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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 13 December, 2018
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'I'd say there won't be a dry eye in there from the people that knew him'

Gerardene McNamara of Cork’s Ballincollig soccer club and Eire Óg’s Vincent Fahy talk to The42 about their memories of Liam Miller.

DURING HIS GAELIC football days with the Éire Óg club in Cork, Liam Miller had a simple trick for teasing the opposition.

IMG_1542 Liam Miller on a wall of fame in Ballincollig. Source: Ballincollig Chairperson Gerardene McNamara.

He was always blessed with speed and a big engine, which many would come to discover years later while he was with Celtic.

During an endurance drill called the ‘Beep Test’, Miller reportedly smashed his way through the different stages and was still gliding comfortably at the toughest levels of the test when many of his Celtic team-mates had dropped out from exhaustion.

So, when Miller was growing up as a GAA player, the young attacker would often retreat into his side’s backline and gather the ball before racing up the pitch on a solo run.

Naturally, he left the other team chasing shadows as he disappeared from sight.

When he was at a safe enough distance from everyone, Miller would sometimes slow down, allowing some of his opponents to catch up, before stepping on the gas again to scorch a path to the goal and finish the move.

“He was cheeky in that way but he was absolutely brilliant,” says Miller’s old Éire Óg team-mate Vincent Fahy, who was also in the same athletics club as the former Cork City player.

“He didn’t just run straight lines, he could shimmy about, and if the ball was on the ground he’d nutmeg a few fellas because soccer was his first love always and ever. And nine times out of 10, something would happen after it — he’d get a goal or a point out of it.”

IMG-20180920-WA0002 Éire Óg U16 mid-cork football champions, 1994. Liam Miller (back row second from the left). Source: Vincent Fahy (Éire Óg)

Miller was a quiet individual in his youth but there was a lot of colour and character in the way he played Gaelic football and hurling. That sense of his personality also came through in his early years with the local soccer side, Ballincollig AFC.

Club chairperson Gerardene McNamara was involved with the club when Miller first joined and she recalls his sense of adventure when a group of his team-mates — including former Celtic player Colin Healy – decided to get their hair dyed before playing the 1997 AUL Youths Second Division Cup final against Macroom.

“They were finished school and they went to the barbers to dye their hair,” she begins. “It was so funny because they were all very dark. Colin wasn’t too bad but some of them were kind of foxy.

“They all dyed their hair for the final and, oh my God, it was horrendous. We all had a good laugh at that. Instead of coming out blonde, it came out kind of yellow.

Genie mac, it was a scream and some of the older fellas said ‘not a hope’, but Liam was game for anything. They were a really nice bunch of lads and they were really sports orientated.”

But whatever elements of mischief he brought to the clubs he played for, Miller’s raw talent and skill was obvious from the outset.

Those who knew him in the Ballincollig team were always confident he had the potential to thrive in the professional grade, and McNamara identified that he had a skill for reading the game when he was just a teenager.

IMG_1541 Liam Miller with his parents Bridie and Billy. Source: Gerardene McNamara.

While playing in a local cup final, her son Eamonn was introduced as a substitute at a time when Ballincollig were trailing 1-0. Miller beckoned him over before taking a corner and invented a play which led to Miller scoring the equaliser.

“The next thing Eamonn ran into the goals and ran out,” McNamara remembers. “Liam picked a corner and scored. The match went on and, as it happened, my son scored the winner towards the end of the match and they won.

“I asked him afterwards what Liam said to him when he went on the pitch for the corner, and he said he told him to ‘run in and run out and that tall fella will run after you, and I’ll score from the corner’. And that’s exactly what happened.

It always stuck in my head because he was only U15 and he could read the game at that age. Now that wasn’t today or yesterday because my son is the same age as Liam.”

Some of the Éire Óg contingent were treated to flashes of Miller’s brilliance when he captained the Ovens National School to a Sciath na Scol title in 1992 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Fahy was a defender on that team and he looked on in amazement as Miller “covered every blade of grass” to lead his team to victory.

Liam Miller 21/8/2004 Miller in action for Man United in 2004. Source: INPHO

Miller’s GAA career turned out to be a short one, but local sides were always grateful to have him in their squad before he concentrated his energy on soccer and moved across the water to play for Celtic, Man United and other major football clubs.

But having Miller on their side occasionally brought some difficulties for his friends and team-mates too as they struggled to keep up with him. In addition to excelling at GAA and football, he was handy at snooker and pool; so much so that Fahy simply gave up playing against him.

Things also got tricky for his team-mates during training sessions when they were assigned the unenviable task of marking the wiry Miller in matches.

“We knew if we marked him we probably wouldn’t be picked to play in the next match, you’d get such a roasting,” Fahy remembers. “I marked him a few times but it was a waste of time really to be honest with you. At the time he would nearly try to make a bigger fool out of you.

I often tried to kick him but that’s the one thing you shouldn’t have done because that would only make him more determined. If the opposition ever tried to do that in a match, his reaction was ‘I’ll show you with the next ball’ and he’d bang it into the top corner.

“He was always able to keep his head that way.”

Miller, of course, would go on to commit himself exclusively to football during his teenage years, which meant he had to leave the GAA behind.

Fahy understood his decision but he couldn’t help feeling a bit selfish about the fact that Cork GAA was being drained of a major prospect in both hurling and football.       

Liam Miller Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Miller represented the Rebels at U14 level and while reflecting on those days of soldiering together for Éire Óg, Fahy is certain that Miller would have developed into a legendary player for Cork in either code.                                               

On one occasion, Miller came to watch a trial game for the Cork U16 football team where Fahy was playing. The mentors noticed that they were short a player to stage a full match and Miller was invited to come in and fill the gap despite not having any football gear with him.

There was no need to worry though as he still managed to rack up a tally of 4-2 to illustrate the depth of his potential at such a young age.

“He had no boots on him, only a tracksuit, and they gave him a jersey,” says Fahy. “A lot of lads that day had played against him and whoever was marking him that day was cursing their luck I’d say.

He scored 4-2 and was the best player by a country mile that day and they couldn’t pick him because he was too young. I would imagine whoever marked him that day didn’t play with Cork again.

“My reaction was that it probably didn’t surprise me because I knew what he was. The mentors were probably more annoyed with what he was after doing and then they couldn’t pick him.

“I knew if Liam kept playing we probably would have won a lot more but Liam’s first love was soccer and people knew he was going to go far. From a selfish point of view, I would have loved if he kept playing with us but when he went over to Celtic, that was it. We knew he wouldn’t be coming back.

“No question, [he would have made the Cork senior team] in both grades. He would have made it 100% and would have been a household name. He would have been up there with Sean Óg O’Hailpín, Joe Deane and Graham Canty. He had it and he got better and better.”

IMG_1547 Liam Miller signing for Celtic as his parents watched on. Source: Gerardene McNamara.

McNamara can remember the tears that flowed the night that Miller secured his contract at Celtic. They were thrilled and proud of the local lad heading over to Glasgow to begin his career as a top level footballer. But, of course, the night was also tinged with some sadness at seeing their friend move away. 

McNamara was the club secretary at the time and she processed all the paperwork involved in helping Miller to complete the move. On a personal note, she made a point of asking him to sign his first autograph for her as she knew he was destined to go far.

He laughed at the request before writing out his name on a piece of torn off paper. He often told her over the years to dispose of it but she still has that signature protected in a frame.

The move to Celtic was a big change for Miller too but his team-mates kept in touch to help him through the transition.

“When he went away first he was very lonesome. He was only 16 going away from home. Back then there was no mobile phone or Facetime or Skype. I remember his mother asked me if I would get the lads on his team to write to him.

IMG_1553 Miller at a presentation with Ballincollig on one of his visits back. Source: Gerardene McNamara.

“I told my young fella to write to him and tell him about what was happening here.

They all started writing to him and only a couple of months ago I was tidying out my son’s old room and I was going through boxes of photographs that I had and I found the letter [back from Liam].

“He was thrilled with the letter he got.”

Miller carved out an impressive career in football.

He was capped 21 times by the Republic of Ireland after flourishing at Celtic under the current Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. He joined Manchester United as a 24-year-old in 2004 and also enjoyed stints at other sides including Leeds, Sunderland, QPR and Hibernian.

Liam Miller with Gary Boylan Miller in action for Cork City. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

But while he shared a pitch with some of the best players in the world, Miller’s heart was always in Cork and in 2015 he signed for Cork City. He said it was a straightforward decision at the time as he had always wanted to return home.

He played for John Caulfield’s side for just one season but McNamara was happy to see him back on Leeside for a while, although he always made time to visit the Ballincollig club whenever he was home.

“Liam never forgot where he came from, ” she says.

“He was so humble for a fella that could have bragged. He never ever changed or said ‘oh look at me, I’m Liam Miller’. I just remember all the times he came home, whether it was when he was with Celtic or Man United or Leeds, he never didn’t have time to stop and talk to you.

“He never got, as we say, airs and graces. He was a lovely lad.”

IMG_1556 Miller presenting a signed Celtic jersey for a function at Ballincollig AFC. Source: Gerardene McNamara.

Landing his big break with Celtic had a hugely positive impact on the Ballincollig club, according to McNamara, as English sides such as Ipswich Town, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest all began to express interest in Ballincollig’s talent pool.

As McNamara neatly puts it: “He put Ballincollig soccer club on the map.”

It’s fitting, therefore, that within just a few months of his passing, the people of Cork and beyond are coming together to celebrate his life with a tribute match at a sold out Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Tuesday afternoon.

The match will see a selection of Celtic and Ireland legends take on Manchester United legends to raise funds for Miller’s family and Marymount Hospice.

People from the GAA and football strands of his life are all playing their part too. The Ballincollig club is providing a total of 12 ball girls and boys for the occasion, while an underage team from Éire Óg will be playing at half-time in front of a packed out crowd of 45,000.

Liam Miller Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Speaking to The42 last month, Man United legend Gary Neville said that “there wouldn’t be much that would bring us out of retirement, but this certainly would” — a statement which sums up the lasting impact that Miller had on the people he met throughout his life.

The talented Miller died at just 36 years of age earlier this year following a battle with pancreatic cancer in what was a tragic loss for Irish football.

But the tribute match on Tuesday gives people a chance to remember the person who teased defenders in Gaelic football, who came up with intelligent soccer plays that could win a game at just 15, and the family man who never forgot the homeland that made Liam Miller who he was.

“He’s the same age as my own son and I always say: who picks who gets these horrible things?” says McNamara.

“He just so didn’t deserve that and you could be asking 40,000 questions about why him? I was heartbroken for him, his wife, his beautiful children and his mother and father.  It’s awful he didn’t get any time to enjoy after his soccer career.

“I think it’s wonderful that so many of these big names in soccer held him in such high regard. And for us to have known him since he was so young and for these people to have such respect for him to make such a big statement in doing this match for him.

I hope he’s watching it from wherever he is because he deserves to be held in this regard. I’d say there won’t be a dry eye in there from the people that knew him.”

You can watch live coverage of the Liam Miller tribute match on free-to-air channel Virgin Media Three.

Kick-off in Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be at 3pm on Tuesday afternoon.

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