A few hours before Jose Mourinho’s team suffered a surprise Carabao Cup exit at home to Derby, Manchester United fans got a wistful reminder of the calibre of players that used to grace the famous red shirt in yesteryear. Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Andy Cole were among those who once again donned the United colours in front of a crowd of more than 43,000 in the Irish city of Cork. The reason? They were among a group of quality footballers paying their respects to Liam Miller, the former United midfielder who died from pancreatic cancer this year at the young age of 36. The players from Sir Alex Ferguson’s glory years represented a Manchester United Legends team that took on a Celtic/Ireland selection (managed by Martin O’Neill) in a tribute match for Miller, who represented those two massive clubs and won international honours for Republic of Ireland.
The incredible thing about the tribute match is that it was originally intended to take place at a different venue at the other side of Cork city. Turners Cross, the home venue of the region’s flagship club, had been the initial venue for the fixture, but when demand far exceeded its miserly capacity of 7,000, organisers frantically sought to move the match to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, a 45,000-capacity venue in the city. What ought to have been a common sense Plan B instead turned into an ugly and regrettable bout of mud-slinging between football fans and those of GAA, the indigenous Irish code nominally played at the venue. Still, a one-off fixture of a different code ought not to have been a problem – or so you’d have thought. GAA statutes forbid the playing of non-Gaelic sports at their grounds and some within the organisation were unrelenting in their citation of the rulebook, blatantly ignoring the sensitive circumstances of this situation. Thankfully, after a wave of public outcry, Pairc Ui Chaoimh was made available for the Liam Miller match and, when the vast array of additional tickets went on public sale last month, they sold out in less than an hour.
While the right decision was eventually made, the saga that played out during July was totally unavoidable and threatened to cast a dark shadow over what was meant to be a dignified occasion to celebrate the stellar career of one of Cork’s most famous sporting sons. Thankfully, when the childish bickering faded and the day of the match arrived last Tuesday, the event turned out exactly the way the organisers would have wanted it. A near-capacity crowd thronged Ireland’s second city from the morning, with the lengthy stretch of road leading spectators to the stadium awash with colour and life a full two hours before kick-off. One notable aspect was the large number of children and families in attendance, despite the match taking place on a weekday. Many of the children who attended would not remember Miller in the height of his career, instead being captivated by the rare presence of Manchester United in the south of Ireland, but they would go home that evening with a clear understanding of the legacy that the one-time United midfielder left on the people of his home city and beyond – there was no shortage of people who travelled from afar to be in Pairc Ui Chaoimh for this worthy cause.
Early comers were treated to a fine variety of music from Irish artists before the teams took to the field for their warm-ups to massive acclaim from those in the stadium. Nearly an hour before kick-off, the terraces behind both goals were virtually full. The sight of spectators standing at a football match seems like a throwback to previous generations, but terraces are fully permissible at GAA venues, which Pairc Ui Chaoimh is first and foremost. As the teams reappeared from the dressing rooms just before kick-off, they were met by another tumultuous roar and introduced to Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins, a jocular man with a demonstrable interest in football in this country and one striving for another seven-year term when the country’s voters go to the polls in just under a month’s time.
Every time either team got within 40 yards of goal, there was discernible excitement within the ground. The pace of the game might be well off what you’d typically see at today’s top level, but these retired players have lost very little of the marvellous technique that set them apart during their careers. Neville was still marauding along the right flank like a man in his early 20s and his competitive edge certainly hasn’t diminished, judging by how he reacted to misplaced passes or free kicks given to Celtic/Ireland. He also threw a none-too-impressed look towards the stands when some booed his first contact with the ball in the match!
The Manchester United selection scored first and, on a marvellous day for Cork, it was entirely fitting that the scorer should be a local man who is worthy of his place on any legends’ list. Denis Irwin, the understated and under-rated left-back who was a stalwart of United during the 1990s, netted from the penalty spot to rapturous acclaim. Later in the first half, Louis Saha coolly slotted past ex-Ireland goalkeeper David Forde to double United’s lead, with Ireland’s record goalscorer Robbie Keane responding shortly before half-time. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable first half and the feel-good vibe was unavoidable. During the interval, children from Eire Og GAA Club, for whom Miller played in his childhood years, partook in short games, a sight not uncommon at GAA matches. This brief spell of half-time entertainment was significant in that it enabled the occasion to be classified as a GAA event, a technicality which meant that the infamous rulebook was not subverted. In the stands, another Gaelic tradition was being upheld, with vendors selling ice-cream tubs loudly advertised as “tubs of ices”, which sold remarkably well considering that it was a chilly (yet sunny) afternoon in Cork.
In the first half, the Celtic/Ireland selection wore the green and white hoops of the Glasgow club. For the second 45 minutes, the team lined out in the all-green shirts of the Irish national team. That selection dominated for large spells of the second half, with impressive performances from the likes of ex-Chelsea winger Damien Duff, combative midfielder Graham Kavanagh and the energetic Robbie Keane. Their pressure was eventually rewarded with an equaliser from half-time substitute Colin Healy, the second Cork native to score in a match honouring a fine sportsman from the city. There was no louder cheer on the day, though than the one which greeted the introduction of arguably Ireland’s most famous footballer of all time. The cries of “Keano, Keano” meant that the introduction of Roy Keane was imminent. The Ireland assistant manager divides opinion in larger footballing circles, but in Cork the verdict is emphatic. He’s one of their own and no controversy could be big enough to hamper his demigod reputation in his home city.
From my perch near the top of the North Stand, I could see a band of approximately 20 spectators trying to instigate a Mexican wave, to no avail for almost 10 minutes. Their persistence proved to be worth it, though, as once it eventually took off, it did five and a half full laps of the stadium before the referee blew the full-time whistle and everyone stood up to show their appreciation for the players on the pitch and, by proxy, for Liam Miller. Penalties awaited and the quality of spot kicks on show deviated greatly. Roy Keane’s effort was blocked by Forde, who was goaded in a good-natured way for denying the local hero. Andy Reid, once of Tottenham and Ireland, ballooned his penalty so high it threatened to trespass onto the premises of a nearby rowing club. David May, substantially heavier now than during his Manchester United days, drilled his kick to the net emphatically. Kevin Doyle, the ex-Wolves marksman, went for the casual chipped effort and found the net. The winning kick for the United selection was converted by Dion Dublin, sparking inevitable puns about Dublin getting the winner in Cork. If you don’t get the gag, your Irish geography needs upgrading!
It was a day of smiles at Pairc Ui Chaoimh and all around Cork. Liam Miller had been given the celebratory tribute match that his legacy greatly merited. It was hugely satisfying and fitting to witness a full stadium on Cork’s east side. Motorists going about their early evening commute may not have appreciated the masses pouring back into the city centre at rush hour, but the traffic was a minuscule price to pay for the greater good that came of this day. The grieving will continue for Liam Miller’s widow and young children, but his courageous family can take enormous pride in how the people of Ireland and the ex-players of Manchester United, Celtic and Ireland responded so readily when afforded the opportunity to show the scale of the respect they hold for a tremendous footballer whose life was taken far too young.