Milner now unfortunate victim of versatility that once set him apart

James Milner making his first-team debut for Leeds United in 2002.

James Milner making his first-team debut for Leeds United in 2002.

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TWELVE years ago this week, James Milner made his debut for Leeds United. The mantle of being the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer followed not long after.

For Terry Venables, however, it was neither of these early career milestones that set the Horsforth-born midfielder apart.

Instead, it was a home game against West Ham United six or so weeks on from that historic Boxing Day goal at Sunderland that really opened the eyes of the then Elland Road chief to the potential Milner possessed.

Leeds were struggling when the Hammers came to Yorkshire and matters were not helped by a rash of injuries that left Venables without any strikers. His solution, after much thought, was to play Eirik Bakke, normally a midfielder, up front with Milner, by now 17, alongside the Norwegian.

A first-half goal from Seth Johnson, a rarity in itself, was enough to secure United a 1-0 victory but it was Milner’s performance in an unfamiliar role that left one of football’s most experienced managers raving afterwards about the teenager’s “versatility”.

More than a decade on, Milner could surely be forgiven an anguished scream on hearing again a tag that has, unfairly in this correspondent’s eyes, come to define him as a footballer.

Jack of all trades, master of none. That seems to pretty much be the public’s perception of a player who has two Premier League titles to his name along with more than 50 England caps.

He is, if the radio phone-ins are to be believed, the very epitome of the Joe Average footballer. Not bad at most things but hardly someone to thrill a crowd with his silky skills. Boring James Milner, in fact.

That there is even a parody Twitter account by that name says it all. He is the butt of the joke, as was again made clear last Saturday at the end of a first half that had seen no goals scored in any of the four 3pm kick-offs in the top flight.

The response of ‘Boring James Milner’, famous for regaling his 300,000 followers with tales of ironing and other such mundane activities, was to tweet, “Just checked the half-time scores – can’t wait for Match of the Day tonight”.

Milner, to his credit, takes this parody Twitter account in good humour. When asked by the Press about the fake account shortly before last summer’s World Cup, the midfielder spoke about how funny he found it.

Even so, the fact so many follow ‘Boring James Milner’ on the social media network and lap up the endless dull reflections on life show that changing the public’s perception of the 28-year-old as a footballer is nigh on impossible.

Not that this will bother Milner, who knows full well just how much his efforts are appreciated by those who matter the most. Namely, his team-mates at both club and international level.

At Manchester City, he has become an integral part of Manuel Pellegrini’s side.

If the Blues have played Chelsea, Manchester United or a big Champions League tie this season, Milner’s name has been one of the first on the team-sheet. And each time he has justified Pellegrini’s faith with a fine display.

Against United just two weeks ago, he played a pivotal role in City’s 1-0 victory with his value being perhaps best illustrated by how Louis Van Gaal’s side took charge in the closing stages only after Milner had been substituted to leave the hosts looking imbalanced down the flank.

His impact in the 4-1 home victory over Tottenham Hotspur was similarly impressive.

Neither display, though, compared to how Milner performed in the September draw with Chelsea at the Etihad. He was everywhere that day, deservedly being named man of the match, while he even had the satisfaction of creating Frank Lampard’s dramatic late equaliser with a trademark pinpoint cross.

What this form on the domestic stage should mean is Milner being an automatic selection for England today against Slovenia. The reality, however, is likely to be different with Roy Hodgson expected to instead look elsewhere to fill his midfield.

Milner’s problem is the versatility that Venables first identified in 2003 as a hugely positive trait in the then teenager.

Last month, for instance, he got the nod to start for the Three Lions against San Marino at Wembley. However, it was not in the customary wide role in which he has excelled for City this season.

Instead, he played at the base of a midfield diamond and it did not work. Such a formation was designed to suit Raheem Sterling, who prefers a quick ball to either chase or try and turn the defence.

Milner, playing so deep, tended to go sideways first rather than forward and that meant impetus was lost. Matters only improved for the one-time Leeds trainee when he was moved to a wider role in the second half, where he looked much more comfortable.

By the time England faced Estonia three days after that 5-0 Wembley triumph, he had been replaced by Fabian Delph and dropped to the bench. Just as had been the case in the Three Lions’ stiffest test of Euro 2016 qualifying, the visit to Switzerland on September 8. On both occasions, there were few cries of protest from the nation’s football fans.

A place on the bench awaits Milner again today, which is a shame as surely a place could be found for one of only two Englishmen to play regularly for the Premier League champions.

Not that Milner will kick up a stink. That is not his style. While chalking up 46 caps for the Under-21s as others were promoted to the seniors, Milner never once lost his cool and demanded to know why he continued to be overlooked.

Just last month he publicly recognised how this level-headed approach – something that makes Milner a manager’s dream in a way that many so-called Premier League superstars never can be – could have cost him in the past.

For City, where it is perhaps only in the past 12 months that his true value has been appreciated, he was an unused substitute in the 2011 FA Cup triumph and last season’s Capital One Cup success.

At a club where some high-profile players have been known to throw a strop for the non-arrival of a birthday cake, Milner’s acceptance without quibble of missing two Cup finals is admirable.

That said, the former Leeds junior has shown signs of toughening his stance. A contract offer that has been on the table for months remains unsigned because Milner wants assurances over how much football he will play.

City fans have made no secret of their desire for the 28-year-old to stay and the suggestions are he will do just that.

It is just a shame that at international level, Milner seems condemned to remain a victim of the versatility that once set him apart.

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