Sport Soccer

Saturday 22 September 2018

'We didn't know him but he lived out our dreams'

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Players from Dundalk and Cork observe a minute’s silence before their President’s Cup match at Oriel Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Players from Dundalk and Cork observe a minute’s silence before their President’s Cup match at Oriel Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Friends make pretense of following to the grave; But before one is in it, their minds are turned; And making the best of their way back to life; And living people, and things they understand (Robert Frost, 'Home Burial')

When the news reports finish their spoken tributes next to the pictures which show the person who has died in their prime, it's always the numbers that deliver the saddest blow when somebody's life has ended when they should have had so much more of it ahead of them.

Celtic pay tribute to their former player at Celtic Park where the flags few at half mast. Photo: PA
Celtic pay tribute to their former player at Celtic Park where the flags few at half mast. Photo: PA

Liam Miller 1981-2018

It doesn't look right, doesn't sound right and doesn't feel right because it isn't right. And, on weekends like this, it becomes a little difficult to care whether Arsene Wenger needs to win the Europa League to justify staying on as Arsenal manager or if Riyad Mahrez would have made a difference to Leicester City in their 5-1 hammering against Manchester City. We cared last week and we'll care again next week because that's what sport does but, on the day after a 36-year-old former footballer leaves a wife, three children, parents, brothers, a sister and extended family in such cruel circumstances, the normal Saturday afternoon emotion surrounding winning, losing or drawing feels a little bit empty.

"Former footballer" is, obviously, the least important part of the previous sentence surrounding Miller because these type of tragedies happen every week to people who weren't as well known and whose families must be going through similar pain but Miller's death underlines the pedestal on which we put our athletes.

Given the criticism they endure regularly throughout their careers, we know that they aren't infallible but, because they are among a select few living the dream of millions around the world, they are elevated to hero status - and heroes are meant to be far less susceptible to such brutal fortune and illnesses than the rest of us.

Celtic pay tribute to their former player at Celtic Park where the flags few at half mast. Photo: PA
Celtic pay tribute to their former player at Celtic Park where the flags few at half mast. Photo: PA

They aren't, of course, which is why deaths like those of Liam Miller, Cormac McAnallen, Anthony Foley, Mark Farren or Ryan McBride among others cause such a jolt.

The year of their birth might be the same as yours - as it is for this column in the case of Miller - or perhaps their circumstances of the family they have left behind is similar to our own. Either way, it's a bolt that forces us to contemplate our own mortality out of a sporting sphere which is meant to be an escape from life's realities.

The idea of football being more important than life or death has long been relegated to the triteness that it deserves, yet the notion of athletes suffering two deaths - that of their sporting career and their actual death - deserves to be put in the same bracket, particularly when both come so close together.

Miller was one of those select schoolboy players whose name was known to you before you saw or played against him, long before the era of social media or YouTube.

Celtic pay tribute to their former player at Celtic Park where the flags few at half mast. Photo: PA
Celtic pay tribute to their former player at Celtic Park where the flags few at half mast. Photo: PA

In Dublin, he was the young fella from Cork who was going to Celtic with high hopes.

In schoolboy football, particularly in the same age group, he was already a name but, as Kieran McSweeney tweeted after his death on Friday night, in the People's Republic he was much more.

"Long before Celtic, Man U & Ireland, Liam Miller was almost a mythical figure in Cork schoolboy football," wrote the Cork-born former TV3 reporter, now working with PR firm Teneo.

"Can't overstate his impact. I didn't know him but we all knew about him, heard about where he was on trial, what club was in for him. Then we watched him live out our dreams."

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba wears a black armband as the club honoured their former player. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United’s Paul Pogba wears a black armband as the club honoured their former player. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Dollery, a reporter with The42, gave a similar insight into Miller's impact on a young person from Cork alongside a video of Miller's goal for Celtic against Lyon in 2003.

"I remember getting a huge buzz from this. A lad from out the road heading in a cross from Henrik Larsson in a Champions League game. What a memory to have owned."

Such memories are what keep players like Miller fresh in the minds of people who didn't know him long after they are gone. The Champions League goals, the screamer in one of his 21 caps for Ireland and the knowledge that for children growing up playing football, Miller got to live the dream of lining out for Celtic, Manchester United, Leeds United and Ireland.

For now, though, it's the sadness of what he leaves behind is what is difficult to get past.

Miller rarely gave interviews but, on his return to Cork City, he spoke with Liam Mackey of the 'Irish Examiner'.

That the interview was published just three years ago, in February 2015, and the words come from a person who is being laid to rest today, make the last three paragraphs of the interview all the more difficult to comprehend.

reflects "And, of course, there's now plenty of new work lying ahead for him with Cork City in the League of Ireland. On this cold morning in Bishopstown, Liam Miller takes one last look at the picture of the Ballincollig youth team lined-up at Turner's Cross all of 18 years ago and reflects with a smile on how his career seems to have come full circle.

"'It's strange, football,' the 34-year-old concludes.

"'You never know what's around the corner. For me to be here is great. I'm ready to work hard now and I'm really looking forward to playing at Turner's Cross in front of family and friends.'"

That he got to do that, hopefully, maybe, is a source of some comfort to those closest to him, including former team-mates like Mark McNulty and Colin Healy who were both on the Ballincollig team he left for Scotland, and the Cork team to which he returned from Australia.

With the way it treats its players and the emotion it produces from the people who watch it even though it really doesn't matter, Miller was spot on to say that football is strange.

Sadly, cruelly, this weekend has shown that life is even stranger.

Irish Independent

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