Former Celtic, Manchester United and Republic of Ireland midfielder Liam Miller died on Friday night at the age of 36 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Miller grew up in Ovens a village in County Cork, and although he played Gaelic football, his real passion was soccer, with a fondness for Celtic taken from his father Billy, a Scotsman from Motherwell.
He joined the Parkhead club at the age of 15 and, on May 21, 2000, in Kenny Dalglish’s last game as Hoops manager, he made his debut as a second-half substitute in a 2-0 home win over Dundee United.
A loan spell at Aarhus in Denmark followed and the talented playmaker with good pace and mobility did not break into the Celtic first team properly until 2003/04 under Martin O’Neill and he picked up a Ladbrokes Premiership medal that season.
Miller, a quiet man not prone to breast-beating, initially took some stick from the Parkhead fans when he controversially rejected the offer of a new deal from the Glasgow club to sign for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United on a ‘Bosman’ at the end of the season.
O’Neill was pragmatic: “We’re all disappointed that Liam’s going to be leaving. But contrary to what some people might think, I have not got a problem playing him. Whatever reaction he’ll get from the Celtic fans I think Liam will be able to cope with it.”
Before he left Parkhead he won the first of 21 caps with the Republic of Ireland in a 2-1 win over Czech Republic at Lansdowne Road – “getting onto the pitch was definitely one of the proudest moments of my life, I’ve always dreamed about it and it came true” – and he scored once for his country, in a 3-0 win over Sweden in 2006.
Miller struggled to establish himself in a United central midfield and he had a loan spell at Leeds United in 2005.
The Irishman joined Sunderland in 2006 and spent three years with the Black Cats, then bossed by former United team-mate Roy Keane, winning the football League Championship in 2006/07 before moving to Queens Park Rangers in January, 2009 only to be released that May.
The next move was back to Scotland where he signed for Hibernian, staying at Easter Road for two seasons before moving to Australia’s A-League where he joined Perth Glory.
After spells at Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City he returned to Ireland in 2015 to join Cork City. A year later he was off to Wilmington Hammerheads in the USA before returning to his hometown last November after being diagnosed with his illness.
In an interview published in the Irish Examiner in February, 2015, following his return to Cork City, Miller refuted any notion that his career had not reached the heights it had promised.
“I genuinely look back and think, ‘I played for Celtic’, my boyhood club,” he said.
“I dreamed of playing for Man United and I got that opportunity as well. I don’t know how many other people can say they played for their two childhood clubs, or even one childhood club. Of course, I would have loved to play more games, don’t get me wrong, but I got to learn from some of the best players ever. Looking back, it was wonderful.
“Growing up for me, I just wanted to play football. And as I got better and better, the opportunities came around for me. Nothing’s ever guaranteed – you could get an injury in the morning, touch wood – but, I worked my socks off and the hard work paid off for me.”
Amid a flood of tributes, Celtic’s official Twitter account said:
Everyone at #CelticFC is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of former midfielder Liam Miller. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this time.
RIP Liam, YNWA. pic.twitter.com/vMkT1CtJ2m
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) February 9, 2018
“We are incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of former Hibernian midfielder Liam Miller. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time,” read Hibs’ official Twitter account, while former Celtic team-mate Mark Burchill said on his Twitter account: “Can’t believe my old team-mate Liam miller @CelticFC has passed away today.. taken far too soon.. horrific news.. thoughts and prayers with his family at this time #RipLiam”.
Miller is survived by his wife Clare and three children Kory, Leo and Belle.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is in the form of his life, shining for Barcelona this season as they surge towards the La Liga title, all the while exerting a vivce-like grip on the Germany goalkeeper’s jersey with regular No1 Manuel Neuer on the sidelines.
As the 25-year-old attempts to improve his chances of starting between the sticks for his country at the World Cup in Russia this summer, he’s also chasing a domestic record too.
Ter Stegen has a chance of breaking Deportivo La Coruna goalkeeper Francisco Liano’s 1994 clean sheet record, keeping 26 of them in one La Liga season.
Barca lead the standings by nine points from Atletico Madrid, with Ter Stegen so far collecting 13 clean sheets from 22 games, with 16 games to go.
Elsewhere in Spain, Los Rojiblancos stopper Jan Oblak has been in scintillating form as Diego Simeone’s side have conceded a league low nine goals this term.
In England, meanwhile, David De Gea has kept 15 Premier League clean sheets in 26 games as United possess the stingiest defence, leading many to label him the best stopper in world football.
Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois has 12 clean sheets in 25 league appearances this term, and he has put the likes of both Madrid sides on alert as he claims his future lies in the Spanish capital.
Elsewhere, Roma No1 Allison has had a supremely impressive 18 months, establishing himself as the No1 in the Eternal City having studied under Wojciech Szczesny during his early days with the Giallorossi. He has also established himself as Brazil’s No1, keeping out Manchester City’s Ederson.
Here, Sport360 assesses the attributes of our top five goalkeepers in Europe:
Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nicolas (Verona), Stefano Sorrentino (Chievo), Neto (Valencia), Fernando Pacheco (Alaves), Jiri Pavlenka (Werder Bremen), Timo Horn (Cologne), Baptiste Reynet (Dijon), Regis Gurtner (Amiens)
1. MARC-ANDRE TER STEGEN
**Clean sheets 21
Goals conceded 19
Goals conceded per game 0.7
*Saves per game 2.8
*Average passes 29.1
*Pass success rate 81.1
*Long balls 5.7
Much like David De Gea at Manchester United, has had to replace a club icon as he was thrust into the limelight when Claudio Bravo was sold to Manchester City.
Has been a revelation at Camp Nou this season, exceeding expectations with fantastic showings in both La Liga and the Champions League – where he leads the stats in both save percentage and clean sheets.
He has also taken his chance to usurp the injured Manuel Neuer in nets for Germany, and on this form is in contention to fight the Bayern Munich stopper for the No1 jersey at this summer’s World Cup.
2. DAVID DE GEA
**Clean sheets 19
Goals conceded 21
Goals conceded per game 0.7
*Saves per game 3.2
*Average passes 26
*Pass success rate 56.5
*Long balls 7.5
From where he’s come to where he is, is staggering progress. It’s not easy to establish yourself at a big club, especially at 20 and replacing a legend like Edwin van der Sar as De Gea did in 2011.
His maiden campaign was littered with errors and he was constantly bullied at set-pieces by the myriad of strong, powerful strikers plying their trade in the Premier League – something that would have been painfully new to him having arrived from the far more placid La Liga.
It took both time and effort for him to develop physically, but what a goalkeeper he has developed into. He has been United’s rock for the last five years, constantly coming to the rescue of a back-line which is nowhere near the class of the man behind them. He won the club’s player of the year award three years in a row from 2014-16.
3. JAN OBLAK
**Clean sheets 17
Goals conceded 16
Goals conceded per game 0.57
*Saves per game 2.8
*Average passes 22.8
*Pass success rate 47.9
*Long balls 5.8
Has become a firm favourite with Rojiblancos supporters, making 96 La Liga appearances since arriving from Benfica in 2014 and all but erasing memories of De Gea.
An imposing physical specimen, incredibly athletic, he commands his area with authority and is a wonderful shot-stopper.
Is reportedly being lined up by Arsenal as a replacement for veteran Petr Cech this summer after a slew of error-strewn performances from the 35-year-old Czech this term.
4. THIBAUT COURTOIS
**Clean sheets 15
Goals conceded 32
Goals conceded per game 1.03
*Saves per game 2
*Average passes 27.5
*Pass success rate 70.7
*Long balls 5.2
Has been supreme for Chelsea in three-and-a-half seasons at Stamford Bridge, establishing himself as one of the modern game’s greats.
Another stopper with links to De Gea, having shone in the Spanish capital where he spent three seasons on loan following the Spaniard’s departure.
Is in talks to sign a new Blues contract but with the club’s poor form, speculation over Antonio Conte’s future and his two children residing in the Spanish capital with his ex-girlfriend, the big Belgian has stated his “heart is in Madrid”.
**Clean sheets 13
Goals conceded 22
Goals conceded per game 0.75
*Saves per game 3.2
*Average passes 29.3
*Pass success rate 80.9
*Long balls 8.2
The Brazilian international is currently keeping Manchester City stopper Ederson out of the Selecao lineup and has been hugely impressive at the Stadio Olimpico over the last 18 months.
Former Roma goalkeeping coach Roberto Negrisolo has referred to him as the “Messi of goalkeepers” and he was awarded the Ricardo Zamora Trophy for the best goalkeeper in La Liga for 2015/16, having conceded 18 goals in 38 games, equaling the 22-year-old record of Deportivo stopper Francisco Liano.
Is expected to be in demand this summer with Real Madrid, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain all on the lookout for a new keeper, while Juventus could also move if Gianluigi Buffon calls time on his career.
**League and Champions League
The Munich Air Disaster. It was the biggest tragedy in the club’s history, one of the biggest tragedies in football’s history, but Scott McTominay’s presence in the first team is proof that the spirit of the Busby Babes still lives on at Manchester United.
The lanky Lancastrian is proving to be more than a useful addition to Jose Mourinho’s squad this season over the 11 games he’s played across all competitions.
At 21, he’s by no means the finished article and hasn’t exactly set the world alight or indeed during brief cameos last season – no goals (bar a stylishly executed strike in a routine 3-0 win over Norwegian minnows Valerenga in pre-season last summer) and no assists in 13 competitive outings.
But he also hasn’t looked out of his depth. He’s tall and agile, has good close control, is comfortable with the ball at his feet, has a range of passing and is above all industrious – an attribute Mourinho holds in high regard among his players.
Whether he goes on to make the grade, McTominay is certainly not there just so the club can continue racking up the statistics – you have to go back 3,904 games (or October 1937) for a United matchday squad that didn’t feature a player that graduated from the academy.
Youth development and success at United became synonymous with the Busby Babes after their rise in the 1950s and especially the core of youngsters that formed part of the successful European Cup-winning side in 1968 – 10 years after tragedy in Munich.
But it had been woven into the club’s DNA long before the Babes term were coined by Manchester Evening News journalist Tom Jackson in 1951.
George Best and Brian Kidd, goalscorers in that final on May 29 50 years ago, were just 21 and 19 (Kidd was celebrating winning a European Cup on his 19th birthday).
David Sadler was 22 and John Ashton just 20, while Shay Brennan, Bill Foulkes, Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton had all risen through the Old Trafford ranks established at least 30 years earlier.
Eight of the players who died on the runway in Munich – Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg and Geoff Bent, while Jackie Blanchflower was injured to such an extent that he never played again – all graduated from the academy.
Sixty years on from Munich and McTominay is following in a lot of legendary footsteps. He may be making small strides but he only has to look at another current teammate to realise how far he can go.
Jesse Lingard has fought more criticism than most to firmly establish himself as a favourite under Mourinho this season. He’s added consistency and goals to his repertoire and seems to grow in stature with every performance.
It’s hugely impressive a player so slightly built has managed to climb the mountain of doubt put in his path. And his stature in the first team is yet more proof that United’s success is not solely built on world-class players either molded in house or brought in for monumental money.
For every United superstar there’s been a reliable stalwart – John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Denis Irwin and Park Ji-sung were some of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most trustworthy soldiers.
Lingard and McTominay’s progress this season, as well as that of Marcus Rashford, is also encouraging as they have been nurtured under Mourinho – a manager with a reputation for an apparent unwillingness to promote youth, or even kill careers.
It is a reputation that has been used as a stick to beat the Portuguese with following the success of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah since escaping his clutches.
Yet it has also proved slightly unwarranted given the likes of Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Maniche became Portugal internationals during his reign as Porto manager.
Petr Cech, John Terry, Glen Johnson and Robert Huth also came through at his first spell at Chelsea, while he gave Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek their debuts during his second spell.
A teenage Mario Balotelli made more than 70 appearances in Mourinho’s heavily experienced Internazionale team, while even Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez emerged in the bright spotlight at Real Madrid, a club less forgiving of failure than most.
At his United unveiling, Mourinho presented a list of 49 players he said he had promoted from academies over the years, and the rise of Lingard, Rashford and McTominay cast a little more doubt on that theory.
It is also a sign of how much he values the club’s legacy, putting trust in the next generation. The same cannot be said of his former club Chelsea and United’s rivals, Manchester City.
The London club currently have 36 players – most of them kids – out on loan. Andreas Christensen, 21, is the only academy graduate to have been afforded adequate game time this season.
City, meanwhile, have 10 youngsters loaned out. No home-grown talents have seen significant playing time, despite the hype surrounding the gifted Phil Foden, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Brahim Diaz – who have played a combined seven games this term, compared to McTominay’s 11.
United have just five youngsters out on loan – Andreas Pereira, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, James Wilson, Sam Johnstone and Axel Tuanzebe.
For a lot of diehard Red Devils supporters, Mourinho nurturing young players – the exciting Angel Gomes made just a second but impressive cameo off the bench in the 4-0 FA Cup win over Yeovil – is enough encouragement that the future and traditions of the club are in good hands rather than those of a devil.
So, will McTominay prove to be Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher or Lingard and establish himself in club folklore, or at least in the annals of history as someone who left his mark?
Or will he follow the path out of the Old Trafford door trudged by Tom Cleverley, Ravel Morrison, Kieran Richardson, Jonathan Greening, Luke Chadwick, Keith Gillespie, Robbie Savage, Raphael Burke or the countless others who couldn’t quite make it?
Time will tell. For now, it’s encouraging to see that bright young things at one of the world’s biggest clubs continue to be given a stage on which to perform.
United, in the long term, will reap rewards by sticking by their principles, even if in the short term they have to accept failure.