The impression that James Milner has been around ever since Under-21 football began is understandable, if exaggerated. It was March 2004 when he made his debut and five years on he is sitting in England's hotel by the North Sea contemplating a final shot at the European Championship.
Had his mother gone into labour four days earlier, the Aston Villa midfielder would not be here. As it is, a birthday of 4 January 1986 qualifies him, just, and it might conceivably be third time lucky. Twice unlucky so far; in 2005, France knocked out England, who then remained unbeaten until the midnight-hour penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands in the semi-final two years ago. Now they will be in the last four again, either as group winners or, if they lose to Germany on Monday, as runners-up.
Milner, although suspended for the next game, will finish with either 45 or 46 caps, a total that is unlikely to be overhauled for a long time. "I would have preferred senior caps but you have to be patient and take your chance when you get it," he said yesterday. As for the two winning performances so far: "Sometimes it takes time to settle into a tournament. We did not play great against Finland, but how many teams have come through a game with 10 men and got the extra goal to win it? We showed our grit and determination. Against Spain we had to show quality."
He has bought into the theory regularly promulgated by the squad's manager, Stuart Pearce, that England need to be winning these tournaments rather than just taking part and learning. "It would be a massive boost if we could win this," he said. "Look at the Spanish players who won the Euros. So many played in the Under-21s. If we get into the winning mentality at youth level we can take that into the senior side. It stands you in good stead."
Milner believes that links with the senior side are now better than before, helped by having Pearce heavily involved with both. He and Theo Walcott both came to Sweden having been on duty with the seniors, though Pearce bluntly demonstrated that they are not first among equals by substituting Walcott in the first game and dropping him for the second. Team selection for the semi-final will be interesting.Reuse content