The birthday boy in a very different world from Wayne

The Interview James Milner: Leeds United's young jewel can glitter just as much as Everton's, but has been seen rather less. Until now. Nick Townsend meets him

Just one thought taunts you as you journey to Elland Road to meet a Leeds United player: will he still be an employee of the club by the time you arrive? The "knockers" are, by all account, parked outside, all ready for this particularly desirable property clearance.

Friday's back pages are festooned with speculation. Alan Smith to abandon the stricken vessel for Old Trafford or St James' Park; Paul Robinson bound for the City of Manchester Stadium; Mark Viduka a target for any number of English and foreign clubs. Even James Milner, the subject of the journey, has, at the tender age of 17 when we meet - hecomes of age today - been mentioned in several dispatches as being coveted by Manchester United.

When you arrive, your interviewee regards such reports with the insouciance of youth as he talks in the manager's office; one which during the past 18 months has been occupied by four illustrious members of that profession: David O'Leary, Terry Venables, Peter Reid and the current caretaker, Eddie Gray.

You remind him that the last-named is an image on one of his prized possessions: a video of the 1972 FA Cup final, when Leeds beat Arsenal - today's third-round opponents at Elland Road - and finished second in the League. Strange to think that Milner's own recollections of Leeds stretch back only to 1992, when Leeds won the League title under Howard Wilkinson.

"I'm a massive Leeds fan and I've still got a T-shirt celebrating that day," he says. "I was about six and with my dad, who's a season-ticket holder. I remember dad saying, 'Remember this day; it may not happen again'."

As it has transpired, that caution was well justified, though as the young Milner progressed through Leeds' schoolboy teams to join the club's academy and to watch Leeds progress, under O'Leary, to a Champions' League semi-final, he surely must have imagined that another title was only a question of time.

What the Leeds-born midfielder could not have prophesied was that only months later he would be introduced to first-team football by Terry Venables. That was the start of a 14-month senior career during which Milner has witnessed the exodus of first the former England coach and then Reid, has scored a record-breaking goal, has been dispatched on a month's loan at Swindon, and finally has seized the responsibility of aiding Leeds' survival with the kind of performances, such as that at Charlton last month, which have had The Premiership's pundits bestowing Saturday-night television plaudits.

"Everything happened really quickly last year and it's just kept going," he says. "You don't get too much time to sit back and think about what's happened to you. Two years ago, I would have bitten your hand off if you had offered me the chance to be where I am now. But you have to make sure you look forward to things and don't just sit back and say. 'Oh, I'm here now. I have made it'. You always want to drive on. For me that means a regular place in Leeds' first team. I hope that if I do play well here I will get recognised and play for my country."

Still, he must achieve that with the constant knowledge that, on the whim of an opposition manager, the assent of the acting chairman, Trevor Birch, or the demands of Leeds' creditors, he could be sold now the transfer window has been flung open. Yet more asset-stripping of a club who have declined from championship contenders to a state of penury in two years, and who have already lost Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer and the two Robbies, Keane and Fowler.

"It's flattering to hear that clubs might be interested in you," says Milner of the possibility of joining that list. "Obviously you are doing something right on the field. But I'm happy here. I love the club and I wouldn't want to leave."

In truth, it is more likely that any exodus would be headed by Viduka and/or Smith. "They're both massively important to the side," says Milner. "Mark's a fantastic player and Alan loves the club. You can see it when he plays. I hope that we can keep them. They have both been great to me. When I was younger, they both helped me and made it easy to come into the side."

Milner adds: "To be honest, the players don't talk about the financial side much. It's out of our hands. The only thing we can influence is whether the club get three points on a Saturday. If you take that [the financial] side of it too seriously, it's going to get you down and it's going to affect the way you play."

It was in November 2002 that Venables gave Milner his debut as substitute in a 4-3 victory at West Ham. The following month, his goal at Sunderland on Boxing Day made him the youngest Premiership scorer, at 16 years 157 days, thus usurping Wayne Rooney's record by four days. Two days later, his sublime goal against Chelsea, leaving the Blues rearguard looking foolish indeed, confirmed his potential.

Comparisons between Milner and the Goodison genius have been inevitable, given the similarity in age. As schoolboys at their respective clubs they often used to play against one another. "Even then, he stood out," Milner recalls. "My parents always spoke about what a great player he was. Then he just suddenly disappeared. We assumed he'd been released or been injured. It was only later we realised that he was playing for the Under-19s when he was 15."

Yet, in family background, style of play and speed of development, they differ. Around this time last year, Venables recommended to Sven Goran Eriksson that both players should train with the England squad prior to the friendly with Australia. Rooney, of course, actually made a second-half appearance in that game. Milner has yet to progress beyond the Under-20s.

In fact, at the end of last year he was loaned out to Second Division Swindon Town. Some would have regarded that as a somewhat ignominious move, foisted upon him by the then manager, Reid. Milner disagrees.

"I think it was good for me," he insists. "I wasn't getting into the side here at the time. A few players had been brought in, and had done well, like [Lamine] Sakho and [Salomon] Olembe. I wasn't getting regular games. The idea of moving to Swindon was to build me up a bit and get me used to playing first-team football in a League situation. I came back with a bit more confidence."

You always suspected that the progress of the Leeds teenager, a more cerebral type of player, would be gradual rather than mirroring the phenomenal impact of Rooney. In a sense, Milner has benefited from Rooney's elevation to England status in that it has enabled him to flourish with a degree of anonymity. "Wayne's done fantastically well," says Milner. "He's had a lot of pressure put on him and he's dealt with it really well. Maybe if he hadn't come through it like he has, there'd have been a bit more attention on myself."

Off the field, Milner displays a maturity that belies his years, though unlike Rooney, who shares a house with his girlfriend, he still lives at home with his parents and sister. Neither will there be a big bash and an appearance by Atomic Kitten organised, such as Rooney enjoyed for his 18th-birthday celebrations.

"No, we've got a few big games coming up, so it'll be just a quiet meal with family and friends," he says. "All my life I've wanted to do what I'm doing now. Now I'm here, and enjoying every minute of it. You've got to make a few sacrifices. It means no drinking, and whatever, but I don't mind that."

Milner is a bright lad academically, and gained 11 GCSEs at school. Even when he joined the Leeds academy, his father, Peter, a quantity surveyor, insisted he still attended college one day a week. He has no immediate plans to capitalise on his increasing recognition.

"At the moment, I'm just concentrating on my football," he says. "I'm not going out there looking for agents and commercial deals. The main thing in my life is trying to get in the side here. The other side of football can wait."

Both his father and mother, Leslie, have contributed greatly to his career. "They have always come to watch me play," says Milner. "Even today, they see you all the time at home and how the football is affecting you. If things aren't going well, they can lift you. If things are going well, they can make sure you're keeping your feet on the ground. They've made sure that nothing too much fazes me. I know that I am going to have highs and lows. I know that I am going to be taken in and out of the side for whatever reason the manager thinks is right, but I won't go knocking on his door. The way to make your point is on the training field."

Today, he hopes to have impressed Gray enough to claim his first FA Cup start. But he is as aware as anyone that this is the beginning of a month in which Leeds' entire future, and hence his own, will be decided as much by the financial movers and shakers as by midfielders and goalscorers.

Biography: James Milner

Born: 4 January 1986

Height: 5ft 9in. Weight: 11st 1lb.

Club career: Leeds United (August 2001 to present). Has played 29 Premiership matches, 4 FA Cup, 1 League Cup. Scored 3 goals. Also: Swindon Town (on loan, September to October 2003). Played 6 Second Division matches. Scored 2 goals (and received 2 yellow cards).

Young man's game: against Sunderland in December 2002 he became the youngest Premiership scorer, eclipsing Wayne Rooney. He is second only to Coventry's Gary McSheffrey (16 years 198 days) as the youngest player to make a Premiership debut. Only Peter Lorimer was a younger debutant for Leeds.

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