The connections between Manchester and Cork have always been strong during the years. It’s city and inhabitants share a powerful bond in terms of characteristics and personalities. Both have long-lived in the shade of a capital city who dominate attention on the national sphere. They each have a storied history with regards to revolution and uprising. Being linked to Quays, trade and industry was integral. This obviously saw the introduction of many diverse accents, nationalities and peoples. Some whom settled and made their mark in future generations. Red even is a key colour of both cities. It is prominent in sports teams for each and in the crest of arms for Cork.
It then seems inconceivable that the representation of Cork players for Manchester United has not been greater than its current amount. It is not down to a lack of interest in the northern giants here, or a dearth of talent in the fields around the city and county. It is certainly not down to United not having a proud tradition of fielding players from both Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It could perhaps be attributed to the fact that many of these men coming from Dublin and Belfast. Scouts from British clubs are more than likely to have been based where the greater number of clubs and players are present. The accusation has always been levelled that Dublin schoolboy sides enjoyed a preferential treatment when it came to exposure and funding, as opposed to elsewhere in the country. This has been dismissed as being sour grapes but has a grain of truth.
So, what crumbs of comfort are they? Well, we can look through the history books and see that four players from pitches around the Rebel County, shone through and were able to call themselves a United player.
As one drives down Western Road, it is perhaps easy to not spot a slightly hidden walking path. If you are a bit more eagle-eyed or engaged on a stroll past University College Cork and Christian Brothers School, you might be able to spot the lane named in honour of Noel Cantwell. This is no coincidence given the location and the calibre of the man in question. He gained the reputation as being one of the intelligent and forward-looking defenders of a generation.
Attending CBS in his youth, he was regarded as being a highly intelligent and gifted pupil, both on and off the pitch. Along with soccer and rugby, he also was an accomplished cricketer also. He begun his career with junior club Western Rovers, before joining the newly established Cork Athletic. His time there was hugely successful as they managed to win the league in his first season and the double the following year. This begun to attract attention from clubs across the water and it was West Ham who signed him up. The Londoners were playing in the second division at the time but possessed a large amount of promising young players. He became a leader in the dressing-room, captaining them to promotion in 1958. It was the first time since the early 30’s they had played top-flight football. He exuded calmness and decision-making in his play. Much of the examples he gave become indoctrinated into the ‘West Ham style’ that was to develop further.
Matt Busby was looking to rebuild in the post-Munich era and the fullback was seen as a key part of it. He was a record signing for a full-back but slotted in straight away. Although the league results were disappointing, the shoots of recovery were beginning to show. He captained the reds to victory at Wembley in 1963 for the FA Cup Final for their first silverware in six years. They finished second the year after and then won their sixth title in 1965. A great run to the semi-finals of the European Cup saw them batter Benfica in Portugal, before losing narrowly to Partizan Belgrade. The swash-buckling style was fully on show as the trinity of Best, Law, and Charlton plundered goals-a-plenty. Cantwell was backed up with two fellow Irishmen in the guise of Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne. Time was not really on his side as he approached the end of his career. He did bow out with another league title in 1967. It was a pity that he missed out on the European Cup final the year after though.
Upon retirement, he had managerial roles at Coventry City and two spells at Peterborough United. He also managed for a while in the US. He quit football to run a number of pubs afterwards. His death came in 2005 from cancer after a long illness. His home city afforded him the honour of a walkway near his old birthplace in 2015, which was attended by a large number of sporting and public dignitaries. Testimony to a hugely influential and well-regarded footballer and person. He came from a centre of learning and spread that to all he was involved with.
Versatility and flexibility are a trait common to a lot of Cork sport stars. This is not surprising when you consider it. Most schools will be associated with having several different teams. GAA, Rugby, Soccer to name but a few. Young players will often be involved in many of them. And then of course whatever local clubs are in the area as well. It is a bit of a double-edged sword. It allows them to pick up different skills and the freedom to choose whichever sport appeals to them most in the long run. Conversely, it can burn youngsters out at an early age. One such player facing this in his early lifetime was Denis Irwin. He excelled at Gaelic Football and Hurling around Cork’s south side. He even played a number of games at Croke Park, giving him a taste for the big stage. A choice had to made and he threw his weight in with soccer.
Initially, it seemed to have been the wrong option. He was signed by Leeds United under Eddie Gray, who was focused on building up the club’s younger talent. This was due to finances at the time. Although, he was doing well, they were unable to secure promotion to the first division. He was sacked and replaced by Billy Bremner. The former club legend had no real interest in the young Cork man, and his chances became limited. Eventually, joining Oldham on a free. The Manchester based club was not especially glamorous, but it allowed him to grow into his role at fullback. Several promotion bids took place, but it was a run to the 1990 FA Cup semi-finals, that brought him to Alex Ferguson’s attention. A bargain of £625,000 secured his transfer to Old Trafford.
And it was here that became part of the most successful period of the club’s history. Adaptable on either flank, he provided a solid base for the wingers ahead of him. His height being somewhat short was not an issue. A solid tackler from playing GAA meant he was more than able for most. He had the advantage of pace that many opposing wingers could only dream of. Also being more than capable of overlapping to give another option. Wing-backs and attacking full-backs did exist before Liverpool’s current side you see. His delivery on set-pieces and free kick taking was an art form in itself. Defending players never knew who was going to step up and take it. He was also indirectly involved in bringing Cantona to the club. Trophies followed in almost every year he was at the club. Howard Wilkinson tried to get back to Leeds, but Ferguson instead asked about Eric the king in an off the cuff remark. To be stunned when hearing that he was available. The rest is history. And adding to all that, he was a committed and trustworthy member of the squad. The quintessential team player.
He was even able to be first choice well into his 30’s. An eventual departure to Wolves, saw him get promoted back to the Premier League with the mid-landers. That year proved one too many as his legs were gone. He retired at the end of that season. He decided against coaching and managerial positions to pursue media work instead. He has done stints on MUTV and RTE but generally remaining low-key and out of the public spotlight.
A will to win at all costs. An undeniable tough streak. A certain chip on your shoulder from being written off in the past. Combined with the ability to play a bit of ball. Venture up to Cork’s northside, and you will find these characteristics in abundance. If Cork is overlooked in favour of Dublin in the wider media, then north of the Lee is even more so. It is an area that is unfairly characterised as being crime-ridden, run-down and not worth attention. Funding in many areas has been desperately lacking throughout the decades and this has only added to social issues. There exists a fierce community pride and a desire to prove themselves.
Traits a young Roy Keane had to face in spades. His short stature, and background, meant that he was often overlooked for many of the Irish schoolboys select teams. This meant he was on the periphery when it came to being scouted for English clubs. Many of his Mayfield team-mates were even selected for trials ahead of him. He was even rejected by Cork City at one point. Eventually, he was able to sign for Cobh Ramblers. His progression was so rapid that he was playing with both the youth team and senior side. He caught the attention of a Nottingham Forest scout who invited him over for a trial. He impressed enough for Brian Clough to sign him. He started in the reserves but soon began to start regularly for the first team. Forest reached the FA Cup final in his first proper year, losing to Spurs. They reached the League Cup the following year but was again disappointed as United beat them. The 1992/93 was tougher and Forest struggled in vain to avoid relegation. He had done enough for other clubs to seek his services. United took advantage of a mistake by Blackburn to get him on a then record £3.75 Million.
He was walking into a dressing room full of strong personalities. But he was not going to care who he upset or crossed paths with. He had heated battles with many of his new team-mates as an opposition player. He did not apology for that. Peter Schmeichel had arguments with him. His eyes were set on reaching the top and was not going to let feelings get in his way. Him and Ince became a strong partnership in the middle of the park. But there was an aspect of his game that was set to change. In Nottingham, he was known better as an offensive midfielder. Alex Ferguson saw him as sitting him deeper and controlling the play. Becoming the eventual replacement for Bryan Robson. A double in his first season repaid the money invested. As the seasons went on, more and more senior players departed the club. The retirement of Cantona, saw him being named as club captain. But a major injury sustained threatened his career at the club. Missing almost the entire 97/98 campaign was a massive blow to him. It made many question his discipline as well, given the amount of red cards he received. He responded in majestic style in the next season. A towering display away to Juventus saw the club reach their first European Cup final in over 30 years. He picked up a booking in the process but strove to get the team over the line instead.
A triple arrived that season. The subsequent years saw more leagues arrive under his stewardship. On-field battles with the likes of Patrick Viera became the thing of legend. No inch given by either men. A series of knocks side-lined him, but he always came back with more hunger. He tended to live up to his own demanded high standards. Unfortunately, Keane’s departure was under acrimonious circumstances. A disastrous performance away to Boro saw him publicly castigate many of his team-mates, including some of the younger players. And this was all on MUTV of all places. This was on the back of furore after his criticising of the ‘Prawn Sandwich’ supporters at Old Trafford, his deliberate fouling of Alf Inge Haaland who he accused of mocking him when he got injured, and a falling out with Alex Ferguson. His position was held to be untenable. He left, not long afterwards, to join Glasgow Celtic.
This did not last too long as a hip injury forced his retirement. United still organised him a testimonial shortly after. He joined Sunderland and Ipswich as manager but did not last too long at either came. Sunderland did win the championship under him though. He assisted Martin O’Neill to help Republic of Ireland to Euro 2016 to his credit. He left again when ROI failed to reach the World Cup. He has stuck the knife in when it comes to United. Especially, Alex Ferguson. He was never going to back down in that stance. He still remains involved in ITV on their match commentary. Happy enough to speak his mind there as well. It remains a huge shame the way both departed. Keane remains one of the best-ever as captain.
The outer reaches of a town or city can often be perceived as being quiet, sedate and somewhat unremarkable. They often came about as a result of people working in the more built up areas and settling down. It can lack the hustle and bustle as a result and being dismissed as a result. Residents from such suburban and satellite towns can be written off as lacking in ambition and drifting along in life. Still waters often run deep as the saying goes, however. Outwardly, they might not be up front as being brash or confident. A steely determination can often lie within. Ballicollig towards the west of the city was generally seen as existing in the shadow of the city. Not exactly famous for a whole lot.
One young man dared to dream big. Growing up in the town during the late 80’s and early 90’s, he harboured the ambition to play professional club across the water. Step on the hallowed turf of all those famous grounds like his heroes. Particularly those at Celtic for whom his dad was also a fan. He was skilled in a number of sports, as with our other subjects. Along with Soccer, he also played Gaelic Football for the Éire Óg club. It was the latter which he stuck with though. He was fortunate enough to be a member of an extremely promising side who swept most before them at youth and underage level. It also contained Colin Healy and many who would have decent careers with LOI sides. Miller always seemed to be a step above. His diminutive stature and slight frame belied a turn of pace and trickery which left many in his wake. Clubs were soon knocking at his door and Celtic won the race.
Before too long, he was turning up for the first team and making his mark for them. After a loan spell with Danish club Aarhus, he begun to prove himself. In 2003/04, he scored to help the Glasgow side reach the group stages of the Champions League. He also netted in a win against French giants, Lyon. Celtic only narrowly failed to make the knock-out stages. League starts became more frequent as his confidence grew. Celtic ended up as champions and he played in the game which got them over the line. Martin O’Neill wanted to make him the centrepiece of his side, but he was tempted by a move down south to United. He signed a pre-contract arrangement and joined in the summer of 2004. Ultimately, the move did not work out for either party. We were in a state of transition at the time and struggling to keep up with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea. Miller found it difficult to gain starts as the team’s form remained inconsistent. As the following season came around, he was sent out on loan to Leeds in the championship. He managed to reach the play-off final, but they lost to Watford. The reds announced that they were willing to listen to offers for him during the close season. His time at the club was over with.
He joined Sunderland and helped them to promotion under Roy Keane. Latter moves saw transfers to the likes of QPR, Hibernians, and Perth City in Australia. As his playing career wound down, he returned home to represent Cork City. His season at the club saw them finish runners-up and reach the domestic cup final. He had commenced with his coaching badges in the US when he contracted pancreatic cancer. He came back home again in order to receive treatment for it but died a few short months later. Just shy of his 37th birthday. In order to raise funds for his family, and various charities, a game was arranged in his honour. Despite initial reservation from the GAA, public opinion eventually swayed their opinion in having it at Paírc Uí Chaoimh. A Manchester United XI played a team of former Republic of Ireland and Celtic players in front of an emotional full house. That was a testimony of him and the fact that he lived the dream of many.
But where is the next Cork star on the horizon? Who is set to follow in the steps of the men listed above? Have the talented young players ceased to be? Answers that I unfortunately cannot provide at this time. Better people who are heavily involved in grassroots soccer and in the running of the various leagues are more adapt at providing candidates than me. It does obviously take a special talent to make to the very highest levels. Youth players can be given the sense of hope in the success of the men laid out already. If lads from fields across the city and county have done it already, then why not them. That unique blend of flexibility and adaptability, guile and intelligence, passion and a will to win with a fierce desire to make it have ensured the rise of these stars. And of course, no little amount of skill. It could assist with the next generation of rebel stars. And if you combined that with the West Cork sense of devil-may-care? What a sight to behold that would be. Whoever it is will see a city united behind them.