Football: Milner's tale is a lesson in perseverance

Bedlington Terriers' prolific striker has shrugged off rejection by Newcastle and will be snapping at Scunthorpe's heels in the FA Cup.
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The Independent Online
JOHN MILNER will never forget the day Kevin Keegan called him into the manager's office at St James' Park at the end of his two years as a YTS player with Newcastle United. "He said, `Sorry. We're going to have to inform you we're not keeping you on,'" Milner recalled. "I was devastated."

Instead of making the grade with his former youth team colleagues - Steve Watson, Lee Clark, Alan Thompson and Robbie Elliott - Milner has spent the past six years making television screens for a living. If Kevin Keegan was looking at one on the evening of 14 November he might just have seen his one-time cast-off achieve a feat his expensively-assembled team could not manage in August.

Keegan's Fulham - Peter Beardsley, Paul Peschisolido, Paul Bracewell, John Salako and all - put just one goal past Carl Emberson on their visit to Layer Road. Milner beat the Colchester United goalkeeper twice at Doctor Pit Welfare Park to help earn Bedlington Terriers, champions of the Arnott Insurance Northern League, a famous 4-1 victory and an FA Cup second round tie this Saturday at Glanford Park.

Scunthorpe should be braced for its biggest invasion of scouts since the days when a helmet-haired youngster called Keegan drew a veritable Gang Show gaggle of the football variety to the Old Showground. At least eight clubs have made enquiries about Milner, among them Colchester, who were so impressed with their FA Cup slayer they wanted to take him with them back to Layer Road.

At 24, Milner is not the same player Keegan rejected at 18. "I was a right-back in those days," he pointed out. "And I was only 5ft 5in. I shot up after I left Newcastle. I'm just under 6ft 1in now."

Pushed up front in a mid-match crisis for Seaham Red Star, Milner discovered he possessed a hitherto hidden striking talent. He scored a hat-trick and has been plundering prolifically ever since.

Having joined Bedlington via Seaham, Bishop Auckland and South Shields, his goals tally for the Northumberland Terriers stands at 95 in less than two-and-a-half seasons. The header he netted in a 3-0 FA Vase win against Ramsbottom United last Saturday took his running total for the present campaign to 30.

With the scouts struggling to keep count, Milner - from Penshaw, the Wearside village famed for its replica of the Athenean Temple of Theseus and for offering up to the great god of English football a player who has twice struck winning shots in European Cup finals, Alan Kennedy - is hoping for an opportunity to make his name in the professional game.

"I'd love a chance," he said. "I think I'm good enough."

Keith Perry, the Bedlington manager, does not disagree. "I wouldn't go so far as to say John is a Premiership player," he said. "But he's certainly good enough to play in the First Division. He's by far the best non-League striker I've ever seen."

Tony Lowery, the coach who grooms the Terriers, has no doubts about Milner's pedigree either. "I played in the Football League for nine years with Mansfield," he said, "and there's no doubt in my mind that John can play at that level. No doubt at all.

"What I find with non-League players is that they have a weakness in their game. There's a reason why they're playing non-League football. But you can't really pick a fault with this lad.

"He's got a good touch. He's quick. He's very good in the air. He's strong. He holds the ball up well. And he's got what you can't coach into anyone: an instinct for getting into goalscoring positions."

Weaknesses were apparently difficult to find in the Bedlington team as a whole when they delivered their knockout blow to Colchester. They did so, as it happens, less than 50 yards from the front door of the Scuthorpe manager's brother.

John Laws has lived in the street next to Doctor Pit Welfare Park for 14 years now. And the chances are he will have been telling his Brian, and maybe even Scunthorpe's celebrated vice-president - one IT Botham - not to bank on a cricket score when the underdog Terriers are let off the lead on Saturday.

Jason Dozzell, one-time pounds 1.9m man and one of the Colchester players stumped at Bedlington in the first round, would probably say the same thing, too. "He must have been gutted by the result but he came into our dressing- room and shook hands with every one of the lads," Lowery said. "It was good of him and it was great for our lads to get that sort of respect.

"This is a chance in a lifetime for us now. It's unbelievable to think that we're one game away from the possibility of a tie against Manchester United. You think, `That can't be right: Bedlington Terriers versus Manchester United.' But that's the FA Cup."

That is the FA Cup, of course, and the odds against it ending up as Bedlington Terriers' property in May have been slashed since the first round from 20,000-1 to 15,000-1.

"Is that right?" John Milner said. "I'll have to have a flutter at that." But what price Kevin Keegan taking a belated chance on the one that got away?