Miller keen to forget the past

THIS TIME two years ago, Liam Miller was one of the top midfield players in the Premiership. That's right. He was up there with the best of them. For a brief few months, he was controlling things for Sunderland, he was winning games with his passing and his engine, he was drawing plaudits from his manager, Roy Keane, and getting caps from the Republic of Ireland.

Early in 2008, the Irish played Brazil in a friendly. Miller was put straight into the starting line-up without hesitation. There's a picture of him fighting for the ball and also in shot are Robinho, Luis Fabiano and Diego, now of Juventus – eighty million quids worth of striker and the man now at Hibs.

What a past he's had. What players and managers he's rubbed shoulders with; Martin O'Neill and Sir Alex Ferguson, Henrik Larsson and Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo. Look through the cuttings of his life and you'll find glowing quotes about Miller from all of those guys and plenty more besides. Seems odd that he's sitting here now, on this Thursday afternoon at the Hibs training centre.

He's as quiet as everybody said he'd be. Quieter.

"Who have you learned most from in your career, Liam?"

"Ahm, I'd say Martin O'Neill."

"Great. What did he do for you?"

"Ah, you know yourself..."

"Could you expand on that?"

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"Always told me to be positive with the ball. That kind of thing."

"And Sir Alex must have been interesting to be around..."

"Ah yeah, a great manager, like."

After five minutes of chat, you feel a desperate urge to tip Miller upside down and shake the anecdotes out of him. He's from Cork for God's sake. Cork people are characters. They're natural story-tellers. They're funny people. It's in their DNA. They can't help it. But Miller is different. He has spent time with the most fascinating and most glamorous men in the game over the last nine years but it's like he never knew them.

In his penultimate Premiership match with Manchester United he came on as a sub for Keane. In his final game he came on for Ronaldo. Yet the insight isn't forthcoming. You're guessing that is partly to do with Miller's natural reticence and partly to do with him not wanting to harp back to a bygone era that doesn't have much relevance to his life now. Fair enough. On three or four occasions he says he's only looking forward and not looking back. All he's thinking about is Hibs and not Sunderland or Man United or Celtic for that matter. He'd rather you didn't mention Keane. But you can't not mention Keane. Because, in many ways, Keane is the reason he is here, at Hibs, trying to rebuild a career that his one-time idol left in tatters.

Miller used to refer to his fellow Corkman as a hero, as a legend, as the guy he put on a pedestal when he was growing up. Miller wanted to be like Keane. Every young footballer in Ireland did, especially those in his own county. The appreciation worked both ways for a spell. When Keane became manager of Sunderland, Miller was one of the first players he signed. He championed Miller's performances the year they got promoted. When Miller was ignored by Steve Staunton, then the manager of the Republic, Keane lambasted Staunton and accused him of being anti-Cork.

All of this brought player and manager together. But now? "I would have had a great regard for him – as a kid," Miller says of Keane, rather dispassionately. The fallout happened quickly and it is permanent. When Sunderland began to toil, Keane's relationship with his players worsened. Miller was one of the first in the firing line. "I was put on the transfer list (in the spring of 2008] for being late three times in a week," says Miller.

"Two of those times were by a matter of minutes. I felt it was unjust but he'd made his mind up. At the time, it sort of tarnished my reputation. He was making out I wasn't a good professional. I certainly don't agree with that, but it's done now, it's in the past. I thought I was treated unfairly. Maybe I should have spoke out at the time and said my piece. But from that moment on, it was never really the same at Sunderland."

At the time, Keane told reporters: "If you are driving to work, don't get in the car with Liam Miller, because he has more crashes than anyone I know." It was a comment that Miller clearly found hurtful.

"There was no need for that. If he wants to make fun and jokes about someone's career, then that's his own decision. I can't change that. Just disappointed with the way it was handled. I've moved on and I'm delighted to be here and playing ball again, concentrating on Hibs more than looking back at what happened at Sunderland a year ago."

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Miller spent the second half of last season on loan at QPR. He did OK, no more, no less. He's 28 now and he's come to Scotland to find himself as a player, he says. Regular football will give him fitness and confidence and maybe a return to the kind of form he has showed only fleetingly since greatness was predicted for him as a young man at Celtic.

It's early days. He's only played less than a handful of games but his manager, John Hughes, is convinced that Miller can get back to where he once was. "He's a top player and a fantastic professional," says Hughes. "He sets the standard around here. A real leader. Prepares brilliantly. Trains like he's still playing for Man United. I can't say enough about the guy. Brilliant. I don't know what happened with him and Roy and I never asked him. But you can tell the boy is determined to succeed here. Oh aye, he's quiet, but he's got an awful lot of ambition. Don't worry about that. It'll take him a while to get settled, but when he does..."

Yogi exhales dramatically at this point, leaving you in no doubt that he thinks he's found a gem.