James Milner is still haunted by Leeds heartache
Academy product at Elland Road returns to his first club for the first time in the FA Cup today with memories of their relegation from the Premier League fresh in his mind
Supporters, wedded as they are to a particular team through good times and bad, often find it difficult to understand how a footballer can end up kissing so many different badges. For that reason there are doubtless Leeds United fans who will be tempted to abuse Manchester City's James Milner for his supposed infidelity when he takes the field against them in today's FA Cup tie.
Hard hearts might have softened had they heard him talking at the Etihad Stadium a couple of days ago about his surviving love for the club and the circumstances of leaving Elland Road after Leeds were relegated nine long years ago in the fallout from famously living the dream that turned into a nightmare. Milner, a fan and former ballboy from a Leeds-supporting family, who played for the first team aged 16 and earned the club £4 million by moving on, has never played against them and expects to find the experience a strange one.
"It was pretty difficult," he says of his abrupt departure. "I was still only 18 and didn't know the ins and outs of how things worked. I came in for the first day of pre-season training and was told, 'You're going up to Newcastle for a medical tomorrow'. I said, 'Oh, all right'. At the time the club needed the money and it was the right thing to do. It was the best for Leeds and in the end it worked out well for me. That's football.
"All I can say is that I love the club, it's still the first result I look for, and every time I pull on that shirt, whether it's Leeds, Newcastle, City, I give everything. Hopefully that's good enough for the Leeds fans, because while I was there I gave everything."
Giving everything is what Milner does and always has, which is still not enough for those who see him, especially at international level, as some sort of footballing equivalent of the medium-paced trundler. It has been sufficient, however, to have earned his three previous clubs some £45m in fees.
For Newcastle and Aston Villa there were top-eight places, European football and the hope of more, until – like Leeds – the money ran out. At City that will not happen, and it was there that he finally won the medals he craves, for the FA Cup and then the championship itself.
Typically, he believes that however enjoyable those experiences may be, the bad memories last longer and are more valuable. "When you strive for so long to win the Premier League, it's such a massive thing and then so quickly it's over. You enjoy it for maybe a week and after that it's gone, forgotten about and in the cabinet. It means a lot but at that moment it's not the priority – the next one is."
So the dreadful day at Bolton in May 2004, when Leeds knew they were going down, will remain every bit as vivid as the extraordinary one at the Etihad last May when the title was won. "The game at Bolton always sticks out more than the triumphs. It was a terrible day, going over to the fans and the travelling support.
"I came off with 15 minutes to go and was sat in the dugout for the end of the game. It was the worst thing I've ever felt. You've given everything you can and it was not good enough. That feeling you had a few years before of making your debut with friends and family there and how proud they were and then the flip side of that – it was a shocking feeling. There were plenty of tears in the dressing room afterwards, mostly from the local lads, the lads who came through the academy like Smudger [Alan Smith] and Robbo [Paul Robinson]."
Smith was the local hero all the academy boys like Milner wanted to emulate, but who then ruined his reputation by signing for the hated Manchester United. In helping to deny Old Trafford a title last season, Milner should have earned some credit back in Yorkshire. Now he faces the unwelcome probability of the neighbours reclaiming the crown, having established a 12-point gap after City's feeble 3-1 defeat at Southampton last weekend.
"We know that performance was a million miles away from the standards we set as a team. We've been working hard in training this week to get back to the level we should be. We can lose games, [when] things don't go for you. But on Saturday we deserved to lose and that's obviously not good enough.
"The manager had his say and we spoke about it as a group of players as well. We don't need anyone to tell us whether we've played well or not," he adds. "We have a dressing room full of international players – we know for us it wasn't good enough. It's down to us to bounce back and win a tough game against Leeds. We have the ability to do it."
Leeds fans, along with City's, will be able to arrive at the stadium via the Etihad Campus Metrolink tram station, operating on match-day for the first time. They may or may not be amused by the public announcements recorded by Roberto Mancini, Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart and Milner. Inside the ground, the Leeds boy will deserve nothing less than their appreciative applause.
Manchester City v Leeds United is on ESPN today, kick-off 2pm
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