James Milner: Model pro happy he's got the right club
The Saturday Interview: The City midfielder – and multi-talented sportsman – tells Tim Rich how reaching another Wembley semi-final will lift his side's season and why he is missing the 'crazy' Mario Balotelli
Sir Alex Ferguson won his first Premier League title on this golf course. It was early May in 1993 and the curse that had afflicted Manchester United since Sir Matt Busby's departure was about to be broken. If Aston Villa lost to Oldham, they would be champions.
Unable to watch the match, Ferguson and his son, Mark, took themselves off to Mottram Hall in the gentle creases of the Cheshire countryside. At the 14th hole, a car crunched through the gravel and its occupant informed Ferguson that Oldham had won. He abandoned his game and walked down the fairway "feeling like Arnold Palmer at Troon in 1962".
Arnold Palmer is one of the reasons why James Milner is at Mottram Hall, advertising the latest edition of Tiger Woods' PGA Tour 14 game, which allows you to play as Palmer. However, in his plus fours, cap and tie, he looks more like Bobby Jones winning the Open at St Andrews in 1927. It is actually quite stylish, especially when set alongside Joe Hart's adverts for Head & Shoulders.
The late, beloved Richard Briers once remarked that doing commercials for Nescafé was as important to him as playing King Lear and Milner is cut from a similar kind of cloth. For Manchester City and England, Milner has a reputation as a model professional, who drinks nothing stronger than mineral water. It is why at the photo-shoot he takes his time to get the look right.
We meet in the hotel's Library Bar which, rather disappointingly, has only photographs of books, although it does have paintings of horses. Golf and horses are the default conversation for most footballers. Few take the game to the extremes of Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen, who, raddled by jet-lag and sleeplessness after flying to Tokyo via Alaska, found themselves preparing for Liverpool's World Club Cup final by aimlessly thrashing balls under the sodium lights of a high-rise driving range.
Hansen might have become a professional golfer. Had things been different, Milner may have played cricket for Yorkshire. "I was a wicket-keeper, who opened the batting. Could I have made it? Hard to say. I probably wouldn't quite have been good enough. I might get back into it once I've finished with the football.
"I only properly played golf when I was 15 or 16. The best course I've done?" he pauses. "Pebble Beach in California. I pulled a few favours to get on it while I was on holiday three years ago.
"One place I'd love to go is Augusta. My uncle's been to watch the Masters a couple of times and said you don't realise on television how hilly it is. When you walk the course, you're hiking up hills but on TV it all seems so manicured."
As far as the day job goes, the season is in the balance. Twelve points behind United in the Premier League, the FA Cup is realistically all that City have left. The question that can only really be answered in Abu Dhabi is whether it will be enough.
Victory against Barnsley this evening would see City back at Wembley for the semi-finals. You could argue that the semi-final against United two years ago broke the inferiority complex that had strangled City for a generation. Without it, Roberto Mancini's side might never have had the nerve to come back and win the league the following season.
"It was an important game in the modern era of Manchester City," Milner said. "It was a derby, it was a semi-final, it was at Wembley and we won it. It helped us break that trophy duck and that was important because of the money that had been spent and the fact that people disliked Manchester City because of it. When we won the FA Cup, we did say to ourselves: 'Well, why can't we win the league?'"
Defending the title has been, as Milner concedes, more problematic, although given what happened last year when City overturned an eight-point lead over the final six games, nothing is being ruled out.
"Last year, when it looked like we might not win it, actually helped us because it took the pressure off," he said. "We started to play with a bit more freedom and it worked in our favour. So we won't be conceding anything.
"This year, a couple of trips to the so-called lesser teams were games we should have won. We always seem to slip up at Sunderland for whatever reason. Then there was Southampton away – they were better than us on the day. QPR away – Julio Cesar had a fantastic match in their goal. Those are the games that win you the title. It's quite easy to gee yourself up for matches against Manchester United."
Milner has seldom found it a problem to focus. When he was 19 and had just signed for Newcastle, where Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer prowled the Quayside clubs by night, he was asked by FourFourTwo magazine whether he had any advice for young footballers. "Listen to everything you are told." Any tattoos? "No and I've definitely not got any plans to get any."
He seemed the polar opposite of Mario Balotelli, although when the Italians's name crops up, Milner replies: "I miss him, to tell you the truth. He was crazy, he liked to be the centre of attention. It was like having a 12-year-old in the dressing room at times but he was harmless and I hope he does well in Milan – on the back pages of the paper rather than on the front.
"There were some days, admittedly, when he came in and you thought, 'Oh, Mario, leave it out' but it was very hard to hate him. Despite having players from all over the world, we have a pretty close dressing room at City. Mario would step out of line and one of the lads would tell him. He'd go off but half an hour later he would come back and apologise.
"The trick with Mario was to keep him busy. We had a Christmas event with some kids at the stadium. It was with me, Joe Hart and Mario. The kids would be given a tour of the ground and at various stages we would pop out and surprise them. I was supposed to come out of the trophy room holding the Premier League trophy. But Mario had to wait half an hour before his turn came and we thought he'd be a nightmare. So we let him sit in on an interview Harty was doing and then we gave him an iPad and he was playing Angry Birds on that. We just had to keep him occupied until the kids arrived."
Only in Manchester does finishing second count as failure. It creates its own pressure, although that is something Milner has lived with since the Leeds United magazine proclaimed him as "The Face of the Future" not long after he had left Horsforth School with 11 GCSEs. "They have been different pressures. At Leeds it was to stay up. I was such a young player, Leeds were my club and we didn't do it. That was a lot to take. At Newcastle, the expectations to win a trophy were enormous. The No 1 thing everyone up there thinks about is the football club. At Aston Villa you would walk past the honours board that included the league and the European Cup. That was pressure in its own way.
"And now at Manchester City, when you win the FA Cup they say, 'Now go and win the league'. And when you win the league, they say, 'So what? Now win it again'."
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