Before the Requiem Mass, a long, solemn hush settled in a packed St John the Baptist Church in Ovens, Cork, yesterday.
It was the day a place had dreaded since October, when the devastating news of Liam Miller’s illness spread.
Dotted among locals and family in the pews sat footballers — current and former — teammates, opponents, and friends. Strong, fit men. Survivors of this cruel lottery, but all, as Fr Liam Hickey put it, feeling more vulnerable today.
There was a heavy, suffocating sadness. A sadness, Fr Hickey said, that swiftly leaked beyond the parish last Friday night to everywhere Liam Miller’s name was known.
“Which was everywhere.”
A beautiful service tried to make some sense of things. The Book of Wisdom:
The virtuous man, though he die before his time, will find rest.
Length of days is not what makes age honourable,
Nor number of years the true measure of life.
The offertory gifts drew the arc of childhood dreams fulfilled. Liam’s Celtic, Manchester United, and Ireland shirts. A photograph of the Ovens National School Sciath Na Scol team he captained, carried by his lifelong friend, Cork City goalkeeper Mark McNulty.
His faith was represented by rosary beads, the fullness of his life by a family photograph.
In a eulogy that drew the congregation to its feet in applause, Liam’s brother-in-law Dan Sheedy promised his legacy wouldn’t be his feats on the pitch, nor even his bravery in life and death, but his three children Kory, Leo, and Belle, and his devotion to them and his wife Clare.
“All he wanted was his children’s happiness. He gave every ounce of himself to his children. Liam attacked his condition with a ferocity. He wanted to survive for his family. He was the bravest person I have ever known.”
It’s the sharpest irony that on these dark days we can’t make sense of; most everything else is crystal clear.
We might have wondered, over the years, if Liam Miller wanted more. More caps, more money, more goals. Perhaps he did. But over the last few days, we think of a man who travelled the world on his talent. Who played for the clubs he dreamed of. We hear of the joy and good humour he always packed with him. We hear how he teased his pals back home with selfies from the beach and how he always kept hold of those friends back home. We hear of his pride in his young family. And now we see a man who had it all.
On these days, it is possible to know Liam Miller was always destined for great things. Some will have known since they first saw him play, refusing to misplace a pass in the Ballincollig FC midfield.
Others, long before, maybe since he got stuck in among the dozens drawn after school to the Millers’ lawn in Ovens. Liam the smallest and youngest, mother Bridie terrified for his safety, dad Billy proud of his “little Stanley Matthews”.
Other days, we might take for granted what it demands of a young boy from Ovens to make it at the biggest football clubs in the world. Today, we can appreciate the bravery it took to peel himself away from a tight family aged 16 and chase his dreams in Glasgow. Then, quickly onto Aarhus in Denmark, where he needed to make an impression.
“An inner strength,” Willie McStay, his Celtic mentor, called it yesterday, because Liam Miller was not the kind of guy who shouted his intentions from the rooftops. His was a quiet ambition. Willie still wonders how he made himself understood to the Danes, but there was a drive, the same drive that kept him running long after his teammates had buckled on the bleep tests. And a popularity that meant the rest always waited to cheer him on.
“Nothing seemed to faze him — and, to me, he seemed like a Celtic player,” said McStay.
Humility gained him acceptance straight away among the Celtic first team, among stars such as Larsson and Lambert, Petrov and Lennon, who was in the church.
But you sense too that Liam Miller met the right people at the right time, to guide him on his way. Maybe they sometimes sweated the small stuff back then, but now McStay could joke about the one thing he was never able to teach him: Punctuality.
“But I will always remember that wee boy who never gave the ball away and who could run all day. It was a joy to work with him and to know him.”
“Liam, you will never walk alone,” an emotional McStay signed off, vowing the Millers will forever remain part of the Celtic family.
Inside a warm church, sheltered from the biting cold if not the grim reality, the football family huddled close. And it was possible to believe in things like the football family.
Dan Sheedy said thanks, on behalf of the Millers, to those members of the family who had quietly offered help and solace.
“You didn’t seek to use Liam’s illness to publicise yourself, as others did, but you saw a man who was suffering, a family in agony and torment, and you asked yourself that most human of questions: What can I do?”
Looking at Martin O’Neill and Tony O’Donoghue, with their heads bowed, we could all look inward at the futility of our pet peeves. And truly know that life is too short.
Among the mourners, we could trace Liam Miller’s footprint on the football world.
Denis Irwin and Roy Keane, the men who led the way. Colin Healy, slipping in at the back, another modest man who followed the same route from Ballincollig to Celtic. Brian Kerr, who made Liam a European champion at 16. John O’Shea, on that team too, and also with Liam at Old Trafford. O’Neill, the man who gave his professional career the green and white light.
It would often be tempting, on these days, to roll the highlight reel; that beautiful strike for Ireland against Sweden, a masterclass against Croatia, bamboozling Vincent Kompany and the rest of Anderlecht, that downward nod from Larsson’s header against Lyon, the Roy of the Rovers winner for Leeds against Southampton.
But it has been clear, the last few days, that Liam Miller left a deeper impression on the football world than goals and medals. Wherever he went, they spoke of his modesty and courtesy and dignity. Rio Ferdinand, reaching for words live on television on Saturday morning, boiled it down as well as anybody: “A pure, genuine guy.”
Outside, in the graveyard, across the road from the primary school he attended, a bitter rain fell as Liam Miller was laid to rest.
John Caulfield had asked Cork to come out in force and he and his players were there, as Cork and the football family and the Miller family said goodbye to the man Dan Sheedy described beautifully.
“Liam Miller, a decent man. Liam Miller, an honest man. Liam Miller, an honourable man. Liam Miller, a gas man, Liam Miller, a sportsman. But most of all...
“Liam Miller, a family man.”
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