Stability helps Milner win call from Capello

England winger shakes off turbulent early club career to target World Cup place
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Why, James Milner was asked yesterday, was a player tipped for the top for so long willing to play game after game for the England Under-21s when others, David Bentley and Gabriel Agbonlahor in particular, sloped off to further their club careers?

The diplomatic answer, from a 23-year-old who represented that side 46 times no less, was that if the Three Lions adorn a jersey then he will always want it. "All I could do was go out there and play as well as I can and apply myself as well as I can in training," he said. "That is all I can change."

However an unspoken truth might be that Milner must have appreciated the constancy of the Under-21 set-up, with Stuart Pearce, and Peter Taylor beforehand, on hand to guide him. The domestic scene for Milner – administration and relegation at Leeds followed by a series of implosions at Newcastle – has been the source of such upheaval that his eight seasons in senior football have never started and finished with the same manager. He is not even precisely sure how many he has actually played under. "I don't know," he admitted, taking a break from his longest period of exposure to the senior England ranks. "Including caretakers it is probably 12 or 13. Hopefully I'm not putting the mockers on Martin O'Neill but hopefully this could be the first season I start and finish with the same manager. That would be nice."

Milner did not want to be offering excuses for the inordinate time it has taken him to reach the senior international squad, which has gathered this week ahead of Saturday's friendly against Slovenia and next Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Croatia. "I am not making excuses but that hasn't helped," he said. "As a young player coming through, you need that stability."

The benefits of a secure club base are self-evident in the comparative trajectory of Wayne Rooney, who burst onto the Premier League scene at the same time as him and has soared under the tutorship of just two managers. Granted, Rooney has been sued for libel by one of those (David Moyes), but the pressures of matching the England talisman's exploits has been a heavy load at times. So great did Milner find them, in fact, after he had taken Rooney's record as the Premier League's youngest goalscorer in December 2002 (Everton's James Vaughan has since seized that mantle) that it actually came as a relief when the striker moved to Manchester United and left Milner in relative obscurity. "He took a lot of limelight off me, which helped massively. If that had not happened, I would probably have had more attention than I had. I am very grateful to him."

The stories of Milner's club struggles will fill the pages of a memorable biography one day. After relegation with Leeds in 2004, there was Graeme Souness's claim at Newcastle, to paraphrase one headline, that "Kids like Milner will get me the sack". Then, when the last bit of the Souness statement proved prophetic in 2006, his replacement, Glenn Roeder, agreed to sell the winger to Aston Villa, then changed his mind. Milner arrived in the Midlands to receive Roeder's decision from O'Neill and, apparently in tears, turned his car around and returned north.

But two Newcastle managers later, he got his move to Villa and his career has been on the up in the 12 months since, culminating in the call-up from Fabio Capello for last month's friendly against the Netherlands and the chance to reveal in his 22 minutes on the field in Amsterdam that the wait has been worth it for England. Milner's effect as a substitute was almost immediate as he got around the back of defender Johnny Heitinga and delivered a virtually unmissable cross for Jermain Defoe.

The road to the World Cup finals in South Africa and a role there is certainly congested, with plenty of right-sided options for Capelllo to consider, though Milner's versatility helps. He is also considered a back up right-back for Wes Brown. "I have played on the left as well at Leeds," he added. "I feel equally as happy on the left and the right." Evidence that there have been benefits in the rocky years, too, for a player trying to put all that behind him.