Former United, Celtic and Republic of Ireland midfielder died of cancer in February at the age of 36
Roy Keane leads tributes for 'humble' Liam Miller as Manchester United Legends compete in Cork fundraiser
Tuesday was a day of penalty shoot outs for Manchester United, with very different outcomes.
At Old Trafford, United were eliminated from the League Cup in the third round by second tier Derby County after defender Phil Jones failed to convert his penalty. His seven teammates had scored with spot kicks as clinical as those taken by Derby’s players. When Jones’ effort was saved following a 2-2 draw in normal time, an impressive young Derby side prevailed.
The last time United were defeated at home in this stage of the competition was 11 years ago, but they recovered to win the Premier League and Uefa Champions League. A repeat appears remote this season, with United already eight points behind league leaders Liverpool. It’s a significant underachievement so far for the team with the second highest wage bill in world football after Barcelona.
The game followed another shootout 300 miles to the south west across the Irish Sea in Cork, Ireland’s second city. There, after another 2-2 draw between Manchester United Legends and a combined Celtic and Republic of Ireland Legends XI including Robbie Keane, Kevin Kilbane and Damian Duff, the calibre of penalties was far, far lower, though United did triumph. Unlike in Manchester, the result didn’t matter since the game was a fundraising tribute for former player Liam Miller, who died this year of cancer aged 36.
Miller’s family including his wife Clare and three young children Kory, Leo and Belle, were present in a sell-out 42,878 crowd at the rebuilt Pairc Ui Chaoimh, a venue used to hosting Gaelic football and hurling. The game sold out in no time.
“The last eight months have not been easy for us,” the family said in the match programme, adding that their grief has been eased by an “outpouring of support and heartfelt concern. The fact that this memorable event is held in his home place, which was so special to him, makes this day all the more special”.
Tributes came from former United manager Alex Ferguson, who said: “He was a wonderful young lad, with humility and manners admired by myself and all at the club.”
Ferguson signed Miller from Celtic in 2004, prompting friction between the two clubs. Then Celtic manager Martin O’Neill said he felt Liam “should have stayed at Celtic - and in retrospect he should have done.”
Speaking before the game, O’Neill, now Ireland manager, recalled: “When I think of Liam I think of a young lad trying to break into the team at Celtic – which he did – to one playing in the Champions League, a really good footballer.”
It was in one such Champions League game against Anderlecht in 2003 when Ferguson went to watch young Belgian defender Vincent Kompany with a view to buying him that he saw Miller. A free transfer followed a year later, to O’Neill’s annoyance.
"Celtic had reached the Uefa Cup final (in 2003), every home game was a 60,000 sell-out, Liam was doing well, it was a great learning period for him,” said O’Neill. “I wouldn’t blame him for going to Manchester United, but had he stayed he would have picked up the game. At United he was competing against Paul Scholes and big, big players.”
After moving from Glasgow to Manchester in 2004, Miller played only 22 games for a United side in transition, later explaining: “Manchester United didn’t work out, but I have no regrets about giving it a go. Keane and Scholes were the best midfielders and I knew what I was going into at United.
"I wasn’t expecting to be better than them, but I thought if I could play with these guys and learn from them – I was still very young – it could really bring me on as a player. If I could have progressed like that it would have been great. But obviously I didn’t.”
Scholes was one of several former United players who answered a call from Cork-born Manchester United legend Roy Keane and gave up their time for free to play in the game. Others included Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Andy Cole, Dion Dublin, Quinton Fortune, John O’Shea, Alan Smith, David May, Michael Clegg and Louis Saha. Bryan Robson also represented Manchester United.
The game was no classic and was played at half-pace – or full pace if you’re a fortysomething former player – on a pitch so vast that Keane joked he should have been allowed to play 15-a-side.
Despite the huge crowd which contained many children who’d been given an afternoon off school, the atmosphere was eerily quiet. One section of the crowd was stirred when Gary Neville touched the ball and a spectator, probably a Liverpool fan, for along with United, they’re the most supported English football team in Cork, booed loudly. Thousands laughed. Neville turned to the crowd to scowl at the perpetrator, then he smiled himself.
Five minutes later, Neville delivered a poor cross, attempted to slide into a tackle to make amends for it, then skied a shot towards the Atlantic, awakening the crowd on the vast standing terraces further.
“Gary Neville is a red,” sang some of the travelling Mancunians. Manager Keane, assisted by Mike Phelan, substituted Neville at half time, when United were leading 2-1.
Denis Irwin, another local hero, had opened the scoring with a 19th minute penalty, blasting the ball down the middle of the goal before raising his arm triumphantly.
A Saha solo goal after 25 minutes made it 2-0 but, aged 38, his opposite striker Robbie Keane was one of the younger players on the pitch. His relative freshness showed as he put the ball past United goalkeeper Kevin Pilkington.
Youngsters from Miller’s former hurling and Gaelic football teams took part in exhibition matches at half time, but the biggest roar of the day came after an hour when Roy Keane replaced Ryan Giggs.
Keane, the greatest footballer to hail from Cork, played with Miller at United and managed him as he led Sunderland to the Premier League in 2006. Miller also played for Leeds United and Queens Park Rangers in England, Hibernian in Scotland, Aarhus in Denmark, Perth Glory, Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City in Australia, Cork City, his hometown club and Wilmington in the USA in 2016.
And then he fell ill, with pancreatic cancer.
“When I heard Liam was going through an illness, I managed to speak to him a few weeks before he passed away,” said his former Celtic teammate and cancer survivor John Hartson. “Cancer, it doesn’t discriminate. Anybody can get cancer at any time and it was one of those unfortunate illnesses that had taken another young man.”
“He was a very good player who played for United, Celtic and his country,” Roy Keane told The National. “A really nice guy, a quiet guy, very humble. But don’t get me wrong. Liam was very quiet but very strong. You don’t get to the top in any sport unless you’ve got good confidence behind you and a lot of determination.
"So when we talk about Liam being quiet, it was a nice quiet. He was no angel but he knew how to play the game and he was a good guy.”
It was another hometown boy, Colin Healy, who equalised in the 81st minute, setting up that penalty shoot-out. It helped that Mark McNulty, United goalkeeper and a childhood friend of Miller, was on form. By that time, a Mexican wave was sweeping around the stands of the stadium. It was a happy atmosphere tinged with sadness.
As You’ll Never Walk Alone, anthem of Miller’s boyhood club Celtic played, the players did a lap of honour. The fans, who had heeded the eight public address announcements to stay off the pitch, applauded while an image of Liam Miller appeared on the scoreboard, looking over the city when he grew up, one where he made such a huge impression.
“I’m sure Liam will be looking down and he will be delighted,” said Roy Keane.