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25th Sep 2018

Liam Miller match showed the impact he had on his teammates and the people of Cork

Robert Redmond

There’s a story about Roy Keane’s reaction to his fellow Corkman Liam Miller arriving at Manchester United from Celtic.

Keane was working out in the gym and was asked if he wanted to go down to greet his new colleague on his first day at the club in 2004.

“Sure, why would I want to see him? He’s here to take my place,” Keane said, as recounted by Dion Fanning in an article from The Sunday Independent back in 2005.

Keane’s comment, like a lot of his comments, was probably made tongue in cheek. But it also showed the hard-nosed, often ruthless nature of professional football.

Miller was touted as a potential successor to the United captain, rather than a direct rival for his starting spot.

Realistically, regardless of who Alex Ferguson signed at the time, Keane wouldn’t have been dropped. But that didn’t matter, Keane wasn’t about to lay out the red carpet for a new United midfielder, even one from the same county as him.

Just over 14 years later, Keane’s pivotal role in organising Miller’s tribute match in Cork conveys that the bonds that underpin football remain strong, despite the brutal competitiveness at the peak of the sport.

As Keane and other ex-players involved in the game have said, Miller was their teammate and that still carries significant meaning for them.

Jamie Carragher has said that there are no friends in football and that may be true for some. Miller’s memorial match showed that there is a deeper, less tangible, connection for those who have shared a dressing room.

The same for the fans who watch them play. When Miller represented Celtic, United, Ireland, Leeds, Cork City, Sunderland and others, he represented Cork and the people of his county. The sell-out crowd weren’t just there to see ex-players knock the ball around on Tuesday afternoon.

This was their chance, in their own way, to pay tribute to a young man who had his life cut tragically short by a horrible disease. To help his young family and worthy charities.

Mostly though, Miller had represented them impeccably and now they wanted to do the same. Football, and sport in general, is still the one constant, the vehicle to express a sense of shared identity and community.

By all accounts, Miller was a quiet, humble person. He probably would have found the fuss that has been made about him slightly embarrassing. He certainly would have had a laugh watching some of his ex-teammates.

It was surreal watching people who were once among the best in the world at their professions compete – if that’s the right word – at walking pace.

Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt are still very neat on the ball. As is Paul Lambert, the 49-year-old former Stoke City manager. Stylian Petrov, who survived his battle with cancer, had some nice touches too. John O’Shea, still a professional with Reading, moved into the number 10 position at times in the first half – it was that type of match.

Scholes looks like he could play five-a-side until he’s in his 60s, and he can still spray 60-yard passes with ease. Unfortunately, many of the other players at Pairc Ui Chaoimh no-longer have the zip in their legs to get onto the end of them.

Louis Saha scored one of the slowest breakaway goals imaginable, meandering away from Richard Dunne at a glacial pace before slotting home United’s second goal of the day. At their peak, the two men were among the fasted players in their respective Premier League teams.

Robbie Keane looked the sharpest of the players on show. He hasn’t lost his knack for scoring and he is certainly as competitive. The former Ireland captain didn’t take this match lightly.

He wasn’t happy when he failed to get a pass back from Kevin Doyle in the penalty area.

In the first half, he frequently pointed for his teammates to pass to Damien Duff on the wing, hoping to isolate 52-year-old Denis Irwin.

Keane got his goal but also missed from the penalty spot in the shootout.

The other Keane came on the final 30-minutes and received the biggest cheer of the day. Those in attendance hoping for a crunching Keane challenge were left disappointed. The former United captain kept things simple in possession and didn’t really exert himself.

However, his work was already done and the Mexican waves had begun at that point. It wasn’t really about the players taking part anyway. It was about doing Miller’s memory justice.

“It was a huge pitch. It was difficult playing football a few years ago when I was nearly retired, but that was very difficult,” Gary Neville told reporters following the match.

“But that’s obviously not what it was about today. I would have loved it to have been a little quicker for everybody. But the reality of it was that the game was about us paying tribute to Liam Miller. It showed that he was so popular in his home city, and with his teammates that he used to play with as well. We put on the best show we possibly could on what is a very big pitch.”

Neville also spoke about the respect for Miller amongst his former teammates, something that was evident from Alex Ferguson’s words in the matchday programme.

Ferguson paid tribute to Miller’s quality as a footballer, speaking about how he first watched him play in a Champions League tie for Celtic. But he reserved special praise for his character.

“Miller the man flourished at United. He was a wonderful young lad, with humility and manners admired by myself and all at the club. Liam’s legacy as a human being was that he was totally liked by everyone for his quiet, endearing nature.”

More than anything he did on the field, Miller’s qualities as a person made the lasting impression. The match showed the impact Miller had on his former teammates and the people of Cork. He received a fitting tribute at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

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