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

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.

James Mariner

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit