THE first thing that strikes you when you sift through the match reports and the footage of that November Tuesday night at Parkhead in 2003 is the quality of the Celtic team that took on Anderlecht.
Alongside the 22-year-old Corkman making his first start in the Champions’ League were Neil Lennon, Stilian Petrov, Chris Sutton, John Hartson and, of course, the peerless Henrik Larsson.
This was a serious outfit. Alongside players of that quality and experience, Liam Miller didn’t just look at home, he stood out.
When Larsson scored with a deft header in the 11th minute, it was the start of a magical evening. It was also the culmination of a move that began with Miller picking the ball up in midfield before feeding it to Didier Agathe down the right.
The youngster was going to be involved in just about everything good that Celtic did. And there was a lot.
It’s difficult to watch the video and reconcile the brio and verve of that particular Martin O’Neill team with the dreadful dirge served by his Irish squad of late.
Four minutes after Larsson’s opener, Miller took centre-stage. The moment a long, hopeful ball was sent in from the left towards Hartson, the midfielder started to make his run.
Showing great awareness of the possibilities, it was the type of positive move that isn’t always rewarded. But, like the excellent target man he was, Hartson held off the defender, spotted his team-mate breaking alongside and then produced the most deft header to ensure the ball dropped into Miller’s path as he approached the corner of the six-yard box.
Daniel Zitka, the Anderlecht goalkeeper, was out fast to try narrow the angle and Miller didn’t have a whole lot of goal to aim for. That scarcely seemed to matter. Without breaking his stride, he unfurled the left foot half volley, the ball flying very near Zitka but far too quickly into the far corner for him to do anything about it.
“Deadly cool,” screeched the commentator. Exactly.
If the goal was indeed a thing of beauty, Miller was only starting his night’s work. After that, he seemed to be everywhere, constantly prompting and probing, sending in a succession of inviting crosses from the right, creating gilt-edged chances for Petrov and Larsson.
“Miller, 22, was at the heart of Celtic’s most promising moves as he broke from midfield to get behind the Anderlecht defence time after time,” reported the BBC.
“A deep cross from Miller had keeper Daniel Zitka beaten but the lunging Larsson could not turn the ball in at the back post.”
Miller had not come from nowhere that particular evening. Just two months before, on another Champions’ League night, he’d come off the bench to break the deadlock against Lyon when heading home a cross from Larsson. He’d been on the field just seven minutes when he scored on that occasion.
“We were pressing strongly and trying to find the breakthrough when Liam scored a magical goal that gave us momentum to win the game,” said O’Neill.
Earlier in the summer of 2003, he’d notched another in the Champions’ League qualifying stage victory over Lithuania’s Kaunias. At last, it appeared the promise Celtic had seen him in, the potential undoubtedly hot-housed by his character-building loan spell at Aarhus, was coming to the fore. Unfortunately for O’Neill, other people were coming around to that view too.
Alex Ferguson was in Glasgow that night. He had come in search of a new defender, his scouts having recommended that he run his eye over a 17-year-old Belgian wunderkind called Vincent Kompany.
The future Manchester City captain and talisman had a rough evening at the hands of Hartson, Sutton, and Larsson but Ferguson’s head had been turned anyway. The composure, the energy and the skill evinced by the Corkman in Celtic’s midfield persuading him that his need for a new centre-half wasn’t that pressing.
Instead, he set about signing the lad from Ballincollig. Within weeks, it emerged that Ferguson had, as was usual when he went chasing Cork footballers, got his man. Miller had signed a pre-contract with United that allowed him to move for free the following summer. For a while it soured his relationship with the Celtic fans, but they would always have that memorable night against Anderlecht.
With less than 20 minutes to go, he was called ashore with a tweaked hamstring. The injury was unfortunate but it did offer the Parkhead crowd the opportunity to rise and acclaim a superlative display that seemed to presage a very bright future in green and white hoops.
As many of his friends and former team-mates gather to pay tribute to him at Pairc Ui Chaoimh on September 25, it’s best to remember Liam Miller like that.
A young man who had just proved his mettle. A young man about to take flight.