Celtic, Manchester United, Ireland and Roy Keane – Liam Miller reflects on a football career which has taken him from Cork to Australia and back again to his roots — Cork City in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division, kicking off in two weeks with a trip to Sligo.
On a wintry morning at Cork City’s Bishopstown training base, Liam Miller’s face, richly tanned by the Australian sun, creases into a grin as his attention is drawn to an image from his long ago footballing past.
To mark a player reunion sparked by the club’s most high-profile signing ahead of the new season, manager John Caulfield has stuck an evocative picture on the tactics board.
It’s of the Ballingcollig team for a youths cup final at Turner’s Cross in 1997, the line-up featuring a boyish Miller and two equally fresh-faced pals with whom he is now being reunited on the same turf: Mark McNulty and Colin Healy.
But, as he studies the picture, what’s particularly tickling Miller’s funny bone is that the three amigos all have their hair dyed peroxide blond.
“One of those mad moments in life, I suppose” he chuckles.
Miller grew up in Ovens, with Ballincollig his closest football team when he was a kid. The first side he played for at the club was coached by McNulty’s father, Mick, at a time when Mark himself was turning out as a striker before discovering that his real vocation lay at the other end of the pitch.
Miller, however, was to the midfield born and though he followed in his older brothers’ footsteps by playing some gaelic for Éire Óg, his greatest love was for soccer, a passion which ran in the bloodline.
“My father, Billy, was Scottish, from Motherwell and was a massive Celtic fan – still is to this day — and so from an early age I was a Celtic fan,” he recalls.
“And Manchester United too. Eric Cantona was my idol. Two of my older brothers were Alan Shearer fans, the other was a Robbie Fowler fan. But it was Cantona who caught my eye. I just loved everything about him.
"I know I’m not the same sort of player but as a kid you’d be trying to imitate him. Same with Maradona — I remember watching a clip of him doing flicks with his shoulder. So I went straight out the back to try — and got a belt of the ball in the side of the face. And I thought, ‘I won’t try that again’.”
Miller was marked out as an outstanding prospect from an early age, joining Celtic’s youth ranks at just 15.
“Going across at that age was a big thing for me and I was so excited but, in the back of my head, I was thinking about how much I’d miss my friends and family,” he recalls.
“That was probably the hardest thing. But you’re doing something you love, you’re training every day and there’s plenty of things off the pitch to keep you busy as well.
"But, yeah, maybe a year and a half into it, I remember being a bit homesick and thinking ‘is this really for me?’ But it was something I always wanted to do and I stuck at it. Because if I hadn’t, you’d be regretting it for the rest of your life.”
As well as having to cope with being uprooted from home, the teenager had to measure up to a higher standard of football.
“It was a big challenge, to be fair, but that’s what sort of drove you on,” he reflects.
“I was blessed with the academy I went to because Celtic had Willie McStay there and a great set-up in terms of facilities and what I was learning every day. Nowadays, I suppose fellas go into the academies at an even younger age but, at 15, I think I was a good age then to learn a lot.”
Mark Burchill, Jim Goodwin and Jamie Smith were among his contemporaries and he also remembers a young John O’Shea turning up for a trial. But even for the most talented of the youth players, there could be no guarantee these early steps on the ladder would lead to the very top.
“Of course, because at the time Celtic could spend a million or two million on a player,” Miller observes.
“So you could be getting closer but then feel that you were being put to the back of the queue again, if you like. But I was fortunate. When I look back now, I think I could actually have made my debut a bit earlier, but I did get the chance through Martin O’Neill.”
In fact, it was on the very eve of O’Neill’s arrival that Miller first made the breakthrough at Parkhead, coming off the bench in a 2-0 against Dundee United on the last day of the 1999/2000 season as Kenny Dalglish concluded his spell as interim manager.
“I just remember being so nervous,” he says.
“It was one of those ones: you work every day, even just to get to train with the first team and then, obviously, to be picked to play with them, you’re on such an adrenaline rush. But you’re also anxious and nervous to do your best.
"You know the minutes you’re getting mightn’t be an awful lot, so you want to make the most of them and really impress. The main thing should be to go out and enjoy it. And looking back now, that’s what I did, but there was a real desire there to do well too.”
And he did, flourishing under O’Neill’s management and confirming his growing importance to the club with Champions League goals against Lyon and Anderlecht.
But when Alex Ferguson came calling, Miller couldn’t resist the lure of his other boyhood club, disappointing Celtic fans and his manager by signing a pre-contract agreement with the Premier League giants before officially moving south to Old Trafford in July of 2004 “I sort of pinched myself, to be honest,” he says now of the approach from United.
“Things at the time were going very well for me, confidence was through the roof. And I remember speaking to one or two of the senior players at Celtic, players I very much respected, and they were very positive, saying it would be a great move and a wonderful opportunity. And, for me, the chance to play for Manchester United was a dream come true. I met Fergie and spoke to him myself but, being honest with you, I didn’t need too much convincing.
“To a point, it was a catch 22. I was leaving a club I’d been at since I was fifteen and I loved it at Celtic but this opportunity came about and you don’t know if an opportunity like that will ever come about again. And I was confident enough that I’d break through at some stage.”
But there was the rub. While the conventional wisdom had it that Miller could only blossom even more as a first-choice player at Celtic Park, at Old Trafford he was always going to be faced with what looked like the mission impossible of claiming one of the two central midfield berths then occupied by Roy Keane and Paul Scholes.
“Overrated those two,” Miller quips. “Look, in my eyes, they were the two best midfielders in the world at the time. You had Vieira and Petit at Arsenal and Keane and Scholes at United and, for me, those two were the best. So, yes, 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 off them – I was still very young — it could really bring me on as a player. And if I could have progressed like that, it would have been great. But obviously I didn’t.”
Instead, he would be restricted to just 22 first-team appearances in his two years at United, with the result that, even to this day, he tends to hear an awful lot about the benefits of hindsight.
“Yeah, I mean, when I moved to Oz I did a lot of interviews and I thought, well that’s the Celtic/United thing gone away now. But then it comes back again. But, look, I have no regrets.
"It didn’t work out the way I would have liked but it was still a tremendous learning curve for me. It’s hard to explain but when you’re there 24/7 as part of a group like that, you take so much on board.
"It depends on the person you are too but you’re learning from the best. I mean, Ronaldo was there too. They’re not top players for no reason. They apply themselves very well, they’re great professionals and, ability-wise, you’re always learning from players like that.
“I suppose you roll with the punches, as they say. Leaving Manchester United, I felt a bit of frustration at the time but I needed to play football, week in, week out.
"I know I wasn’t guaranteed that anywhere but I knew I needed to start playing football again. And I got that opportunity at Leeds. For me, it wasn’t hard to leave United.
"I wish I’d played a lot more games there but at the same time I was never a right winger, you know? And, as I said, the two boys in the middle were quality players. It was a different level from Celtic, if you like: there aren’t many clubs that would be above United.”
Later in his career, Miller would be reunited with Roy Keane at Sunderland but his relationship with the manager ended sourly when his fellow Corkman, citing time-keeping problems, placed him on the transfer list.
Miller is not one to hang dirty laundry out in public — “What happened, happened and I’ve moved on from that”, he says — but he will concede that Keane’s criticism was not something any professional footballer would want to have attached to his reputation.
“One hundred per cent. In regards to time-keeping and stuff like that, in my eyes anyway, I’m a very good professional. I was punished for something I suppose that happened way back. I didn’t agree with it and probably should have said something way back then.
"Now, I suppose, it’s something that’s tarnished us a little bit. If someone labels you that way, it sticks with you or whatever but, for me, I’m a very good professional.”
Softly spoken, and a man of few words when in the public eye, does he ever think that, at certain points in his career, he might have been a bit too slow in speaking up for himself? “I think looking back, yeah. I’m very quiet anyway, you know?
But, look, I’ve moved on from that incident. Looking back on Sunderland, it was a great time for me the first year I was there, when we won the league. It was a shame the way it ended, I was very disappointed with that. But that’s the learning curve in football again.”
He finally departed Wearside in 2009 and then, after a short spell at QPR, faced an unprecedented challenge in his career as he found himself without a club, a testing situation for any player given that professional footballers are accustomed to a life which revolves around training, travelling and playing within the support network of team and club.
“It was tough in the sense that I knew I was fit and could have done a very good for teams,” he reflects.
“And you’re just waiting for an opportunity to come about. But, at the same time, you’re a professional and I knew something would come up. So I used to drive up to Newcastle where I had a personal trainer and did that for nearly two months.
"He’d put me though my paces for two hours every day and it was probably one of the fittest I’ve been (laughs). But, yeah, you do miss the camaraderie of the dressing room, of course. Mentally, over time, it’s tough enough. I suppose you’re just waiting around for the phone to ring. And I’d never been in that situation before.”
It was Hibs who threw Miller a lifeline in 2009 but after two years back in Scotland, he opted for the biggest move – geographically speaking — of his career, taking his family on the long haul to Australia where, over a period of four years, he would play in the A-League for Perth Glory, Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City.
“When we first went over, we thought we’d go over for a year and we’d see how it goes, probably thinking we’d be back in six months,” he says.
“I was going into the unknown if I’m being honest with you. I remember getting there and after the first day thinking, ‘Jesus, what have I done?’ It was so different and I was just wondering if I’d made the right decision. But three days into it, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable’.”
Presumably the sunshine helped? “(Laughs) It was everything. I got to experience a new country, a very exciting league that was very professional and very competitive. It’s hard for me to compare the standard of the football to here or even to England.
There are certain factors you have to take into consideration, like playing in 35/40 degrees heat which is draining and quite tough. And it took me a while to adjust to that when I was in Perth. Then you’re up against big physical boys as well as players who are very good technically, with players in from Asia as well as Australia.
It was never a bad league but it has improved massively again since the time I first went there. They’ve had some cracking players over the years, the Aussies – your Cahills, Kewells, Vidukas, who all had fine careers in England – but I think the future will depend on the young players coming through. It’s a transition period for them now.”
For Miller, Australia was another transition period on his life’s path. With three young children in tow, the ultimate destination was always going to be Cork.
“For me, Australia is a beautiful country,” he says, ” the only thing is it’s so far from home. It’s just not Ireland (laughs). I want my children to grow up around family and friends and I’m happy to be back. I would always have wanted to come home anyway but, with Cork City, it’s the perfect chance for me to continue playing football.
"I feel I’ve still got plenty of years ahead of me. I’ve had good times and bad times but I never fell out of love with football. I still love the game. Training with the lads here, you can see the manager’s hungry to do well. You can see that from the players as well. We’re in a good place right now, even though it’s only early days.”
When Miller looks back on his career, his appearances in the green shirt — from under-age success through to 21 caps at senior level – provide some of his most cherished memories. In particular, there was his spectacular 25-yard goal against Sweden at Lansdowne Road when Ireland romped to a 3-0 friendly win on the opening night of Steve Staunton’s reign.
“That stands out, of course it does,” he says. “Watching Ireland on TV as a kid, that was something you dreamed about. So to get wear the jersey was a great thing and it was a nice goal too, I suppose. I remember it opened up for me, to be fair, I remember it very well.”
Of course, for Staunton that night would prove to be the very definition of a false dawn, further proof that football can be as cruel as it can be kin d, a lesson Liam Miller has also had reason to take on board over the years.
But for all those who are quick to suggest that his own playing career too was a succession of false dawns, Miller is perfectly entitled to point out that only a privileged few get to play for their country as well as two of the most famous clubs in the world.
“I genuinely look back and think, ‘I played for Celtic’, my boyhood club,” he says.
“I dreamed of playing for Man United and I got that opportunity as well. I don’t know how many other people can say they played for their two childhood clubs, or even one childhood club. Of course, I would have loved to play more games, don’t get me wrong, but I got to learn from some of the best players ever. Looking back, it was wonderful.
“Growing up for me, I just wanted to play football. And as I got better and better, the opportunities came around for me. Nothing’s ever guaranteed – you could get an injury in the morning, touch wood – but, I worked my socks off and the hard work paid off for me.”
And, of course, there’s now plenty of new work lying ahead for him with Cork City the League of Ireland. On this cold morning in Bishopstown, Liam Miller takes one last look at the picture of the Ballingcollig 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.”