Former Manchester United Man Liam Miller on Old Trafford and New Life in the US

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2016


Some players have a certain stigma attached to them. Eric Djemba-Djemba, for instance, is rather cruelly used as an embodiment of the transitional dip Manchester United endured in the middle of the last decade. David Bellion is another player used to illustrate how Sir Alex Ferguson supposedly lost it for a year or two.

Liam Miller can probably count himself among such company, too. 

Signed in the same summer as Wayne Rooney, Gabriel Heinze and Alan Smith—and just a year after Cristiano Ronaldo—the Republic of Ireland midfielder, then aged 22, somewhat flew under the radar upon his arrival at Old Trafford in 2004.

He had impressed with Celtic, playing in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup, but with only 26 first-team appearances to his name, Miller was largely unproven. Some would say he was unprepared for a switch to a team like United.

Indeed, Miller failed to make the grade at Old Trafford. In a team that boasted Roy Keane and Paul Scholes as a central-midfield pairing, the Irishman just couldn't make the breakthrough and was cast off just as Ferguson built his next truly great team. 

"It happened so quickly," he told Bleacher Report, explaining how the move to United from Celtic came about. "It wasn’t like I knew they were interested for weeks or months, or anything like that. It was around the January transfer window so I went down and was shown around Carrington and spoke to everyone at the club.

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"It was hugely impressive. Anyone would find it impressive. An opportunity like that doesn’t come around too often. Looking back, I thought it would be a great place to go and play football."

Unfairly, Miller became a public front for Ferguson’s wayward transfer business during that time, despite playing only nine times in two years for the club.

He didn’t deserve the derision that came his way, especially after proving his worth as the key member of the Leeds United side that went all the way to the Championship play-off final in 2006.

LONDON - AUGUST 15:  Eidur Gudjohnsen of Chelsea slides in to tackle Liam Miller of Manchester United during the Barclays Premiership match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2004 in London. (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Im
Phil Cole/Getty Images

"The whole Leeds move came about because I wanted more game time," he explains, but even after a successful loan spell at Elland Road, opportunity remained sparse at United, and eventually he joined Sunderland as a free agent.

"I have answered this question I don’t know how many times,” he sighs, somewhat jovially, when it is posed whether a move to United was a good or bad thing for his fledgling career.

"Hindsight is a great word. I established myself after Man United with Leeds and also with Sunderland. Looking back, I have played for some fabulous clubs and I certainly don’t reflect back and wish I had done anything different. I have no regrets over leaving Celtic when I did. It was the right move for me at that time."

Polite and mild-mannered, it’s difficult to envisage how Miller would have fared in a Manchester United dressing room that counted Keane among its biggest characters. "He was a fabulous captain, he led by example," Miller says.

“No matter what anyone says, the egos were left out of the dressing room. I don’t think there were any egos there, honestly. I never felt that I needed to impose myself. I felt I was a strong enough character already. I was very confident when I arrived at Man United, so I never felt that was a problem."

Although Miller admits he has not spoken with Keane for some time, side-stepping questioning of his relationship with the former United captain after being transfer-listed at Sunderland following an issue with time-keeping.

“I have not come across Roy in a few years," he says, although given Miller’s recent time playing in Australia, that is perhaps understandable.

Now 35, Miller finds himself in North Carolina, playing for United Soccer League outfit Wilmington Hammerheads. This comes after the Irishman spent a year back home with Cork City—where he admits he was unhappy—and three years in Australia with Perth Glory, Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City. His career path isn’t exactly a well-trodden one. 

"I spoke to the manager here [at the Hammerheads] and I was keen to try something different,” he explains. "I had never played in the States before and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been great playing in different leagues and experiencing new cultures, and this is another new one for me."

Once a Premier League star playing in front 68,000-strong crowds at Old Trafford, Miller will find himself in more modest surroundings this season. Wilmington averaged just under 3,000 spectators per home game in 2015, finishing the campaign bottom of their league table by 10 points.

U.S. Soccer defines the USL as the country’s bottom tier, meaning Miller has technically signed for the worst professional team in the United States.

CORK, IRELAND - JULY 30:   Liam Miller of Sunderland celebrates scoring the equalising goal during the Pre-Season friendly match between Cork City and Sunderland at Turners Cross on July 30, 2007 in Cork, Ireland. (Photo by Patrick Bolger/Getty Images)
Patrick Bolger/Getty Images

Therein lies the challenge for Miller, though. He is the kingpin in what has been a reconstruction of the Hammerheads’ squad over the winter, with his signing quite a coup for a club of their stature.

Former West Bromwich Albion and Notts County midfielder Mark Briggs is charged with restoring the team's fortunes as head coach, but it is Miller who receives headline billing ahead of the new season. 

Turning back to reflect on his time in Europe, Miller is remarkably pensive. He could be forgiven for harbouring at least a degree of bitterness over how things panned out for him at Manchester United, yet his musings are genuine—even if he rues being played out of position by Ferguson.

"He felt he could use me on the wing and I obviously wanted to play in the middle," the midfielder says.

"But I grew up supporting Celtic and Man United and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to play for those two clubs. When you go to a club like Manchester United—one of the top three clubs in the world—it doesn’t really get much bigger.

"I was used to the pressure of having to win every week at Celtic, but it still doesn’t prepare you for what is demanded of you at United. No disrespect to the Scottish league, Manchester United were challenging for everything in England and Europe. It was a different level."

The same could now be said about his new team, too, albeit with differing sentiment.