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Manchester United legends turn out to honor the late Liam Miller in his native Cork

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Our Aidan Boland was on the ground in Cork for the tribute match, as Roy Keane’s presence loomed large

FA Cup Third Round : Manchester United v Exeter City Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

In 2017, former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland player Liam Miller was diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer and in February 2018, he succumbed to the disease in his native Cork aged just thirty six years old. Miller was survived by his wife Claire and their three young children Corey, Leo and Belle. Following Miller’s passing, a tribute match was announced to honour Miller’s memory and raise funds for his family. The game would pit a Manchester United XI featuring Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville against a combined Glasgow Celtic/Republic of Ireland XI comprised of Miller’s former teammates such as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Kevin Kilbane.

The game was arranged for Pairc Ui Chaoimh, a recently redeveloped 45,000 seater stadium in Cork city. The game became national news in Ireland as Pairc Ui Chaoimh is a GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) stadium, one designated for the national sports of hurling and Gaelic Football. Soccer is among the sports prohibited in these grounds due to rules dating back to the 1800s. Miller had once been an underage GAA star for his local Éire Óg side and had won a hurling competition in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in 1993.

Liam Miller holding the trophy at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in 1993

A compromise was reached, allowing the soccer game to proceed provided that an underage GAA event took place at half time (officially deeming the event a GAA event, featuring soccer).

For a small nation, the Republic of Ireland has supplied an inordinate amount of great players to Manchester United. Dating back to Tony Dunne and John Giles in the 1960s, they were followed by the likes of Gerry Daly and Paul McGrath in the 1970s and 1980s. Both Roy Keane and Denis Irwin were stalwarts in the Manchester United team that won the Champions League in 1999. Somewhat tellingly, both Keane and Irwin heralded from Miller’s native Cork, a county in the south of Ireland sometimes known as the Rebel county.

Expectations were high in 2004 when Manchester United signed yet Miller from Glasgow Celtic. Miller followed Keane, Irwin, Frank O’Farrell and Noel Cantwell as the latest Rebel to represent Manchester United at the highest level. Miller had starred for Martin O’Neill’s Scottish Premier League winning team the year previous and Alex Ferguson recounted in this week’s match day programme that he first spotted Miller in November 2003 putting in a fantastic performance against Anderlecht in the Champions League, and was determined there and then to sign him for Manchester United.

Miller was an attacking midfielder from Ovens, Co. Cork and brought his small town humility to Carrington in abundance. Miller was popular with his teammates and while his career at Manchester United did not reach the heights expected, he was held in high regard by all at Old Trafford.

The following season Miller was loaned to Leeds United and he was later sold to Roy Keane’s Sunderland in 2006. Over the next few years, Miller would also play for Queens Park Rangers and Hibernian in Scotland before returning to play for his native Cork City in the League of Ireland in 2016.

There was an additional storyline allow brewing in the background.

Roy Keane, who had famously left Manchester in 2005 would be returning to the Manchester United XI to be the player-manager for the day. Alex Ferguson had original been pencilled in to manage the United XI but his recent health scare limited his involvement to his glowing tribute to Miller in the match day programme.

The game began as a United XI versus a Glasgow Celtic XI. The names Giggs, Scholes, Irwin, Neville, Butt and Saha were among the Manchester United starters while the Celtic team included Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and Paul Lambert. Some had put significant miles on the clock since last togging out for Manchester United but it was a welcome sight to see many old faces, Champions League winners among them, on the famous sod in Cork once again lining out.

The game was played at a pedestrian pace as many of the now retired players struggled to get to grips with the large GAA field. Louis Saha later posted on Instagram that he had never played on a pitch so large. Robbie Keane, one of the more recently active footballers on display, showed his match sharpness and gave Gary Neville a torrid time. John O’Shea was dominant in defence having played a game in the Championship the previous Saturday.

An early penalty gave fellow Cork native Denis Irwin the opportunity to score the first ever soccer goal at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Louis Saha, looking trim and sharp, soon doubled United’s lead with an excellent breakaway run. Robbie Keane deservedly pulled a goal back for the Celtic XI before half time.

If there was to be a pantomime villain, it was Gary Neville. Tormented by Robbie Keane down the left flank, he was put under significant pressure for the entire first half. Neville, playing to the crowd, received both taunts and cheers in equal measure. Ryan Giggs brought visual comedy to proceedings. While meandering through the Celtic defence, he signalled for Gary Neville to make a run to the right, only to turn infield and leave Neville exasperated at a futile decoy run.

Wholesale changes were made to both sides at halftime. The Celtic XI became a Republic of Ireland XI. The sight of the Republic of Ireland jerseys on the field invigorated the Cork crowd. Quinton Fortune, David May and Dion Dublin appeared as second half substitutes for Manchester United. Despite being almost twenty years since his prime in the Premier League, Dublin’s excellent first touch remained and he was a willing running for Paul Scholes’ passes over the top of the Republic of Ireland’s defence.

The crowd was consciously aware of one element. It may have been Liam Miller’s day but there was another Cork man on people’s minds. Roy was still yet to emerge.

On 61 minutes, the people of Cork rose to their feet as Roy Keane made his long awaited return to the Red of Manchester, replacing Ryan Giggs and taking the captain’s armband. Keane had been in the media in Ireland recently and the reaction to his arrival, initially mixed, became raucous in support. Keane kept his passing direct and tidy, and did not inflict any of his one trademark tackles.

On 82 minutes, Colin Healy made the score 2-2 and from that point onwards, a draw game and ultimate penalty shootout seemed inevitable. Both sides missed multiple kicks from the spot, with the greatest jeers saved for Roy Keane missing his spotkick. The Republic of Ireland XI won the shootout and took the plaudits.

The day however, belonged to Liam Miller and his memory was never far from people’s minds. 45,000 people lined out to pay their respect to the man who had mastered soccer, hurling and Gaelic football at a young age and achieved the dreams of many by playing for Manchester United, Glasgow Celtic and the Republic of Ireland. In the buildup to the game, I spoke with friends of Miller who told me that while his time in Manchester didn’t work out, he loved every minute at Manchester United. Miller, they said, was at his happiest whenever he was playing football.

Miller’s image featured on the big screen at full time on the city end terrace and a hush came over the crowd as they acknowledged their fallen hero. Liam Miller might have not had the biggest impact during his time at Manchester United, but in Cork, he will never be forgotten.