There was a time when Liam Miller wondered if hailing from Cork would hold him back and block his path to becoming a Republic of Ireland international.
Growing up in Ballincollig, it was clear from an early age the fleet-footed midfielder ticked all of the boxes required to turn the heads of scouts.
Yet, not everything fell into place right away.
In fact, frustration rather than elation was the overriding emotion during those teenage years as proposed trials and mooted call-ups to underage international teams failed to materialise. He wondered what he was doing wrong.
Of the many possible reasons behind his exclusion, geography was a surprising yet understandable one to latch on to.
It wasn’t that there was a bias against players from the Rebel County, but rather that they weren’t being monitored as closely as their counterparts in Dublin.
“If you go back to when I was starting off, to go on an actual trial was unheard of or you would be very lucky because it always seemed to be lads from Dublin who got picked up. I think it has changed a lot since though,” explained Miller.
“It had a little bit of luck when I got involved with the international set-up at underage. There was a trial down in Cork and I got picked, so things progressed from there. But if that didn’t happen then I might have wondered how I was going to get picked up.”
While Miller can count his blessings that he did profit from that window of opportunity to enjoy a career that has seen him play for 11 different clubs in six different countries, it didn’t go the same way for many of his peers.
Perhaps that is why Cork has only produced 11 full internationals in the last 20 years. Yes, it puts the county second behind Dublin in the overall standings, but surely that total should be far closer to the 55 who have hailed from the capital.Miller, who is now playing for Cork City, struggles to make sense of it. “There’s definitely quality in the county – there’s no doubt about that,” he admitted.
Of course, there were former Manchester United players Roy Keane and Denis Irwin, while Stephen Ireland briefly showed his class in a green jersey before his ‘family’ issues intervened, and Colin Healy almost replaced Keane at the 2002 World Cup.
There was one period though when the fate of Cork players looked to have changed for the better. It was the summer of 2007 and a trip to the US for two friendlies saw Colin Doyle, Alan Bennett, Stephen O’Halloran, and Joe Gamble all earn senior caps.
However, only two from the county have since followed their lead in Damien Delaney and David Meyler. It was a worrying trend and one that is proving slow to turn around according to coaches working at the coalface of schoolboy football. When a youngster does breaks through at international level it is treated as a “minor miracle” according to Ringmahon Rangers secretary John Kenny. And that is from a club who has had relative success in producing underage stars.
“In the last few years, we’ve had the likes of Gearóid Morrissey, Eric Grimes, Alan Browne, John Kavanagh, and, now, Caoimhin Kelleher make it into Ireland squads and that has been down to their individual talent,” said Kenny.
“There is no doubt they have benefited from the coaching and support we’ve given them, but it’s always tougher for Cork lads. The focus tends to be on Dublin clubs and whoever plays in the Kennedy Cup each year.
“I know there are a huge amount of quality players around Cork, but if they got three players into the Kennedy Cup squad that would be a lot. If we’re being honest, everything is still being geared towards Dublin schoolboy football.
"We’ve had some success in the last seven or eight years, which we’re really proud of, but if you look at Dublin there are clubs like St Kevin’s, St Joseph’s, Home Farm, Cherry Orchard, who do that year after year.”
While the FAI has spread their net wider in recent years when it comes to recruitment of the best young players with the establishment of the Emerging Talent Programme, there is still a need to bring more focus to counties like Cork.
Perhaps the appointment of ex-Cork City midfielder Colin O’Brien with the Ireland U15’s can help in that regard, although it shouldn’t take favours or happenstance for talent to be recognised. Sadly though that has long been the case, just ask Miller.
“The big thing for me was being involved in the international set-up,” explained Miller. “That opened doors probably not available to me before it. I was on a FAS course with Mick Conroy and I managed to get a trial out of that with Celtic and that was the start of it.”
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