Danny Mills: The mud sticks as defender tempers his militant side

Renaissance man: City defender reinvents himself as a more disciplined player fit for an international recall

Bad reputations, like used chewing gum jettisoned on the pavement, can acquire irritatingly adhesive qualities. Danny Mills scarcely needs reminding of that. In one of those Q & A features favoured by some of our rival publications, a Manchester City supporter had offered this response early in the season regarding the quality of Kevin Keegan's summer signings: "Probably, uniquely, I like Danny Mills... but we can forget about ever making it into Europe via the Boy Scout route again."

Bad reputations, like used chewing gum jettisoned on the pavement, can acquire irritatingly adhesive qualities. Danny Mills scarcely needs reminding of that. In one of those Q & A features favoured by some of our rival publications, a Manchester City supporter had offered this response early in the season regarding the quality of Kevin Keegan's summer signings: "Probably, uniquely, I like Danny Mills... but we can forget about ever making it into Europe via the Boy Scout route again."

The concluding reference was to City's entry into the 2003-04 Uefa Cup by dint of their excellent disciplinary record, statistics which, according to perceived wisdom, could be seriously diminished by the coming of a Rasputin of the right flank.

Yet, as the England international full-back, who arrived in Manchester from Leeds via a season's loan at Middlesbrough - whom his team meet tomorrow night at the Riverside - swiftly reminds you: "When I got sent off three weeks ago, it was the first time for three seasons. The last time was when [playing for Leeds at St James' Park] I kicked Craig Bellamy. This time it was for a foul, bringing the guy [Blackburn's Paul Dickov] down when clean through on goal. Although it was a red card, it wasn't one of my mistakes from the past."

Mills achieved notoriety for receiving his fair share of footballing ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) back at Leeds, during those bounteous years when the more positive side of his nature earned him a summer in Japan and South Korea with England, as understudy to the injured Gary Neville.

Most objective judges would submit that Leeds somehow managed to induce both the best from him, as an international-class defender, and the worst from him, as a character who, on occasion, would respond impetuously. He doesn't dispute that contention. "It was an interesting team at Leeds," he says with a knowing expression. "We did very well in Europe, and I think that's because we continued to play the way we had in the Premiership. A lot of European teams didn't like it. We were robust. We got among teams. We had players who were happy to upset a few people: myself, Olivier Dacourt, David Batty, Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer. And it was successful."

These days, though, wingers are no longer confronted by Mills the Militant. Indeed, he was actually the innocent participant when Lee Hendrie was sent off last Saturday. Not that Aston Villa's assistant manager, Roy Aitken, apparently saw it that way after his midfielder had been dismissed. "Roy was going ballistic after the game [suggesting Mills had somehow contributed to the sending-off]. I told him, 'What did you expect me to do? What more could I have done?' The tackle was late, he left his foot in. I wasn't best pleased with it, but no player would have been.

"He reacted, but I didn't roll around, holding my face. I just moved away from him slightly [when Hendrie gestured a head-butt]. The trouble is that mud sticks. That's the reputation you get, and you have to live with it."

We talk at City's Carrington training ground which, on my arrival, is eerily clad in a blanket of fog. By the time I depart it has all but disappeared, just as the red mist has lifted from the eyes of my interviewee.

An almost Damascene conversion, perhaps? "As you get older, you become more mature," says Mills, who describes himself as "27, going on 42". He adds: "It's being a family man. You realise there's more to life than getting involved in pushing and shoving and punching. I've cut out the silly things I used to do. I'm not saying tempers don't get frayed, or that I'm never going to boil over. It's a passionate game, and you play on the edge sometimes." He pauses for a minute, smiles, and adds: "Mind you, had he [Hendrie] caught me, it might have been slightly different..."

For once, an interview with the articulate and opinionated Mills consists of much more than a litany of his regrets. The player whom many regarded as a serial offender has turned disciplined defender and contributed significantly to that rare phenomenon, a Kevin Keegan side boasting one of the League's most miserly goals-against records. "Defensively, I'm probably better now than I've ever been," Mills says. "A lot of that is down to Steve Harrison at Middlesbrough. 'Harry' was fantastic last season. I learned an awful lot from him. He's a great defensive coach."

Which makes it all the more mysterious that Mills has disappeared off Sven Goran Eriksson's radar. His last game for England was as substitute against Portugal in a pre-Euro 2004 friendly back in February.

"The Japan and Korea World Cup gave me the chance to prove whether I was good enough to play on the biggest stage, and I was very pleased with how I performed," he says. "But Gary Neville came back in afterwards and everyone knows that Sven has his preferred 11 and if they're fit, they play. That's his philosophy. To be fair, it's been fairly successful for him. Steve McClaren told me last season, 'You're very unlucky; just keep your head down and keep working hard'. But that's not easy when you feel you've done enough to hold your place."

He adds: "I won't lie. It's very disappointing if you have been involved with England, but in all honesty, I don't expect to get back in for some time, if at all. That's football, you just deal with it - and at least it does give me more time with my wife and children."

The Mills family home is still near that footballers' haven, Harrogate. These days, the drive to work takes him across the Pennines. It may have taken him up the A1, had his loan deal at Boro been turned into a permanent contract during the summer window. He is still somewhat irked by Boro's handling of his prospective permanent move from Leeds.

"The fans were fantastic towards me, I made a lot of friends, and the coaches were superb, particularly Steve Harrison," says Mills. "I was pleased, in speaking to Steve McClaren three days before the season finished, when he said that the deal was almost done and I'd almost certainly be a Middlesbrough player the next season. We went away on holiday, came back and there was no contact from Middlesbrough at all. I didn't hear from Steve McClaren until six weeks into the season, wishing me all the best."

By then Keegan had secured his future with City, "on a free transfer and a cut in wages", as Mills wryly puts it. "It would have been nice, and would have probably been professional, for someone at Middlesbrough to have phoned me and said, 'Sorry, we can't do the deal now. You're not quite what we want. But thanks and good luck'. I would have taken that on the chin. I'd given my all for nearly a year, and yet had been almost forgotten."

It was the well-chronicled financial imperatives which resulted in Mills joining the Leeds exodus. "They were desperate for me to go," he says. "I would have stayed. Leeds are very close to me. The club gave me the big break and that catapulted me into the England team and a World Cup. I've been back to watch them and I still get that buzz, that tingle, from being at Elland Road."

He adds: "As a club, they're similar to Manchester City, really. There's a massive fan base and history and that will always see the club through. I'd really like to see them get back to the big time."

Something Mills has achieved now, encamped at the City of Manchester Stadium after a nomadic season. And under Keegan, perhaps he has the opportunity to resurrect his international career, this character who can truly claim that these days, dismissals come only once in a blue moon.

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