The shocking news of Liam Miller’s passing, a few days short of his 37th birthday, is very difficult to comprehend, writes Neal Horgan.
Liam, who notably played at Ballincollig FC, Celtic, Manchester United, Leeds, Sunderland, Ireland, and Cork City FC, looked the picture of good health last year while completing his FAI coaching badges. Tragically, just a year or so later, he has left behind his wife and three young children.
I remember him as a young lad as one of a Ballincollig contingent of outstanding footballers that also included the likes of Colin Healy, Cillian Lordan, Alan Carey, and Gary O’Riordan. They seemed to arrive out of nowhere onto the Cork footballing scene at around 13/14 and those of us closer to the city who had thought we were the top dogs were forced to rethink.
After Miller went cross-channel, my own interactions with him were limited to playing against him in a few pre-season friendlies with Cork City against Sunderland. But I was somewhat proud to see him take over the number 22 jersey at City on my departure from the club, towards the end of what had already been a long and distinguished career.
From an early age, Liam performed feats on the football pitch that would defy explanation. Former Glasgow Celtic star and Cork City legend Mick Conroy was just one of the many whom Miller left scratching his head in wonder over the years. Conroy recounts how Miller, as a mere 16-year old, was the standout player in the Fás course run by him and Paul Bannon.
‘I had to discuss it with his mother about leaving him onto the course in the first place. We usually wouldn’t take players that young on the course but Liam was very committed, that he wanted full-time training and so eventually we took him in,” Conroy said.
“We realised very soon that he was happy to mix it up with the older guys. He enjoyed the challenge of training with guys bigger than him and I think it stood to him later on. There was really no holding him back when he came onto the course.
“While he was always a quiet, respectful lad, his thirst to succeed was amazing. That thirst… it was really startling. He loved training and he would listen and take on board what myself and Paul (Bannon) were telling him. In all those ways, he really was an exemplary athlete and footballer.”
Former Ipswich Town and Cork City player Cathal Lordan was just one young player that benefited from Miller’s example. “I played at the same schoolboy club, Ballincollig FC, but I was about six years or so younger than Liam. All the players around my age group, we all knew about Miller and (Colin) Healy… that they were outstanding players coming through the club at the time.
“I also knew that Miller was the only player that had won our club’s ‘Overall Player of the Year’ award twice so I set about trying to replicate that. I aspired to be him really.”
On top of his footballing ability, Miller was also a cross-country champion. Conroy remembers setting up a bleep fitness test in the car park outside the old ESB grounds in Bishopstown from where the Fás course was run. “It was about 1996/97 and, as you can imagine, we weren’t very technically savvy at the time. The bleep test was on an old tape cassette. I put it on in my car radio in the car park and wound the windows down and had the bleep test blaring out from that. We had the test marked out in the car park and we started the lads started off at level 5 to save some time.
“There was one lad that stayed with Liam until about 19/20 before pulling out, Liam continued and looked comfortable at level 22/23. It was incredible. We had to stop him in the end because the other lads were getting cold waiting. His drive to succeed, commitment and athleticism were all there for the others to see as he ran and ran on his own. Later on his athleticism would obviously prove a big strength in his game as he was a box-to-box midfielder and needed that engine to get up and down the pitch.”
Conroy explains how Miller’s success was not a surprise to him. “Long before the Fás course I actually watched him play a schoolboy game, at about under-14 level, up in Mayfield Park. Mayfield had a winger named Tony Tynan that caught the eye with his dribbling skills. But with Miller you had to watch closely as he very rarely made a poor decision and his passing range for a young boy was exceptional.
“As the game went on, I had somewhere else to be and needed to leave but decided to wait until Miller lost a ball to see how he responded to making a mistake. I was waiting and waiting, 10 then 20, then 30 minutes longer but the bugger never gave the ball away. I had to leave without him making a mistake.
“I had no hesitation in recommending him to Celtic. He played in a tournament for them up in the North and I got a call a few days later…they were delighted with him and would be offering him a contract. A few months after he moved over I was speaking with Willie McStay at Celtic and enquiring into how he was getting on. Willie told me he had settled well in Glasgow and that the club were really delighted with him.
“It took a while for the opportunity to get a shot at the first team due to injuries and the team doing well under Martin O’Neill, but he got his break eventually with a showcase debut in the Champions League. The rest is history.”
It is a huge credit to Miller that the highs of his career, some amid the glitz and glamour of the world’s finest clubs, didn’t change him. Lordan explains how he made himself available to offer support to a fellow Corkman and Ballincollig player setting out on his own journey.
“He made an effort to contact me and offer guidance and help when I made the step across to the UK (with Ipswich) myself. His mother would also ring my mother to help with things about life over there and that exemplified the kindness both of him and his family.”
These past few days, Cork City players and staff have spoken of his humility on his return to the city, where he got to enjoy a Ballincollig re-union of sorts with his old pal Colin Healy and lifelong friend Mark McNulty.
On the pitch too… the passing, the movement, the clever turning and awareness were all still there for the keen observer at Turner’s Cross to sit back and enjoy. The ‘basic things’ done very well and with minimum fuss. The game made to look easy.
As tributes surfaced these past few days from the world of football, including messages from figures as respected in the game as Martin O’Neill, Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, and Rio Ferdinand, Lordan’s viewpoint is as revealing as any: “Obviously he had an amazing career afterwards, but we all knew his decency and pedigree in Ballincollig from much earlier.
“He was a hero for us long before Celtic and Manchester United came calling.”
Liam Miller, a real hero. Rest in Peace.
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