Liam Miller tribute: The match in the Páirc can be a celebration of the unifying power of sport

Liam Miller tribute: The match in the Páirc can be a celebration of the unifying power of sport
Liam Miller, centre, holding the winning cup in his school days at Ovens NS.

THERE is something gloriously innocent about sport at primary school level.

Of course, it can be competitive and feisty. From the City Sports to Sciath na Scol to the Spar Five-a-side soccer, there are numerous medals and cups up for grabs. You get your few tough guys even at 11 and 12 years of age and a huge mix in abilities, from those who won’t play much beyond their teens to the elite athlete in waiting.

Yet the joy that boys and girls get from succeeding with their schools and underage teams is hard to beat.

Liam Miller knew that.

Miller was always a talented performer with a ball. While soccer would ultimately be his calling, growing up in the Éire Óg catchment area and going to Ovens National School, GAA was the first platform for him to shine.

At just 11, he captained Ovens to a Sciath na Scol triumph, beating city team Greenmount at the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh. When the clamour began for the late Irish international’s testimonial match to be played in the GAA arena instead of Turner’s Cross, Miller’s Sciath exploits were highlighted.

That was only the tip of the iceberg though because he didn’t play organised soccer until he was in his early teens and joined a Ballincollig team coached by Mick McNulty, the father of Cork City keeper Mark, who became one of Miller’s best friends all the way until his untimely passing back in February. The son of current Ballincollig AFC chairwoman Gerardene McNamara, Eamonn, played with Miller all through the ranks.

Tony Fitzgerald making a presentation to Gerardene McNamara at the tribute games to Liam Miller as part of the FAI ‘Festival of Football’ hosted by Ballincollig AFC. Picture: David Keane.
Tony Fitzgerald making a presentation to Gerardene McNamara at the tribute games to Liam Miller as part of the FAI ‘Festival of Football’ hosted by Ballincollig AFC. Picture: David Keane.

The club will be represented on Tuesday by ballboys and ballgirls in the Páirc on Tuesday.

Éire Óg was where Miller started on the path to sporting stardom and it’s fantastic that the club’s current U12s, boys and girls, will be involved in an exhibition before the testimonial. Those kids will only get to grace the hallowed turf of the Páirc but also be on the bill with the likes of Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Ryan Giggs, Neil Lennon and Robbie Keane.

It means GAA and soccer fit together today despite the controversy over the summer about opening up the Páirc.

If soccer hadn’t become his focus, Miller would almost certainly have pulled on the red geansaí in either hurling or football, maybe even both.

Liam Miller (RIP),Tom Kenny, Michael Long and Conrad O Sullivan (RIP) with the Cork U14 hurlers in Waterford back in 1995.
Liam Miller (RIP),Tom Kenny, Michael Long and Conrad O Sullivan (RIP) with the Cork U14 hurlers in Waterford back in 1995.

As Larry Ryan detailed in the Irish Examiner back in August, Miller scored 4-2 in an U16 underage football trial for Cork, despite being on hand just to watch and still U15.

The game took place Cloughduv back in 1996, an audition for the Cork U16s with a view to the minor squads for the 1997 and 1998 seasons, where his friends Alan Carey and Vincent Fahy were playing. Ballincollig native Carey went to be a key figure in defence for Cork City and Cobh Ramblers, captaining them to the First Division title in 2007, until injury cut short his career.

Miller, Carey as well as Colin Healy and McNulty were the standout soccer players in the Ballincollig area of their vintage and lined out side-by-side in a Youths Cup final for the club in 1998, which surprisingly they lost to Macroom. Soon after Healy and Miller were on their way to professional careers with Celtic.

Another Collig man JP O’Leary, who was a mainstay of the club’s senior team for a decade, was involved in that football trial in ‘96 as was future All-Ireland winning Cork captain Graham Canty, Ilen Rovers’ Diarmuid Duggan and Castlehaven’s Liam Collins.

Miller had no gear with him but with the Cork management initially short one player for a full-scale match, he was asked to take part and was put in at corner-forward for the ‘whites’. A notebook recording the scoring in the game underlines Miller’s versatility as a sportsman — he notched four goals and two points.

Cork players on the Irish U16 soccer team winners of the European cup, from left, David Warren, David Madden and Liam Miller during the victory parade in the Open Top bus through Ballincollig last night. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork players on the Irish U16 soccer team winners of the European cup, from left, David Warren, David Madden and Liam Miller during the victory parade in the Open Top bus through Ballincollig last night. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Michael O’Flynn, chairman of the committee organising next month’s tribute match for Miller at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, explained the story: “He had no gear. But he was the pick of the 30-odd players on the day apparently.” Unfortunately for Cork, they weren’t allowed to select Miller for the Munster Championship panel because he was still underage for the grade.

“A lot of people though in our parish and parishes in Mid Cork remember him as an exceptional GAA player,” says O’Flynn, also a member of the Éire Óg club.

“I saw him playing with Éire Óg myself as a 14 and 15-year-old. He would have played in the red jersey in both codes. It is fascinating how good he was at this age.”

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, a staunch Nemo man, summed up the GAA versus soccer situation well.

“The GAA is rooted in community, Liam Miller’s family is of our community, Liam Miller was of our community and Páirc Uí Chaoimh is underpinned by our community.

“I was at Liam Miller’s funeral and it was very sad and very poignant but it came across how rooted he was in the community and he played with Cork U15 GAA.

“He played with Tom Kenny, the famous Cork hurler, and that is Cork, people grow up in a GAA environment, they play soccer, you might play a bit of rugby, the best GAA players became soccer players. It’s a very ecumenical sporting city, it’s a mad sporting city in some respects.”

The Éire Óg boys and girls U12 hurling and football teams. Picture: Dan Linehan
The Éire Óg boys and girls U12 hurling and football teams. Picture: Dan Linehan

It should never be a battle between soccer, GAA, rugby or anything else. Naturally everyone wants the prodigious young guns to stick with their favourite sport, and there are only so many hours in the week to play before burnout is a concern, yet multi-sport athletes are to be admired.

Only in the past 12 months, Saoirse Noonan was banging in goals for Cork City Women’s FC and the Cork ladies footballers. Her soccer instincts were crucial to hat-tricks in successive minor All-Irelands, as well as comfortable stepping up to senior. Valerie Mulcahy previously combined the two sports while camogie icon Sandie Fitzgibbon was also outstanding at soccer and basketball.

No doubt Simon Zebo benefitted from his years as a St Michael’s and Blackrock underage ace before prioritising rugby.

Even though it’s not viable anymore, Davie Barry was famous as a dual soccer and football winner, a legend of Cork City FC as a player and then manager, having also collected cups for St Finbarr’s and the Cork footballers in 1989-‘90.

Dave Barry in his pomp.
Dave Barry in his pomp.

‘Dowtcha Davie Barry boy...’ could have been chanted from the Blackrock Terrace as readily as the Shed.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Dinny Allen were as good with a football on the deck as in their hands, while John Meyler, the current Cork hurling boss, actually enjoyed third-level soccer success when he was in UCC. Indeed he nailed a hat-trick for the College in a Collingwood Cup final win.

Going outside the county bounds, would Kieran Donaghy have been the terror at full-forward he developed into without basketball? Absolutely not.

The Liam Miller Testimonial is a celebration of the life of a fine soccer player and a fundraiser for his family and some worthy charities.

Yet it should also be viewed as a toast to how sport unites us.

Liam Miller with the Sciath na Scol trophy after captaining Ovens NS to a victory at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in October 1992.
Liam Miller with the Sciath na Scol trophy after captaining Ovens NS to a victory at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in October 1992.

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