A happy ending to the Mills tale

He speaks his mind and sometimes pays for it. But Leeds and England value his hard edge
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It is difficult to imagine a professional footballer suffering more damage to his self-esteem than to be traipsing around the city centre on a Saturday afternoon instead of aiding his team's fortunes. A mere four years ago, that was Danny Mills' fate.

Consigned to his home-town club, Norwich City's reserves after having the temerity to demand a transfer – "not too many 20-year-olds do that" – after a match in which he had been sent on as substitute and then hauled off again half an hour later by the manager, Mike Walker, the defender was not even allowed to go on loan to then Second Division Gillingham.

All his sense of ambition had been stifled. The future held nothing but bleak uncertainty. "There were some very low moments," he recalls now. "Like shopping with the girlfriend [Lisa, now his wife and mother of their two young children] on Saturday afternoon when, in my opinion, I should have been playing. It doesn't sound bad, but you're wandering around town, and just thinking 'I don't want to be shopping, I don't want to be sat in a pub'." Eventually, he departed for Charlton, with whom he experienced the elation of promotion and the misery of relegation before joining Leeds in the summer of 1999.

But that fall-out with Walker – "he left me out of the team and I felt like I was the scapegoat for bad performances. I began to take it personally" – would not be the last time that a manager was the recipient of his forthright views.

David O'Leary also felt the caustic edge of his tongue in response to some criticism at the turn of the year. Yet, whether despite that characteristic, or whether he has survived and ultimately flour- ished because of it, Mills has emerged as a stalwart of the meanest defence in the Premiership and is firmly in contention for a place in England's World Cup squad.

For every Beckham or Owen raised in that verdant valley where genius comes as a birthright, a dozen others have to resist all manner of adversity as they cut through dense undergrowth before eventually being allowed to co-exist. It is a testament to the Leeds right-back that he has hacked his way (some opposition supporters might say literally so, on occasions) through a seemingly impenetrable jungle, from that dark period at Norwich to the periphery of Sven Goran Eriksson's squad in so relatively brief a period of time.

When O'Leary persuaded his chairman, Peter Ridsdale, to part with the best part of £4m for the defender, he purchased a player who might have emerged dripping in molten steel from the same cast as Norman Hunter, Bobby Collins, Jack Charlton and David Batty.

He already heads Leeds' roll of wrong-doers with three cautions and one dismissal in domestic football this season. "I play every game the same," Mills reflects. "It's a silly cliché but I do wear my heart on my sleeve, and I do give 100 per cent. That's how I approach my life in general. If that means overstepping the mark on the football field then so be it. Alan Shearer says he does absolutely everything possible to win a game even if that means bending the rules. That's my way, too. That's professionalism."

Today, Leeds are at home to Chelsea. It is a fixture which has often produced malevolence – some of it aforethought. Any confrontation between Mills and the temperamental Graeme Le Saux could make for an intriguing spectacle.

The Leeds element of that potential incendiary device denies there is any "history" between them, but adds: "There is a fine line and it's possible to go slightly overboard. But I don't know any other way to play. There are things you read in the media. 'Oh, he's damaging his England chances because of the way he plays'. But I got into the England squad because of the way I play. That's how I got to where I am today. I'm not suddenly going to change and become a different player. If I suddenly changed that – my aggression, my power – then that's a major part of my game, and if you take that away, my game almost disappears."

Mills, 24, who has made two substitutes' appearance for England, believes that he has a "50-50" chance of travelling to Japan and Korea next year. "It normally works out at seven defenders in a squad and I would say that five have been picked already. There are probably two places up for grabs, with maybe five or six players fighting for them." His versatility, and that of Jamie Carragher at Liverpool, should hold both in good stead.

Eriksson, Mills says, is unlike virtually every manager he has played under. "Completely the opposite to Martin O'Neill [who gave him great encouragement at Norwich, when briefly in charge there]. Both are fantastic managers, but have completely different attitudes towards the game. Sven is very quiet, but makes it clear what he wants from everyone individually. He says: 'Go and express yourself, go and show what you can do'. His other big thing is respect. He likes you to respect everybody for what they do, from the kit-man to the lady who's cleaning your hotel room."

He adds: "Sven came into the England job, just as Brian Kidd came in here, and with the same set of players turned it around. There must be something they've done, although it's not always easy to put your finger on it. Since Kiddo came in he has reorganised things slightly and we have tried to cut out the silly little mistakes that we were making early on last season."

By then Mills had been at Elland Road for one campaign, but had made only a limited number of appearances because of the solid form of Gary Kelly. He was reinstated last season but, at least until Christmas, Leeds' Premiership performances were frequently dismal.

"By Christmas, the crowd were on our backs, even the manager was getting stick. We were 13th in the table at one stage and there was talk about us getting relegated. It was only the Champions' League that was keeping everybody completely off our backs. Without that, who knows what would have happened?"

He adds: "Everyone was starting to feel the pressure. There were some harsh words said to everybody, myself included. I got left out. I had one or two words with the manager. I'll take criticism when it's deserved. But if someone says something to me and I don't agree, I'm not just going to sit there and take it.

"Anyway, then Kells [Gary Kelly] was out again for a few games, and this was my chance. I could either take it, or I could blow it. Fortunately, I managed to take it and I was in until the end of season."

Now the championship beckons, although these are early days. "This season, in some games we've not played to our potential but have still got results. We've got that mental toughness now. We don't have to play well. We can maybe not fire on all cylinders and still take three points if we concentrate and do it right."

Once he could not even contemplate such heights. It is a contrast, indeed, from those gloomy Saturdays back in Norwich when the only crowds he was liable to encounter were those out window-shopping, along with himself.