James Milner: the underappreciated enigma of English football

James Milner: the underappreciated enigma of English football

‘Boring James Milner’: as nicknames go, it’s not the worst dished out in England over the last few decades. He could have been called Shrek, or likened to a vegetable.

His style of play does leave a little to be desired, however. He might be fond of the occasional step-over at the Camp Nou, but he’s best known for being a workmanlike player who’s never more than satisfactory despite being an important component in the team. Solid but uninspiring: that seems to be the popular opinion. It’s a long way from a talent described as “the future” by Fabio Capello in 2008.

He’s teetotal, which probably feeds into his boring persona. You won’t find him spilling out of any clubs in the middle of the night, but on the pitch it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s doing a good job or not. This is a player with more titles than Steven Gerrard and more England caps than Paul Gascoigne and Theo Walcott. He may not catch the eye but he’s a dependable asset for any club lucky enough to have him.

While he can play in a number of positions across the park, in many ways his versatility has counted against him over the years. The ability to slot in almost anywhere meant it was easy for managers to find a place for him within the squad, but it also meant it was easier to shunt him out wide.

He’ll be the first to admit that he’s not one to complain, preferring to focus on whatever was best for the team at the time. It’s another reason why he’s struggled for playing time, as it’s easier to leave out a player who won’t come barging into the manager’s office.

A lack of showboating on the field belies the fact that he’s effective, focusing on keeping it simple. On the other hand, it’s strange to think that he was tipped to be one of the biggest attacking stars as a youth.

After exploding onto the scene as the youngest scorer in the Premier League for Leeds United, it seemed like the only way was up. Milner had already made waves at the club before his goal, although he had to move on as the Whites fell victim to the financial cost of failing to qualify for the Champions League.

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milnerMilner proved his worth as a central midfielder at Aston Villa

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He made his debut at 16, becoming the second-youngest player to feature in the Premier League for his hometown club. He was sold to Newcastle where he spent four seasons at St James’ Park before moving on to Villa Park.

He finally got to play in central midfield after the club sold Gareth Barry to Manchester City in 2009, but it was short-lived as he decided to join Barry in helping the Citizens achieve their dream of becoming a real force in English football.

Manchester City reportedly paid £26 million for Milner in a deal that saw Stephen Ireland going the other way in 2010, and the player managed to become a mainstay in the squad at the expense of his preferred position.

He was shunted out wide and picked ahead of Jesús Navas, playing a vital part as the team continued to develop into one of England’s elite. He picked up two league titles during his time at City, offering balance on the flank thanks to his positioning and ability to read the game.

Roberto Mancini had a strong relationship with Milner, though after he left the club it looked like it could be over for the midfielder. When Manuel Pellegrini took the helm in 2013, appearances slowly became sparser, and it was drawing ever closer to a crucial time in his career. The manager, however, had nothing but praise for a player that he often left out at the expense of more temperamental stars:

“I’m Milner’s number one fan. Find me a more complete English player. There are players who’re better technically, yes. Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn’t one.

“It’s hard to leave him out. Respect, commitment and performance level: 10/10, fantastic. He’s polyfunctional: full-back – the only position he doesn’t like – attacking midfield, wide. I played him as a forward and the team averaged three goals a game. He gives everything.

“Milner’s a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big, intelligent, great mentality, one of those players that when you leave him out you’re left with this feeling of injustice; it hurts because he should always play but sometimes you need a technical player with other characteristics. I hope he stays. If he doesn’t it will be because there’s an important offer.”


As it turns out, an important offer did come in. Leaving Manchester City wasn’t really a big risk but it gave the player the opportunity to prove that he could play in his preferred position in central midfield. In interviews afterwards he spoke about not wanting to have any regrets, even though he could have added to his trophy tally if he stayed in Manchester – something the club themselves wanted.

Liverpool is where he’s currently playing but fans were divided when it came to judging the signing on the whole. He doesn’t get many goals, and mistakes will always be highlighted when you don’t have the flicks and tricks to wow the crowds and armchair pundits.

Milner recently confirmed that he would be quitting the England team, with the caveat that he would still drop in to help if Sam Allardyce called for aid. Once again, he’s doing what’s best for the team, and it allows space in the squad for a younger member.

Given that he played just three minutes of the Euro 2016 tournament, you can see why he’s given up. He failed to feature in many international tournament games; it’s a shame considering he usually performs at a dependable level – something many England players struggle to do at big tournaments.

Essentially, a lack of pace is probably the key characteristic that holds him back from being held in higher regard. He makes up for it by being pretty good at everything else, and it should allow him to continue playing at a high level in later years.

He has one of the best engines in the Premier League and he still has a few years left on the clock. As for being boring, he’s actually pretty deadpan, and at least he gets the joke. That being said, he did attempt some sleuthing as he suspected somebody at the club was behind the account: “It’s good fun. I’ve read a few of them, and some of them are very funny. We went through this (at the club) wondering who it was. There were a few tweets about Asda so I was asking the masseurs where they shopped. I don’t think it’s anyone at the club. I’ve never got close enough, though. I thought I had but I realised they didn’t have enough banter. Who knows who it is? It’s good fun.”

Joining the Jürgen Klopp revolution at Liverpool (well, he actually signed for Brendan Rodgers but spent little time with the Northern Irishman) might not have earned him any trophies as of yet but he was one of the best performers in red last term, notching seven goals and 14 assists as the club fought for trophies on multiple fronts domestically and in Europe.

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Read  |  Jürgen Klopp and the subtle art of Gesamtkunstwerk

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With a pass completion rate of over 81 percent in Europe, a solid defensive contribution throughout, and assists coming from a range of crosses and through balls, he proved his worth once again. And when you consider that he arrived on a free, it makes the deal just that little bit sweeter.

One of the best qualities a player can have is consistency. It separates amateurs from the experts, and Milner has it in spades. He’s far from average and testament to such a fact is that he’s missed by every team he’s graced over a career that has seen him play for some of the biggest clubs in the country.

It’s true that he might not have hit the heights that were expected when he picked up the first of his 61 England caps but there’s rarely been a bad word spoken about the player from his fellow professionals. Indeed, Dani Alves was full of praise for Milner when asked about his strongest opponents: “I have faced many [strong opponents] but the most annoying was James Milner. He follows you forward and follows you backwards. It’s very difficult because he attacks you and defends you, and then attacks you and defends you again.”

As a jack of all trades, Milner is probably one of the league’s best utility players. He did a job in nine different positions during one season at City – including as a false 9 – and it’s because of his sheer competence. There’s nothing yawn-inducing about his displays, and he has the intelligence to understand that positioning and a good pass will trump unnecessary flicks any day.

He had a difficult start at Liverpool but he managed to work his way into his new managers plans. He improved in the second half of the season as the Reds crashed out in multiple cup finals, and he still looks like he has a lot to give at Anfield.

He started off this year at left-back, impressing until injury forced him off during a pre-season friendly against Barcelona. Some fans even prefer him to Alberto Moreno in the position because he has the competence and all-round experience to edge the risky defender. That’s Milner in a nutshell. Better than players in their own position, even if he never seems to be able to hold down his own.

Considering the truism that most famous English stars are overrated, Milner is one of the few who flies under the radar with his no frills approach to the game. He takes care of himself and has immense pride in his role for the team. It’s the reason why he left Manchester City in the first place, and it’s why clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool were interested at the time.

If he’d been given more of an opportunity to play in central midfield who knows how it would have gone for him in the long-term? Either way, he can still be proud of a career spent in more positions than an adult film star.

So to the question as to why James Milner is considered a bit of an enigma after dividing so many; well, he quite simply shouldn’t be. There’s great value in being a dedicated, commitment and consistent professional. He may not ever receive the plaudits as he lack that wow factor but James Milner has been missed at the teams he left and praised by the most talented and experienced of individuals in the game. That speaks volumes.

By James Milin-Ashmore. Follow @jamoashmore


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