THE Republic of Ireland and Hibs player is setting his sights on beating France next week, finds Martin Hannan
LESS THAN three months ago, Liam Miller looked all washed up as a top-level professional footballer. Having sampled the Champions League with boyhood heroes Celtic, then the English Premiership with his other favourite club Manchester United, before increasingly retrograde moves to Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers, Republic of Ireland internationalist Miller was left clubless after the transfer window deadline on 31 August, and was training with clubs in his homeland to keep fit.
Desperate to play football, Miller called Hibs manager John Hughes and asked to join the Leither's lads. The outcome has been nothing short of a resurrection in the career of a man who now faces the biggest games of his life when the Republic attempt to beat France to gain a place in next summer's World Cup in South Africa.
Miller said: "I am delighted to be in the squad and these are two massive, massive games coming up. If I can play a part I would be delighted to try and help us qualify."
He says Ireland will take heart from Scotland's performances against France a couple of seasons ago – "over two legs, any team is beatable, but it will be really tough".
There was anger in Ireland at FIFA's last-minute decision to bring in seeding for the play-offs based on world rankings, which meant Ireland were certain to draw the likes of France or Portugal instead of a lesser side such as Slovenia.
Miller said: "The way it was done just two weeks before the draw was disappointing, but it's done and dealt with and we just have to get on with things."
Miller is hugely indebted to the Republic's manager Giovanni Trapattoni for sticking by him during his fallow period: "I am very grateful to the manager. He didn't need to pick me in the squad but he showed faith in me and I'm delighted with that.
"I've really enjoyed going over for the training sessions and playing in the games I have had.
"The manager has come in and done a great job, but qualifying is when we will get judged. To go and play in the World Cup would be the ultimate."
He is also grateful to Hibs for the chance he has been given. Named as the Clydesdale Bank Premier League's Player of the Month for October, Miller emphasised the turnaround in his fortunes: "Three months ago, I was going off my head. I had had a terrible year. It was really hard for me, but I'm back playing now and really enjoying it.
"The manager has us playing great stuff and when you go on to the pitch, everyone is confident in your teammates' abilities. It is not just any one player – it's the whole team that is playing really well at the moment."
Now 28, Miller is a different person from the lad who controversially moved from Celtic to Manchester after being hailed as the Glasgow giants' next home-grown superstar.
"That talk didn't affect me," said Miller, "but obviously my career has been stop-start. I would have regular football for maybe a year and then it would be stopped for whatever reason, whether it was injuries or fall-outs with certain people."
The Cork-born midfielder had played for Celtic at the age of 19 in 2000, but after injury he was loaned to Danish club Aarhus, and it was 2003 before he resumed his first-team career at Parkhead.
Manager Martin O'Neill was an admirer. Reportedly Miller was going to be offered a four-year, 20,000-per-week contract to stay at Parkhead and be a key part of the rebuilt team, but he inked a pre-contract deal with Manchester United in January, 2004, and moved to the club that summer.
Many Celtic fans were angry, and O'Neill was openly disappointed at Miller's decision to move to Manchester.
Miller has no regrets: "Looking back, God knows where I could be. Things happened, I suppose for a reason. Man Utd didn't work out but I have no regrets about giving it a go."
Loaned to Leeds United for most of the 2005-06 season, he was then let go to Sunderland for free – "and I had a good run at Sunderland for a while," said Miller. He ran into problems with injuries and a poor disciplinary record – he was sent off three times – and made just 57 appearances in two and a half seasons. He then signed for Queen's Park Rangers on a six-month contract which was not renewed in the summertime.
Hibs manager John Hughes is on record with his amazement at capturing Miller for free.
Asked if he needed a guiding force like Hughes at this stage in career, Miller replied with a smile: "I didn't know what I needed. I just found it really welcoming here and I felt straight away I'd made the right decision. I can definitely see myself being here for the long term. I feel I have my match fitness and am enjoying myself day in and day out which I hadn't done for a year.
"We are getting the right results on the pitch and we are training really hard and it's paying off, and as long as I am happy here, I don't see why I shouldn't stay. We have a really good bunch of lads, a lot of characters in the team, and they have all made me welcome."
Miller will be hoping that next Saturday at Croke Park in Dublin, and the following Wednesday in Paris, he can ping telling passes forward, perhaps to fellow Hibs internationalist Anthony Stokes.
If Ireland beat France, the World Cup finals will miss the likes of Franck Ribery, but it might just allow a born-again Liam Miller to achieve the star status that was predicted for him so long ago.