Hats off to dynamic Milner
In powering his side to their first Wembley final in 10 years Villa's Mr Versatile has shone in central midfield and, writes Phil Shaw, provided food for thought for Fabio Capello
Friday 22 January 2010
Good news for Robert Green, David James, Joe Hart, Ben Foster et al. James Milner shows no desire to add goalkeeper to the portfolio of positions in which he excels, although few who saw him drive Aston Villa into the Carling Cup final would be surprised if he were also a dab hand between the sticks.
Astonishingly for a player who has started only once for England and did not make his debut until the beginning of this season, Milner has moved from the fringes of the national squad to being a virtual certainty to go to the World Cup finals. But after the dynamic display in the centre of midfield which helped Villa to overturn two early goals by Blackburn Rovers and win a ludicrously open semi-final second leg 6-4, even Fabio Capello may not be sure where to play the 24-year-old. In late 2008, nine months before giving him the first of his six caps, Capello was being questioned about Villa's sizeable English contingent. "The player I like is Milner," the England manager volunteered. "He is the future, my future." Milner was already a candidate for the Premier League's most versatile player – and that was before his latest incarnation in the Villa engine room.
Milner's early games for Leeds United were as a striker – Terry Venables blooded him as a 16-year-old in 2002 – and he became the Premier League's youngest goalscorer. He also played in the "hole" before settling on the wing. Either wing, that is, for though he is right-footed, he announced his arrival in international football with the left-wing cross that brought Jermain Defoe an equaliser against the Netherlands in August.
Stuart Pearce had moved the player he calls "Milly" to right-back last summer when England Under-21s were reduced to 10 men and he promptly made the winning goal against Finland. Capello, perhaps looking ahead to South Africa and considering the alternatives if he did not take Wayne Bridge as understudy to Ashley Cole, used him at left-back for 15 minutes as substitute for the Manchester City player in the World Cup qualifier against Belarus in October.
Like his Elland Road predecessor Paul Madeley, and more recently Lothar Matthäus and Steve Nicol, Milner is a coach's dream in that he can cover a variety of positions. His role model at Leeds, Alan Smith, also reinvented himself, morphing from a nippy striker into a robust midfielder, but Milner brings a specialist's expertise to his different tasks.
Bridge may not be the only player looking over his shoulder; it must have occurred to Milner's team-mates, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, that his ability on the flanks might see one or both squeezed out of Capello's plans.
Yet the Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, clearly believes Milner's new role as the heartbeat of the side best exploits his precision and vision, not to mention the kind of inexhaustible energy one might expect of someone who was both a cross-country and sprint champion in his school days. "I think this is his position," O'Neill said. "He's seeing the passes, moving into positions and getting in shots, and he hasn't played 15 times in the centre."
While it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Milner could even win a starting berth there for England, it would take a major gear-shift for Capello to prefer him to Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or his former Villa colleague Gareth Barry. Milner, however, has all the qualities of an "impact" player who could change the course of a game in the World Cup as a substitute when opponents are tiring in the second half.
While hardly the rebellious type – he stayed on at school at his parents' behest to gain 11 GCSEs and remains teetotal despite adding to his champagne collection as Wednesday's man of the match – Milner had to contradict O'Neill by revealing that he is a veteran of central midfield: "I played there from Under-12 to Under-14 when I was coming through at Leeds and enjoyed it very much."
Reflecting on his imperious form, alongside Stilian Petrov, he added: "I feel I can influence the game more. Sometimes, when you're playing wide, you're waiting for other people to bring you into the game. When you're in the middle you can go and take it by the scruff of the neck." Milner did precisely that against Blackburn, demanding the ball and increasing the tempo after Villa, in his after-match understatement, "started very poorly". He also brought them level on the night from the spot after Christopher Samba's foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor earned the defender a red card with 50 minutes of the game remaining.
"You always get slightly nervous before any penalty," he admitted. "But it was a big turning point so it was nice to see it hit the back of the net. It was down to us to regroup at half-time, which we did, We scored a few goals and made it fairly comfortable."
He appeared to have scored a second from 25 yards as Villa rubbed in their numerical advantage. Agbonlahor was later credited with the decisive touch, yet an eight-goal haul by January already represents Milner's most prolific season. "When you're playing out wide you tend to get half-chances," he explained, "whereas when you're in the middle, you have more of the goal to shoot at."
Next month's final, against either Manchester United or Barry's Manchester City, will be Milner's first – as a player. In 1996 the Leeds ballboy travelled to Wembley to watch Tony Yeboah, Gary McAllister and Co contest the Coca-Cola Cup. They were thrashed 3-0 – by Aston Villa.
"I went as a Leeds fan with my dad and sister," he recalled. "I was only 10 so don't remember much apart from the disappointment and a good goal by Savo Milosevic. Hopefully, Villa can win again, but there's a lot of football to be played before that."
Why Milner poses a major threat to England hopefuls
James Milner can play on either side of defence, on either side of midfield, or in the centre of the park – so he offers Fabio Capello a catch-all versatility if he includes him in the World Cup squad. If he goes, Capello can afford not to take several other back-up players.
Wayne Bridge, Stephen Warnock or Joleon Lescott can't be certain of their places at full-back, while (with David Beckham almost assured of his place) right-wing contenders Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott are also sweating.
On the other flank, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young cannot count on going, while Milner's emergence in the centre casts doubt on the prospects of Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, Jermaine Jenas and Tom Huddlestone.
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