Dennis Bergkamp.
“I remember getting a few touches and just enjoying the experience.
“After the match, I managed to get Overmars shirt – one of the first team lads went and got it for me.”
Although his appearance against theGunners ended in a 1-0 defeat, Milligan played in victories over Coventry and Newcastle, but was on the losing side against Middlesbrough “I made a handful of appearances for Everton and probably should have made more appearances for them.
“As a group, we all should have played more games because I was part of a really good youth team at Everton.
“We won the FA Youth Cup and also won the reserve division.
“The manager at the time Walter Smith did not see fit to put the young lads in more often.
“There were some who played a lot of games and went on to have good careers,
“Richard Dunne was one of my team-mates.
“He’s gone on to have a great career as a centre half.
“Michael Ball was the left-back. There was Danny Cadamarteri, Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert.
“Francis Jeffers was up front and he went on to get a big move to Arsenal.
“I think virtually every member of that youth team ended up going to have a career in the game.
“Personally, I feel like there was at least five of us who could have made 100 appearances or more for Everton.
“Walter Smith was a bit ruthless with the young lads I felt.
“He did not give us much leeway and the first team was not doing too great at the time.
“I suppose it was hard for him to throw the young lads in when the first team was struggling.
“But I think you know the where young lads are, they don’t really worry too much about anything, but that’s the way it was.”
Milligan left Goodison Park in March 2001 after being handed the opportunity of signing for boyhood club Blackpool.
He played eight games towards the end of that season – injecting fresh impetus into the Tangerines’ promotion push which ultimately ended in glory with victory over Orient at the Millennium Stadium.
“I probably left Everton a year too early, but I got the chance to go to Blackpool.
“I actually work for Blackpool now in the youth set-up and I supported the club as a kid..it’s a shame what’s happening to the club now.
“But we had a good team back then with some good players.
“Brett Ormerod was there and we are playing together again now at Bamber Bridge.
“I think I was at Blackpool for three years and in that time, we won a play-off final and the Leyland Daf Trophy twice.
“I came on as substitute in the play-off final when we beat Leyton Orient 4-2 at the Millennium Stadium.
“But I missed out on both finals of the Leyland Daf.
“I think the second one I was injured, but the first one I did not get picked and that was frustrating because I think I had played in every round of the competition.
“So it was a bit gut-wrenching to miss out, but they were still great occasions and I certainly enjoyed the night out afterwards.”
Injury ruined much of Milligan’s final season at Bloomfield Road and he was released by then Pool boss Steve McMahon in 2003.
After initially signing for Macclesfield, the midfielder enjoyed a three seasons with Hyde before his long association with Fleetwood began in 2006.
“I got an injury at the worst possible time when I was at Blackpool,” he said.
“I broke my foot towards the end of my contract and it kept me out for five months.
“I had been doing okay but my contract never got renewed once it ran out.
“At the time it was tough to get another club.
“I ended up going to Hyde and we had a really good team there.
“I think we won promotion and then I left there and ended up moving to Fleetwood.”
For the next seven seasons, the only way was up for Milligan and the Cod Army.
Enticed to Highbury by the vision and ambition of chairman Andy Pilley, even Milligan admits he was taken aback by the speed of Fleetwood’s rise up the leagues.
Since their former skipper left, the club has progressed further still, winning promotion to League One.
“I never thought when I signed that the club would get to League One this early,” Milligan said.
“When I signed for Fleetwood in 2006, there were a lot of other good clubs which I could have signed for.
“But I met the chairman Andy Pilley and I just believed in him and what he was saying.
“At the time the club had just come out of the NPL First Division North – the one which Bamber Bridge are in now.
“But I believed in the chairman and everything he said to me that day – fair play to him he’s gone out and done everything he said he would do.
“It was great for me to have been part of the rise to the Football League – I was there when we got to League Two.
“I was there a long time and there are so many highlights.
“I think winning the NPL Premier Division on the last day was a great memory.
“Getting to the Football League – playing Blackpool in the FA Cup third round was also a great occasion even though we lost 5-1.
“Everything they seemed to hit that day went in the top corner.”
Since leaving Fleetwood, Milligan, who is a former England youth international, has had spells at old club Hyde, Southport, Stockport and Harrogate Town before signing for current club Bamber Bridge this summer.
He was persuaded to join the club by former Blackpool player Simon Wiles, who is the first-team coach at Irongate.
“At the beginning of the season I was umming and ahhing over what I should do,” he said.
“Should I go back into the Conference or the Conference North.
“I just wasn’t too keen on the travelling side of things with those two divisions – there’s a lot of travelling involved with away games.
“Simon Wiles phoned me up – I have known Simon for years.
“He was actually my boot boy when I was a pro at Blackpool.
“Simon asked me how I felt about going to Bamber Bridge and so that started the ball rolling. I spoke to the manager Neil Crowe and he basically sold it to me really.
“He said, ‘Listen, the money won’t be great, but I can guarantee that you will enjoy yourself at the club’.
“So far, a few months into the season, I am enjoying it.
“The last few weeks have been a little tough because I have been struggling with my hamstrings .
“On the whole though I have really enjoyed it – the lads have been great.
“The staff and everybody behind the scenes have been great – it is a real family club.
“One thing I don’t like doing is going into a club and it’s not run professionally.
“I would prefer to just stop playing, but I think Bamber Bridge have got the right mix.
“They like to have a laugh but know when not to.
“You have to remember the lads are part-time players and they work full-time.
“But on the other side of it, the club is very professional.
“I think they have got the right blend and it’s good to be a part of at the moment.”
Today, Brig travel to NPL First Division North high-flyers Warrington Town.
The team has endured a frustrating start and are currently placed in 11th spot in the table.
But Milligan – who runs a soccer school in partnership with former Premier League star Gavin McCann – believes the team is good enough to mount a promotion push.
“It has been a bit up and down this season,” he said.
“We have shown signs of producing some really good performances, but on the other hand we have put some performances which have been awful.
“I do think though that we are capable of going on a run of wins.
“The lads I see in the changing room, on the subs’ bench, even the lads who get left out of the squad, there’s a lot of quality there and I see no reason why we can’t have a go at winning promotion.”
Despite reaching his mid-30s, Milligan – who has two sons Jake and Jordan – has no plans to retire any time soon.
“I want to keep playing for as long as I enjoy it,” said Milligan, who plans to marry his partner Mandy next year.
“The minute I stop enjoying it and not doing justice to myself and my team-mates is when I will finish.
“If I’m letting my team-mates down in games then that is when it’s time to stop but until that day happens, I will carry on.
“I’m 35 now but I still feel I have got something to offer.
“I’d love to stay at Brig for a good few years, but that’s not down to me – it’s down to the management.
“But from my point of view, I don’t see any reason why not because I am really enjoying myself.”