James Milner: 'Players my age want to play in the World Cup. I'm no different'

Dubbed 'the next Rooney' when he became the Premiership's youngest scorer, James Milner has suffered mixed fortunes and several changes of club but acquired a maturity beyond his years. Now settled at Aston Villa, he tells Phil Shaw how he intends to reach the very top
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The Independent Football

It was at this stage of the season, on Boxing Day of 2002, that Milner, at the tender age of 16 years and 357 days, replaced Rooney as the youngest scorer in the history of the rebranded top flight by converting Jason Wilcox's cross for Leeds United at Sunderland.

Two days later, as if to prove it was no fluky one-off, he cut in from the left and danced past two defenders, including the World Cup-winning Marcel Desailly, before curling a breathtaking right-footed shot into the net. Chelsea were shaken. Elland Road was stirred. It was a moment that declared: "The name's Milner. James Milner."

Is it still his best goal? "It's certainly up there," Milner says as we chat at Villa's rural training headquarters, nestling in a private road called Bond Street. He sounds embarrassed to have to judge his own excellence, and is perhaps pondering an exquisite solo effort for England youth or Leeds schoolboys that has not been subjected to endless action replays, but which he rates more highly. "Off the top of my head, I can't think of a better one."

Maybe he is wary, too, of talking as if he peaked in what already seems - given the fate that subsequently befell his home-town team and his own move to the Midlands via Newcastle United - that distant December. Far from being a two-hit wonder, Milner has established himself as mature beyond his years on the left side of midfield in the team David O'Leary will pit against Arsenal at Villa Park at lunchtime today.

O'Leary was in charge at Leeds when Milner was coming through the ranks at the club he had supported almost as soon as he could walk. One of his earliest memories is of watching from the Kop as Noel Whelan and company won the FA Youth Cup final of 1993, beating a Manchester United side that could not match their power but contained stellar talents within the slight frames of David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

At 10 he became officially attached to Leeds, stepping out against contemporaries from the leading northern clubs. "I played against Rooney when he was 11," he recalls. Wasn't he already in the Everton first team by then? With a chuckle, Milner replies: "He probably could have been. Actually, he did disappear for a couple of years. I think he was away playing for their Under-17s and Under-19s by the time he was 14. I can't remember whether he was in midfield or up front because he seemed to be everywhere. He bullied people with his strength and beat them with his ability. Everyone knew, even then, that he was going to be a phenomenal player. He has just gone on and done it."

Milner's own role model was another Leeds-born attacker, Alan Smith. "He was the local boy who had achieved what all of the lads in the Academy dreamt of doing, coming through into the first team and scoring with his very first touch [as a substitute against Liverpool at Anfield]. For me to get a chance to play alongside him, and with Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell, was a great learning curve."

The opportunity arrived more quickly than he dared hope. After becoming a professional in the summer of O'Leary's sacking, he was put on the bench by Terry Venables at West Ham. "We were 4-1 up at half-time, but by the time I got on they had come back to 4-3. It was one of those situations where if you make a mistake, it could be a disaster. Just before the end, I passed the ball straight to Paolo Di Canio more or less in front of goal. Fortunately, he was so surprised that he put it over the bar. We clung on, but when we were in the shower, Bow [Lee Bowyer] came over and said: 'Did you have a bet on a 4-4 draw?'"

The two goals in three days at the end of that year brought Milner to the attention of a media only too eager to slot him into the "next Rooney" category. In fact, the two could not have been more different. While the Everton prodigy's alleged nocturnal activities began to appear on the front pages, his Leeds counterpart was studying on day release at Horsforth High School for the 11 GCSEs he would soon pass.

Temperamentally, too, they were poles apart. And it was somehow unsurprising that Rooney should have become embroiled in a dispute over who would represent him as his agent - an unedifying struggle won by Paul Stretford - whereas Milner employs the players' union, the Professional Footballers' Association, to fulfil the role for him.

In the context of teenagers, "sensible" tends to be synonymous with "boring". Yet when Venables' ill-starred reign ended and Peter Reid started his own, against a backdrop of financial collapse at Elland Road, Milner acknowledged that even an overnight sensation needs to work on his upper-body strength and tactical awareness. "I was sent on loan to Swindon, which was valuable experience because I needed games rather than a few minutes here and there as sub. Not long after I came back, Eddie Gray took over at Leeds and I was in the side regularly. The club were always on the back page, and sometimes on the front. Some unbelievable players were sold off, and they were massive blows. It was a bad time for Leeds United, but good experience for me because it made me stronger and better able to deal with problems."

When relegation was confirmed and Smith sold, the then Leeds chairman hailed Milner as "the future of Leeds". Here was one crown jewel they would not be selling on the cheap. "As far as I knew, I was staying," says Milner, "but on the first day of pre-season training the club secretary asked if I was ready to go for my medical at Newcastle. It was a shock, but the club needed the money [£3.6m]. I was upset because I loved the club, but I also wanted to do what was in their best interest." If he thought he was heading for some much-needed stability, he was soon disabused of that notion. The manager who bought him, Sir Bobby Robson, was dismissed after only a handful of games last season, to be replaced by Graeme Souness. "It's difficult and awkward when that happens," Milner asserts. "It makes you vulnerable because you have to start again. Newcastle were going through a slump and when that happens, managers tend to go for experience over youth."

Diplomatically, Milner explains that Souness "had his own ideas". Although he appeared regularly, particularly enjoying a taste of European competition, it became apparent during the transfer window early this season Newcastle were prepared to sacrifice him to re-sign Nolberto Solano. "If everything had gone well, I'd love to be still at Leeds. You don't want to be changing clubs all the time, but I was lucky to get the opportunity to come to such a big club as Aston Villa."

When you include his England Under-21 coach, Peter Taylor, whom Milner will encounter when Villa visit Hull City in the FA Cup next weekend, and a single game under Kevin Blackwell's caretaker stewardship, O'Leary is the eighth manager the 19-year-old has served. "I'm sure he was aware of me at Leeds, but I knew better Roy Aitken and Steve McGregor, who were on his coaching staff there and are working for him here. A few friendly faces helped me to settle in quickly."

Solano was a crowd favourite, but Milner has slotted in seamlessly despite Villa's patchy form. "On a personal level, it has been good to a get a sustained run. You see the best of people when they aren't coming in and out of the side. Obviously, we're not where we'd like to be as a team, but I honestly think we've been unlucky. We've been the better side in certain games without managing to put the nails in the coffin. When we lost 2-0 at home to Wigan was a classic example.

"It's hard to explain how we could lose 3-0 at Doncaster [in the Carling Cup] then get two away draws and beat Everton 4-0. Being drawn away to Hull is going to be a tough one, and I rate Peter Taylor as an excellent manager with really good ideas. But there is a determination here to atone for what happened at Doncaster. And we'd rather play there than have to go to, say, Manchester United."

But why do Villa look a top-eight side one week and relegation candidates the next? "We've had injuries up front and had to shuffle players around, which hasn't helped. It's frustrating but we are working hard on getting it right. There's a lot of quality in the squad. Steven Davis, for instance, was someone I was aware of, but sometimes you don't realise how good people are until you play with them. That's why our position is disappointing, but the way the league is, you can really climb with a few back-to-back wins."

Arsenal, for all their feeble away form, are formidable opponents with which to end the year. Milner did not play against them for Newcastle, but in his last season at Leeds they leaked 13 goals in three meetings with Arsène Wenger's team. He is not one for dwelling on what has gone, even Desailly, Wilcox and the ghosts of that most pleasing Christmas past, save for what he can learn in the cause of improving his own game by studying the likes of Thierry Henry as they inflict their damage.

When pressed as to what ambitions he has as he prepares to turn 20, Milner responds with the trademark level-headedness he inherited from his "very supportive" parents Peter and Lesley.

"To become the best player I can, at the highest level possible. Most people my age want to play for their country in the World Cup. I'm no different. Some of the Villa lads are going to the finals [most notably Olof Mellberg with Sweden, Milan Baros of the Czech Republic and Ulises De La Cruz for Ecuador]. Of course I'm envious, but the thing to do is keep putting it in, for Villa and the Under-21s, and try to force your way in."

He is certainly doing that. After providing the "assist" for Mark Delaney's goal in the Boxing Day rout of Everton, Milner shrugged off reports of a hamstring injury to supply the crosses for two goals by Liam Ridgewell in the 3-3 draw at Fulham on Wednesday night.

Tonight will be spent with family and friends - a quiet meal, a game of pool - and his birthday will be much the same for a player who, like Alan Smith, does not drink alcohol.

With another match on Monday, a derby at West Bromwich Albion, and Hull to follow, James Milner will take his end-of-teenage kicks from the satisfaction of good results and performances.

Teenage rampage: The young talent lighting up the Premiership

* CESC FABREGAS (Arsenal) 18 years 241 days

51 League games, 3 goals

Signed from Barcelona in August 2003 on a free transfer. Handed the task of filling the Vieira void.

Premiership debut v Everton, 15 August 2004

* AARON LENNON (Tottenham)

18 years 259 days

48 games (10 for Spurs, 38 for Leeds), 1 goal

Signed for £1m from Leeds in June 2005. Recall into England Under-21 team in October 2005.

Premiership debut v Spurs, 23 August 2003

* LUKE MOORE (Aston Villa)

19 years 324 days

45 games, 12 goals.

Joined as trainee in July 2003. Fast and effective, often labelled the new Thierry Henry.

Premiership debut v Birmingham, 22 February 2004

*CHARLES N'ZOGBIA (Newcastle)

19 years 217days

27 games, 2 goals.

The midfielder signed for an undisclosed fee from Le Havre in August 2004 after impressing then manager Bobby Robson.

Premiership debut v Blackburn, 11 September 2004

* STEVEN TAYLOR (Newcastle )

19 years 342 days

26 games, 0 goals

Signed as a trainee by Bobby Robson in December 2002. A strong and quick defender.

Premiership debut v Bolton, 28 March 2004

* JAMES MORRISON (Middlesbrough)

19 years 220 days

26 games, 1 goal

The midfielder is an Academy graduate blessed with speed, strength and an innate ability to perform under severe pressure.

Premiership debut v Portsmouth, 15 May 2004

* NEDUM ONUOHA (Manchester City)

19 years 49 days

24 games, 0 goals

Academy graduate with athleticism and pace. Making a big impression as a promising defender.

Premiership debut v Arsenal, 27 October 2004

* RETO ZIEGLER (Tottenham)

19 years 350 days

23 games, 1 goals

Signed from Grasshoppers Zurich in October 2004. The midfielder won Spurs' young player of the year award 2004-05.

Premiership debut v Everton, 2 October 2004

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