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'What he did was send a tingle down the spines of supporters': The kid who lived his dreams

Liam Miller’s playing career was special and unique and awe-inspiring.

LIAM MILLER KNEW the importance of timing.    

At Celtic, it’s all about the big European occasions. That’s where the memories are really made. And what Miller did was send a tingle down the spines of supporters. It doesn’t matter that he was only in the senior side for a brief time. What matters is the magic he created in those moments. 

That performance against Anderlecht was truly special. The goal was great but there was so much more to his contribution.

That night, he was everywhere. His running, dynamism, positioning – it was all faultless. His energy and vibrancy complemented the atmosphere inside Celtic Park. It was a din of excitement, the crowd drunk on possibility. It was Miller’s very first Champions League start and he was at the centre of everything. When he was brought off late in the second-half as a precaution, he was given a standing ovation.

That season, Miller had already been excellent in the Old Firm at Ibrox. He’d come on against Lyon and applied the magnificent final touch to a scintillating 24-pass move. He’d scored twice against Hearts.     

Produced in-house, Miller was one of Celtic’s own. It made everything that much sweeter.   

Of course, it made things harder when he left too. But who could blame him? When United call, you go.

Timing. You may only ever have one chance. 

“Liam was a huge Celtic and Man United fan and he used to be asking questions all the time about such and such; what was Scholes like, what was Giggs like, what’s Denis (Irwin) like?” recalled John O’Shea, Miller’s Irish underage team-mate, who signed for United as a teenager. 

“And then I remember one day in 2004, I was sitting in the canteen at the training ground and Sir Alex Ferguson came over to me and said ‘Your pal is on the way down’ and it was great to hear that Liam was coming down from Celtic because he had obviously caught the eye.”      

What are the chances that a Cork kid obsessed with two clubs would end up playing for both of them? What are the chances Sir Alex Ferguson, on a scouting mission to assess a 17-year-old centre-back called Vincent Kompany, would leave Glasgow thinking about an Irish midfielder instead? And what are the chances that the same manager, so accustomed to acquiring high-profile superstars and paying king’s ransoms for their services, would bring in an understated, unassuming and relatively inexperienced player on a free transfer?  

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group A - Celtic v Anderlecht Source: Mike Egerton

“We recognised the potential of Liam, he has had a great season at Celtic,” Ferguson said at the time. 

“He is very much part of our progressive thinking of developing a young team over the next few years.”

Of course, Miller would’ve preferred to stay at United for longer. His time at Old Trafford didn’t play out the way he wanted. But, the whole period also needs to be contextualised. 

He joined a squad that was struggling to gel and under pressure to get things right. 

The previous summer, Ferguson sold experienced figures like David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron.  

But the plan to give youth a chance wasn’t working.

Along with the electrifying but inconsistent Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferguson had also acquired the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba, David Bellion, Kleberson and Dong Fangzhou. The crop of players promoted from the youth team – Paul Tierney, Phil Bardsley, Bojan Djordic – were finding it difficult to find minutes. 

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Third Qualifying Round - First Leg - Dinamo Bucharest v Manchester United Source: Mike Egerton

By the time Miller officially became a United player, Arsenal had just gone through the entire league season unbeaten and Ferguson was irked by his side’s failure to land a glove on them. Along with some renewed vigour from Arsene Wenger, he also had to deal with Jose Mourinho – the cheeky upstart who’d embarrassed him by racing down the Old Trafford touchline to celebrate a memorable Champions League victory for his then-employers FC Porto the season before – who’d been appointed Chelsea boss. 

And, there were a litany of injury problems too and plenty of players given extended time off following Euro 2004.  

That all meant that when Miller made his Premier League debut on the opening day of the campaign – a clash with Mourinho’ Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – United’s squad was so threadbare that Roy Keane played centre-back, Djemba-Djemba partnered John O’Shea in central midfield and Paul Scholes played off Alan Smith up front.

It set the tone perfectly for the season ahead. It was difficult and unforgiving. United finished 18 points behind winners Chelsea, who boasted an egomaniacal but brilliant and young coach.

Ferguson, it seemed, was out of step. 

It seems remarkable now but this was the era when his job was genuinely in jeopardy. Henry Winter, writing in the Daily Telegraph, instructed the top brass to do the honourable thing at the end of the 05/06 season.

He should be encouraged to step down during the summer, leaving proudly through the main entrance in the June sunshine rather than shoved out of a side exit into the winter snow.”  

In the same piece, Winter argued for Martin O’Neill to be appointed in his place, while chastising Ferguson’s unrelenting support of a certain flash winger.

“In his younger days, Ferguson would never have allowed a winger like Cristiano Ronaldo to indulge in showboating and roam out of position,” he wrote. 

“A wonderful blend of intelligence and passion, O’Neill would relight United’s fire,” Winter continued. 

“(He’s) the one man who could reinvigorate a stagnant side.”

Of course, Ferguson went nowhere in the summer of 2006, standing firm even when The Guardian published a piece echoing Winter’s sentiment and complete with the headline, ‘Shredding his legacy at every turn’.

So, this was the tense environment Miller found himself in the middle of. When people question his contribution to the club, they’d be minded to remember the finer details.   

Soccer - Friendly - Preston North End v Manchester United - Deepdale Source: Mike Egerton

Some always have done.

When Miller was winding down his career in the United States, his team-mates at United Soccer League side Wilmington Hammerheads were constantly intimidated. One young player, straight out of college, would wait for Miller to step onto the bus before sitting right next to him.

With hours to kill on those away trips, the meticulously monosyllabic Miller had no choice but to answer the volley of questions.

‘Who was the best player you played with? What was the best stadium? What was Giggs like? And Scholes? And Keane?’

Just like all those years earlier with John O’Shea. 

And, as much as Miller was certainly reluctant to open up on those bus journeys, it may have served as a reminder to him too – not that he needed it – of just how special and unique and awe-inspiring his playing career was to so many.  

I can still remember watching in my living room. The little kid I’d read about for years in the Echo and the Examiner. The kid who dazzled for Celtic and was so good that Fergie signed him. The kid – just a few years older than me – who played in midfield for Manchester United.

The kid who lived his dreams.     

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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