Sitting in a restaurant next to the Zawisza Stadium in the Polish town of Bydgoszcz last week, the Republic of Ireland manager, Brian Kerr, was asked, not for the first time, to sum up Liam Miller.
"Ah, he's a determined little fella," Kerr said. "I'm sure he's not going there to be in the reserve team." There, of course, is Old Trafford. On 1 July Miller leaves Celtic and joins Manchester United due to a pre-contract agreement signed in January which caused consternation in Scotland, and something of a backlash aimed at the 22-year-old player. "I wouldn't say the booing has all gone away but it has eased down a bit," Miller said last week. "I just try to blank it out and get on with my own game." And show that determination.
On Wednesday he was given his first international start by Kerr, a coach who has nurtured Miller since his early teens and has spoken excitedly about the first time he ever saw the midfielder in training, in a session specially arranged for him. The last time he talked so effusively it was about Damien Duff. Not only was Miller handed the green jersey, it also bore the symbolic No 6. It was the jersey earmarked for Roy Keane. Instead the young man dubbed his successor, for club and country, by Ireland's Under-21 manager, Don Givens, pulled it on. "Liam is so composed in possession, he never panics and very rarely wastes a pass," Givens said.
Numbers loom large in Miller's life. Although he is regarded as Keane's heir, that has more to do with the fact that both hail from Cork. Sir Alex Ferguson likens Miller's style to Brian McClair, others see him as Paul Scholes' under-study. But Miller himself worships Eric Cantona. The No 7. It was the Frenchman's poster above his bed, even if he claims, diplomatically perhaps, that Keane was also an idol. "A great experience," said Miller of taking part in a training session with Keane in Dublin. "Growing up in Cork, he was a hero to many of us." But not as much as Cantona.
When Miller first joined Celtic - for just £500 from the Ballincollig Boys Club - he craved the same No 7 jersey. Only it belonged to Henrik Larsson, as much a god at Parkhead as Cantona was for United fans. So Miller opted for No 43 instead. Four plus three, of course, equals seven. It is a clear sign of that deter-mined streak. As is his reluctance to speak to the media. In many ways, Irish journalists joke, he has been a United player since birth. As he boarded the team coach after the stale 0-0 draw against the Poles, in which he was deprived of possession but used it wisely when he had it, Miller did talk.
"I want to build on that," he said of the 90 minutes, only his second start this year after a groin injury. "I still don't feel 100 per cent fit but I am getting there. Remember Sunday [playing for Celtic] was my first start since December, so hopefully full fitness is not too far away."
Miller added: "There's no better thing than representing your country, but I've got to keep playing away at club level to stay on the scene. Brian spoke to us after the game and just said 'Well done' to the group." His international captain, Kenny Cunningham, was more forthcoming. And it is interesting to hear the enthus-iasm of such an experienced player. "Liam gets me excited," he said. "He is an excellent player and a very unassuming character, but someone who is very talented.
"You only have to spend a small amount of time on the training pitch to realise that. He is comfortable when he is in possession - and is technically very good. He has a good temperament. He'll be a big hit in the Premiership."
Frank Stapleton, the former United and Ireland striker, was in Bydgoszcz andagrees, although he cautions that Miller's best position is "off the strikers", not as Keane's replacement. "Liam has got a bright future, but he won't start in United's first team next season," he said. "I firmly believe Alex Ferguson will see him as a long-term signing."
Which is probably right, especially considering the injury problems Miller has suffered. He was outstanding last autumn in Celtic's Champions' League matches against Lyon and Anderlecht, but has flickered in and out.
At times Martin O'Neill, the Celtic manager, has questioned whether the player was a little too content to sit back, although that appears to have been rectified. O'Neill said he wanted to "build a team around him". Now that may happen elsewhere. Once United came calling, Miller could not resist. He was determined to join the club he supports.Reuse content