COS contributor Jamie Clarke takes a closer look at the Villa Park wing wizard who appears South Africa bound.
All my life I’ve wanted to do what I’m doing now. Now I’m here, and enjoying every minute of it. You’ve got to make a few sacrifices, but I don’t mind that.
As the England team prepare for their next exhibition game in the Far East, attention is turning towards James Milner and his importance in the forthcoming World Cup. It is clear that James Milner has quickly become an experienced and reasonable footballer. He loves the game and is happy to take one for the team in many respects, as he says himself he doesn’t mind. Looking back at his career we see an emerging pattern of mature behavior from the current PFA young player of the year. He has, so far in his career, handled every media furor adeptly, negotiating his way out of the Leeds set-up peacefully by admitting it was in the clubs interest to sell him before quietly bearing Grahame Souness’s derogatory claim that ‘Newcastle wouldn’t win anything with a team of James Milners’. How the St. James Park faithful would long for 1/11th of Souness’s hypothetical team now (A lot, judging by my experiences with the geordie faithful who hold Milner in high regard). Then there was the extensive will he/wont he transfer conundrum between Newcastle and Villa that would have affected a lot of 21 year old footballers, instead he excelled rapidly, was described by his manager Roeder as one of the hardest training players and gained cult status by scoring in the Tyne/Wear derby. Then he moved to Villa to work under the wisdom of Martin O’Neill. Now Milner faces a complex decision with Man City’s cash being catapulted towards Villa Park faster than you can say “They dont want to have to pay £30 million for him after a good world cup”. Whatver the outcome, Milner will act with dignity and probably only upset a few of the Villa faithful in making a move which will highlight not Milner’s disloyalty but Villa’s thwarted ambition. However, like Milner, I now wish to concentrate on his world cup chances in June instead of the colours of his kit in August.
A component of Milner’s success is his sheer adaptability. Name a position in the second half of the pitch and Milner has occupied it. Winger, behind the front man, up front alone, central midfield and even full back positions. Milner is an all rounder in this sense, however this season has seen a nuanced transformation in his game when O’Neill took the decision to give Milner a run in the centre of midfield to accommodate for the return of Downing on the left wing, and Young on the right. Accompanied by the sturdy Petrov in the middle, Milner has been laden with an attacking freedom which has yielded 12 goals in all competitions, double his tally from the 08/09 campaign. Villa have also profited, with a cup final and a very respectable punt at the top four positions the fruits of O’Neill’s labour. In the central role Milner has flourished and, inevitably, he is now in contention for a World Cup place and potentially a starting role. At the same age as Rooney, Milner arguably represent the midfield maestro and central axis of the new generation and he will be a starter in the next Euro’s I would imagine. So should Milner have a role to play in South Africa and if so where does the versatile talent fit in?
I would argue that Milner does not yet contend for a starting place in the England midfield. He should definitely be utilized in the tournament and Capello should not be afraid to replace Lampard or Gerrard for Milner if we’re down at half time; be it Algeria or Argentina. I think Milner’s ability and form in the central attacking roles of midfield merit such opportunities. However, I do not believe Milner should play the holding role in England’s midfield during the world cup. Even if Gareth Barry remains sidelined England have Carrick to call upon, a player who helps in the composition of a multitude of incisive Manchester United attacks. A player who has experience in the big games and a player who trains every day of the working week with our current flag bearer; Wazza. If Milner is to be successful at the World Cup then Capello mustn’t thrust him into the world stage as a holding midfielder, rather he should utilize such a promising talent in the role he has flourished in, give him some experience when Lampard tires or Gerrard misfires. This way Milner will learn from another experience, something he has consistently managed to do under the 13 managers and caretakers he has met along the line. Then, who knows, the next world cup could be up to not Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney, but Milner, Walcott and Wazza. A new focus upon the three lions of England. The media hysteria behind the golden generation will inevitably reach fever pitch come June 11, so it is worth considering the future beyond the forthcoming finals, a future which, if Milner continues to progress along the same trajectory, will be weighed more heavily upon his shoulders.