By Catherine Shanahan and Joe Leogue
It’s a mark of the man Liam Miller was that footballing legends most of us only ever saw on telly, travelled to a stadium not known for hosting foreign games, to honour his memory and to raise funds for his bereft family.
Miller, who died of cancer this year at the age of 36, can now add to his legacy the stunning achievement of bringing soccer to a modern Páirc Uí Chaoimh, albeit posthumously.
He also brought together members of, arguably, the best Manchester United team ever, including Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Denis Irwin, and Gary Neville.
They were among the Manchester United Legends to play against an Ireland & Celtic XI at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday in their final tribute to a man universally liked.
It was an event like no other and it passed off like clockwork, even if the city ground to a halt as classrooms and workplaces emptied early and turnstiles went into overdrive.
Exactly 42,878 spectators packed into the stadium where Giggs and Scholes controlled much of the play, just like the good ol’ days.
A souvenir match programme with images of Miller on the cover wearing his Manchester Utd, his Ireland, and his Celtic jerseys respectively included a thank you note from the Miller family — Liam’s wife Clare, his children Kory, Leo, and Belle, parents Billy and Bridie, and his siblings.
“The last eight months have not been easy for us,” it said, but their grief had been eased by the “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 for us.”
Miller’s former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson wrote in the programme that it was “with reluctance and disappointment that I will not be in Cork for today’s tributes to our former player… circumstances [a recent brain surgery] and advice from those who know better than I has decreed that I stay put.”
Of Miller, he wrote: “He was a wonderful young lad, with humility and manners admired by myself and all at the club.
“Liam Miller’s legacy as a human being was that he was totally liked by everyone for his quiet, enduring nature.”
Proud to tog out for the tribute game were the underage members of Éire Óg GAA club with whom Liam had played both hurling and football in his youth. They provided the half-time entertainment in a match where a draw was the pre-ordained outcome, leading to a penalty shoot-out with misses that would make a four-year-old blush.
It was a joyful occasion, a celebration of a life rather than grieving a death, and the crowd made the most of their day out on occasions when the game itself lacked lustre.
The last five minutes before full time was dominated by Mexican waves and the players themselves ramped up the fun by flooring the referee and fouling each other in a manner that might normally result in a sending-off.
Hometown hero Roy Keane got the biggest cheer of the day when he came on after half time, while Gary Neville was the target of good-humoured heckling.
Both teams completed a lap of honour after the Manchester Utd Legends won the shoot-out — thanks in no small part to key saves from Miller’s childhood friend and current Cork City goalkeeper Mark McNulty.
Among those in attendance was Ireland South MEP and former president of the GAA Seán Kelly. Kelly, who oversaw the re-development of Croke Park, said they had been “delighted” to open the Dublin grounds for special occasions, and that opening Páirc Uí Chaoimh up to soccer was a great opportunity “to be able to showcase” the stadium.
He said the event was “a great reflection of the sporting nature of Cork and of everyone coming together and putting their best foot forward”.
Over in City Hall, Lord Mayor Mick Finn, who was obliquely instrumental in forcing the GAA to open up Páirc Uí Chaoimh to soccer, paid tribute to Miller’s family, who were guests of honour at the gala dinner.
“Today was a fantastic day for Cork, a fantastic day for Ireland and a fantastic day for sport,” he said.
He thanked event organiser, developer Michael O’Flynn, and his organising committee for “making a dream a reality” which he said had “captured the hearts of Cork and of a nation”.
He said it was an “emotional afternoon” for Miller’s family and for sports fans “in particular when we saw Liam’s photograph over Cork city”[displayed on a giant video screen] at the stadium.
“That was really emotional for people who played alongside him, for friends who went to school with him and for friends of the family,” said Mr Finn.
He said the number of soccer stars who were household names and had travelled to Cork for the occasion was “acknowledgment of the impact he [Liam] had on people”.
Developer Michael O’Flynn, whose contacts in Man Utd — including former team boss Alex Ferguson and Cork’s own Roy Keane — got the ball rolling for yesterday’s event, described it as “a unique day for Cork”.
He had a few special words for Miller’s family.
“It was a privilege,” he said, to have the Millers as neighbours.
“I hope you are proud of your husband, father, son, brother, today and that the respect and affection evident for him in today’s event will help carry you through this difficult period of your lives.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.