It took a while but, at 52 years young, Denis Irwin finally earned a unique place in the Irish sporting history books by scoring the first ever association football goal at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Tuesday.
But the Ireland and Manchester United legend understood that the real story of the day was the memorable and moving way in which another of Cork’s own favourite sons, Liam Miller, had been honoured in his native place.
“As a Cork person, it was really special,” said Irwin, speaking at the star-studded gala dinner in City Hall after the game. “Liam, as a local lad from Cork, to go on play for first of all for Celtic, then Manchester United and then obviously Cork City — they’re dreams, they really are dreams. You have to be a special player to play for those clubs, you really do.
“Obviously, when he came to United, it was a tough place to break into with the quality of the players there — Giggsy, Buttsy, Scholesy, Roy in midfield. It was tough. But Liam had an unbelievable career and his family must be so proud, not just for the career he had but for the game we had and the quality of the players on both sides.
I’ve played charity games against Barcelona twice, Bayern Munich twice and Real Madrid twice but that’s the best team I’ve ever played in. And it was a fitting tribute to Liam, it really was.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill recalled Miller’s famous goal for Celtic against Lyon in the Champions League, noting the calibre of the players who mobbed him in the celebration which followed.
“There were some great players, some of whom played in the game today, though you wouldn’t believe on their performances today that they were great players,” he quipped.
“I suppose time catches up with all of us but one or two performance were particularly poor today. Johan Mjallby was a real serious hero of mine. My ambition in life was to play like Pele and look like Johan Mjallby. I achieved neither. But, listen, these were great players and it was great to see them here. Johan made the effort to come from Sweden and I think that shows you the esteem in which Liam was held.”
Ireland’s record goalscorer Robbie Keane echoed those sentiments.
“It was a tremendous event for such a lovely, humble guy,” he said.
“I had the pleasure of playing with Liam and I think today and tonight just shows how respected he was by all the players. And the people.
To bring in 45,000 people on a Tuesday afternoon at three o’clock shows that the story of Liam touched everybody, not just in Ireland but around the world. And great credit especially to the people of Cork.
“To see Liam’s family there today and meet his kids in the dressing room before the game, it was an unbelievable occasion, and a lot of respect to everyone who was associated with it.”
John O’Shea also highlighted the fact that such a huge crowd had turned out to “celebrate the life of a special person” in what he described as “a special tribute” while Roy Keane said the day had shown exactly “what the public think of Liam” and also how highly regarded he was by his fellow pros.
“The Irish lads, the Celtic lads, the United lads — when you play the game it’s about getting respect from your team-mates and you saw that today,” said Keane.
“People like Andy Cole and John Hartson turned out even when they knew they couldn’t play yet they still made the effort to travel. It showed the huge respect they had for Liam. The game probably wasn’t a classic (laughter) but I think everyone enjoyed the day.”
Celtic legend Paul Lambert recalled Miller’s arrival at Parkhead as he was nearing the end of his own time at the club.
“He was young and I was nearly retired — he probably retired me quicker than anybody,” he said. “But he burst onto the scene and he was outstanding.”
And John Caulfield, who brought Miller back to Cork to complete the circle of his footballing life by playing for his hometown club, observed: “I think the most important thing about the day for Liam’s family is that they can look back and know he sold out the Páirc and no-one else has done that. The people of Cork wanted the game to be in the Páirc and it was the right decision.”
On what was a memorable evening of song, story, laughter and tears in City Hall, Robbie Keane allowed himself a good-natured barb at the expense of Gary Neville who had been heard to complain about the size of the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch.
Of course, Gary Neville is 60 now,” Keane pointed out. “They should analyse his performance on Monday night, I’m sure Jamie Carragher would have a few things to say.
For his part, Neville mock-protested: “I got booed when I first touched the ball. I asked Robbie whether it was because of a Manchester United-Liverpool thing or because it was England- Ireland and he just said, ‘No, it’s because you’re Gary Neville.’”
But, returning to the main reason why all these old friends and foes were gathered in one place, the United legend said that there had been “no hesitation at all” when Roy Keane asked him to be involved in the Liam Miller tribute.
Liam was a team-mate and someone who was incredibly professional and, in Robbie Keane’s words, a humble person,” said Neville.
“He came into a dressing room with a lot of big characters at Manchester United but he settled in brilliantly.
“We used to have a lot of small-sided games at United and not everyone could play in those games and compete in terms of touch and speed of play but Liam settled in straight away.
“It was brilliant to be part of today and it was a wonderful occasion.”