Thursday 13 December 2018

'Liam Miller was loyal and he was kind - I hope we can do him proud'

Miller's friends and former team-mates want Tuesday's sold-out Páirc Uí Chaoimh testimonial to be a fitting celebration of his life

Graham Barrett, celebrates his goal against Albania with team-mate’s John O’Flynn and captain Liam Miller, left. Picture credit; Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Graham Barrett, celebrates his goal against Albania with team-mate’s John O’Flynn and captain Liam Miller, left. Picture credit; Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Mick Ring remembers the moment vividly. The Cork City kitman was at Bishopstown starting preparations for the 2015 season when he got talking to John Caulfield.

"I'm after signing Liam Miller," said the Cork manager.

"What?" replied Ring (pictured right). "How did you pull that off?"

This was big news. "I went home that evening and I couldn't stop thinking about it," says Ring. "I'm from Inniscara, around 10 minutes away from Ovens where Liam grew up. I remembered him going to Celtic with Colin Healy . He was two years older than me but I'd followed his career all the way up. Liam was huge around here."

Still, the backroom staff member was unsure what to expect when he first met the high-profile recruit. Any fears were unfounded.

"Honestly," says Ring, "I could have been talking to my next-door neighbour. No airs or graces. This guy had played for Manchester United, on the biggest stage of them all, and he was a completely normal guy. He would turn up for games and bring his two young lads (Kory and Leo) with him. They'd be kicking the ball out on the pitch before the warm-up.

"He was respectful. No throwing his stuff on the ground. He'd gather up the kit and put it back into the skip at the end of every game, which wouldn't be all that common. Liam just went about his business.

"He didn't go around telling stories about what he'd done. I don't think he needed or wanted that attention. You know, I think he'd be a bit embarrassed by all the palaver about this game."

ON Tuesday, Liam Miller's life will be celebrated at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The fuss around the venue led to the unfortunate situation where his name became a trigger for contentious debates, but that is old news now. That's not what this event should be about.

The gathering of friends, colleagues and fans from Cork and beyond will raise funds for the young family - Miller had three kids - left behind when the 36-year-old succumbed to cancer in February of this year.

Martin O'Neill will manage a Celtic/Ireland select with Roy Keane presiding over a Manchester United legends side - who will have Ring as kitman.

"It's just brilliant that the game has sold out," said O'Neill, who spoke with warmth about Miller last month on a visit to Cork that included a presentation to his parents Bridie and Billy.

"I'm delighted that the crowd is coming to honour him."

It's appropriate as his life was more than a professional football story. This was a sporting story; a Cork story.

In Miller's community, his athletic prowess had marked him out from an early age.

The simple way of tracing that is through the archives of the Farran community notes in the 'Southern Star' newspaper, where the highlights of the week can range from cake sales to match reports.

Miller's name was a constant from 1991 onwards, in a variety of different codes and teams. He played GAA for Éire Óg, and was part of a team that brought the Mid Cork Cup to Ovens in 1991; a year later he was - fittingly - at Páirc Uí Chaoimh captaining his national school to success in Sciath na Scol.

In May 1993, the paper reported on a regional athletics event notable for "three first-place finishes for a young athlete named Liam Miller".

In that sphere, he excelled in a range of disciplines from the 100m dash to the long jump and high jump.

Three years later, the Kilmurry Athletics Club member would come second in the 800m junior national championships in Tullamore.

Michael O'Flynn, the chairman of the organising committee for Tuesday's match, recently told an anecdote about a Cork U-16 Gaelic football trial where they were down a player and Miller - who was there to watch a friend - togged out and ended up scoring 4-2.

But his sporting focus was narrowing. He was the star coming through the ranks with Ballincollig AFC and became their first underage soccer international in 1997 ahead of his headline-making switch to Celtic.

"A young man from Ovens has set his village alight with anticipation," read the intro in a local newspaper.

By May of 1998, he was a European champion with Brian Kerr's U-16 heroes, parading on an open-top bus through Ballincollig and knocking on the door of a new world.

Miller had already made friends for life. Mark McNulty, the Cork City goalkeeper, was his best pal from their days with Ballincollig and part of a close-knit crew that stayed tight. The reunion was a selling point of his year back in the League of Ireland.

He also made strong bonds as a young professional. O'Neill will always associate Miller with Michael Doyle, the Dub who is still plying his trade with Coventry.

Celtic had loaned the rookies to Aarhus to help with their football development and the Hoops boss could see potential in the diminutive midfielder.

"I thought Liam looked as if he had a really good touch and a wee bit of pace, and I felt he wasn't using these things to his advantage," O'Neill says. "I thought he could run with it.

Miller took advice on board and steadily grew into a first-team player. In the summer of 2003, he scored his first Celtic goal and started to compete for a place in the Hoops midfield.

"He adapted to the challenge," says O'Neill. "And he started to shine."

The rest is history. Miller's best game was a Champions League tie with Lyon where Alex Ferguson's brother Martin happened to be in attendance. Manchester United moved quickly and tied Miller down to a pre-contract deal, much to Celtic and O'Neill's disappointment.

"Of course we had a bit of fall-out over that," said O'Neill, "I said, 'Are you sure you want to do that? Are you going to displace Scholes? And I remember him saying to me, 'I'll take my chances.' There was a nice stubborn streak about him; he decided that this was what he wanted to do.

"I've got the utmost regard for Liam as a person. Now he was always late. Roy had him at Sunderland and said he was the worst timekeeper ever. But you know I don't remember him being too late for important things; if he was he must have sneaked into the room quietly.

"He was quiet sometimes, really quiet. He wouldn't have said that much. You would sit with him and you would be doing all the talking. But he was a good lad."

Miller's former Ireland team-mate Kevin Kilbane recalls the issues with punctuality.

"You'd never see him at breakfast," he grins. "He'd stay in bed until whatever o'clock and would be last down for lunch, for dinner.

"On the pitch, he had amazing energy but off it he just had that laid-back way. He was very relaxed.

"You'd rarely see him up having a chat with the lads who would be up late having the craic. He sometimes kept himself to himself. And I have to say I didn't know him overly well; I wouldn't have been ringing or texting him.

"But he still had that way about him, where he'd be the person to throw in that one-liner, that sarcastic comment about what a manager had said, and that would always cause a chuckle amongst the lads. But it was never raucous with Liam. It was low-key."

Kilbane's description tallies with the bulk of the compliments that were paid by his old colleagues around the funeral.

Press platitudes were low on detail because Miller wasn't interested in the media game. Most interview requests were knocked back. Coming home wasn't an ego trip.

"He was on his way back from Australia and I was emailing him about his sizes and what squad number he wanted and he didn't give a shit about that stuff," says Ring.

Miller was never concerned with those trivialities. That said, his good friends also know that the portrayal of Miller as a low-maintenance gentleman doesn't quite tell the full story.

Graham Barrett, whose lasting friendship with Miller began during the U-16 Euros in Scotland, where they shared a room, says: "I've seen people say that Liam was unassuming and very quiet and he was but only to a point.

"That team was very close, it was very united. After that competition, I would have gone down to Cork and stayed in his parents' house. I remember meeting Mark McNulty (left) and Timmy O'Leary and Colin Healy, the same friends he had all the way through. He would have come up to Dublin to stay with me.

"Liam was quiet if he was with people he didn't know. But there was another side to him. He was funny. He was great craic. And sharp. He'd cut you in two with a one-liner. And he could be one of the biggest messers as well. It's like anyone really; as soon as you feel comfortable with someone and hit it off, you show more of yourself."

The bond endured even as fate dragged them in different directions and they both experienced the ups and downs of the business.

"He was at Celtic and I was at Arsenal but then I moved to Coventry and Michael Doyle was there.

"We'd travel up to Celtic to see him and he would come down to us. And it was the same when he joined Manchester United. My wife (Sharon) and Clare (Miller's wife) became quite tight as well. I was best man at his wedding. Our kids were born around the same time. We shared an awful lot of big moments together. Our mothers would speak to each other."

When Barrett's career was halted by injury, to the point where he became disillusioned with the game, Miller was a shoulder to lean on.

"He was there for me then," says Barrett, who now works as an agent and is part of the organising committee for Tuesday.

"I tried to be there for him through difficult times. We were very lucky to meet each other through football. Football didn't define our friendship; it just began through football.

"Liam loved the game, but he was someone who was good at everything. He'd beat you at pool playing with his left hand. He was brilliant at golf. Excellent at Gaelic. One of those lads with perfect hand-eye co-ordination, the lung capacity that allowed him to be such a good athlete."

His diagnosis hit everybody for six. Barrett admits that he is only able to properly speak about his passing now. The shock is still raw.

Ring's final discussion with Miller was last Christmas at the funeral of Aileen Murphy - the wife of Cork City FC club doctor Gerard.

Miller had come home from America, and it was known that he was unwell.

"He still made the time to come over and speak to myself and Johnny Dunleavy," says Ring, who is a guard. "My next encounter with Liam was working at his funeral."

O'Neill went to see Miller in his final weeks and came away with happy memories.

"I told him he was still wrong to leave Celtic and he had a laugh about that," said O'Neill, with a smile. "But he was great, honestly."

Barrett will never forget that Miller's concern was for others.

"In the last few months, Liam thought about everyone but himself," he says. "That was his way.

"He was an extremely loyal person and an extremely kind person. I'm very involved in the committee for the game and I've said this to a couple of people; in many ways, it's been helpful for me.

"It's helped me to focus on something, it's helped me to grieve. Liam was a great guy, one of the best, and I'm very lucky to have had such a good friend. He became like a brother to me.

"Hopefully we can do him proud."

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