Take a stroll down Cork’s main thoroughfare, St. Patrick’s Street, on a Saturday afternoon and the footballing attire you’re most likely to see is that of Celtic and Manchester United, with Liverpool, Chelsea and a couple of other cross-channel giants on display too.
Growing up in Cork this sense of connection to places, and football clubs, hundreds of miles away can be pretty strong.
The difference with Liam Miller, who passed away last Friday just shy of his 37th birthday, was that he got to achieve that rare feat of living the dream many of those wearing the colours of these famous football clubs aspire to.
Having returned to his native Cork in 2015 after spells with some of the biggest sides in Scotland and England, Miller told the Irish Examiner just what it meant to him to play for two teams he grew up supporting:
“I genuinely look back and think, ‘I played for Celtic’, my boyhood club.
“I dreamed of playing for Man United and I got that opportunity as well. I don’t know how many other people can say they played for their two childhood clubs, or even one childhood club.”
While many schoolboys players of his generation dreamt of doing the same, it was obvious from an early age that Miller had that something you can’t really put your finger on. That level of footballing know-how you can’t teach. The ability you’re either born with or will never have.
Like every player who reached the heights he did, however, Miller would also need to be mentally strong and show real grit and determination to reach the next level.
This he certainly did to emerge from Celtic’s academy, having joined the Hoops aged 15, where he became a key part of Martin O’Neill’s midfield while in Glasgow.
After making 15 appearances in all in Europe for the Parkhead outfit, it was time for something new and once United came calling there was only going to be one outcome.
In July 2004 Miller transferred from one of his boyhood clubs to another to complete a dream which we may not see again in this country for some time given the nature of the Premier League’s top clubs’ hiring processes, which now make it extremely difficult for Irish youngsters to break in at the top.
Things didn’t go according to plan for the Ovens man at Old Trafford, making only a handful of appearances before going out on loan to Leeds and then ultimately to Sunderland to join up with fellow Corkonian Roy Keane, who was manager there at the time.
His final flirtation with English football was a short spell with QPR before returning to Scotland with Hibernian where he would be named in the Scottish Premier League’s 2009/10 Team of the Year before falling slightly off the radar after moving to Australia.
In 2015 his return to Cork City, having played at some of the biggest clubs in the world and making 21 appearances for Ireland, was somewhat poetic. That year will always be a special one for those who got to see one of their own perform on home soil.
Growing up in Cork I had followed Miller’s career for years but it wasn’t until he came home that I was able to truly appreciate the level of sophistication he brought to the game.
The high-intensity and pressing seen in League of Ireland matches can often suffocate the beauty of the game, however the former Ireland international had that level of poise on the ball which made others around him look panicked and flustered while he orchestrated attacks with a perfect first touch and incredible eye for a pass.
He was able to find space where there seemingly was none and knew three passes before the ball got to him where he would need to be and what he would need to do should he receive it.
One of the greatest players of all-time, Johan Cruyff, once remarked: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”
If there was ever a player from Cork who embodied this phrase it was Miller.
He will be missed, he did go far too soon, but the next time you walk down St. Patrick’s Street and see a Celtic, Man United or Cork City shirt for that matter remember the boy from Ovens who got to live the dream.
RIP, Liam Miller.