James Milner: Star of the old school

A teetotal young footballer from Leeds is now one of England's hopefuls. James Milner's journey is charted by John Woodcock.

The second half was a tight affair with both sides scoring before Man of the Match James Milner left the field with a badly gashed knee". A sentence no England fan wants to read, and especially those in Horsforth on the outskirts of Leeds with their personal interest in his World Cup.

As it happens the dreaded words are already in print. Don't panic. Milner was nine years old at the time.

They appear in the report of a cup match on November 12, 1995, and were written by schoolteacher Jim "Seamus" Ryan. He was coach of the Westbrook Juniors Under-12 team and is one of those credited with nurturing a talent that has flowered into one of the country's finest footballers.

"James's dad brought him along and asked if he could play for the team. I had my doubts because he was small and a couple of years younger than the other lads. I needn't have worried. He was so gifted that I remember, clear as a bell, saying to someone on the touchline during the game against Wigton Moor, 'watch that little feller, one day he'll play for England and you heard it here first'."

Ryan kept a diary of Westbrook's '95-'96 season in the Harrogate & District Junior League, which describes how they clinched the championship in their final fixture. After 18 games, Milner was joint top-scorer with 20 goals.

His appearance in the team's red and black striped shirt was not without controversy. It emerged that playing alongside boys older than himself breached the rules of the Football Association, his current employer in South Africa. He would have to find another team, and he did – Leeds United's academy where his opponents in similar sides included Wayne Rooney. "I can't take any credit for him going there," says Ryan, now a headteacher in Batley. "Lots of people had been watching and recommending him. From my point of view it was just great to have had him with us for that one memorable season, the first stage of his career if you like.

"As a player he had everything; a capacity for hard work, enormous energy, excellent co-ordination, great awareness, and a lovely control of the ball. More than that, you could tell he enjoyed playing the game and that he was a sensible kid. You could also see, even at that early age, that success wouldn't go to his head and that he'd know how to balance football with other aspects of his life."

It's striking how many others who knew him as a boy and teenager make similar observations. Those like Don Wood, a painter and decorator who was secretary of the Westbrook club in Horsforth. "I refereed a couple of his games and James stood out in every way. Since those days everyone in the area seems to have been following his progress, even my mum.

"There's no guarantee that a great little player at the age of nine or ten will go on to make a career in football. Lots of lads go astray, or lose interest. They need desire and the ability to stay focused. That's James Milner. It also helps to have a supportive family, and he's certainly got that."

Milner comes from a middle-class background untypical of many in the game. This seems to have moulded him into a figure which in every respect he shatters the tabloid stereotype of a self-indulgent rich young footballer. His maturity and lifestyle are the perfect antidotes to the laddish excess of others. For a start, he's teetotal and would rather take his dog for a walk than go clubbing.

No wonder Fabio Capello rates him so highly. "He is the future, my future. A fantastic, intelligent player," he's said of him. Others see a young hero of the old school, shining when it's called for, but otherwise modest and unspoiled by football's immodesty.

Milner's father Peter is a quantity surveyor, mother Lesley an estate agent. I contacted them without success and left messages. Later Lesley rang back to say they had been away and that the family had made a decision not to talk to the Press about James. Her considerateness offers a glimpse of the background James comes from.

They live in a pebble-dashed semi close to Horsforth cricket club, another sport, together with athletics, which James excelled in. He played for the Yorkshire Schools cricket team – wicket-keeper and opening bat – and was a champion cross-country and middle-distance runner and sprinter, an ideal preparation for a workaholic footballer who is comfortable on both wings and just about anywhere else on the pitch.

He was also a bright boy. At Horsforth School he gained 11 GCSEs but left to pursue his goals in football, a decision his parents and teachers had mixed feelings about. "He would have been a success at anything he chose to be," says Steve Weeks, head of the maths department.

"He was a strong mathematician and there were other strings to his bow. He could have gone on to get top grade A-levels and had a choice of universities. He was level-headed, unassuming and had a lovely sense of humour. One of the nicest things about him was that he never bragged about what he was doing or where he was going. You had to ask to find out. His attitude made him popular with everyone.

"People in football are tipping him to be a future England captain and I'm not surprised. He has the personal qualities and is the type to work and work at his game like David Beckham did. As a teacher you always hope that a pupil will fulfill their potential. In James's case it was never a doubt. He has that mental strength and determination, the controlled aggression that takes people to the very top."

With obvious pride, Weeks showed me one of its outcomes. Pinned to the wall outside the school's sports hall is Milner's signed No. 7 shirt which he wore against Bulgaria in 2007 and marked his record number of caps for the England Under- 21 side. Since then he's won the PFA Young Player of the Year award. "Yes," said Weeks, "the lad's a bit of a legend here, not just among pupils but in the staffroom."

In interviews Milner says he's been lucky as well as resolute, and is grateful to his mates and others who have helped him along the way, not least his parents. "I appreciate how much they've done for me. If they hadn't been there there's no way I would be where I am now."

His dad's input is also acknowledged in the diary recording Westbrook Juniors' title-winning season. The coach thanked him for his enthusiastic support from the touchline.

Milner senior was a decent footballer himself as well as a good runner. His son recalls: "When I was about 10 he told me to practice as much on my left foot as my right. He said all the best players can use either foot. It was great advice."

For all their encouragement the Milners also saw the need for a life beyond the game. "I never wanted for a pair of boots," says James, "and we lived in a nice house in a nice area. But my parents pushed me hard, even at school. Because there were no guarantees I would make it, they made sure I had options and I left school with 11 GCSEs, most of them grade A."

At the Leeds Academy, Eddie Gray was a great influence, though it was Terry Venables who played Milner in the first team at 16. That led directly to the teenager's decision to avoid alcohol. "I couldn't go drinking because the amount of publicity I got when I broke into the first team meant everyone knew how old I was". He also realised it could be an obstacle to making progress. He sees the negative headlines and knows that great talents have been ruined by the bottle.

Drink, he says, "has never really appealed to me. It's something I can do after I've finished playing. Right now I want to give myself the best possible chance to succeed. I'm pretty single-minded. If I make a decision I stick to it and football has always come first.

"Whether it's doing weights or extra finishing work after training, I'm committed to getting the best out of myself. It's why I appreciate the

work the coaches and the goalkeepers put in."

After Leeds came Newcastle United and Aston Villa, now South Africa. "I'm lucky to have played at three fantastic football clubs alongside some brilliant players, watching and working with them every day. I feel I've been able to take different bits from all of them."

He says he's also learned from others not to get ahead of myself or too big for his boots.

At 24, a singular young man then, and so untypical that he has no agent. He relies on the players' union to look after his interests. Those interests are escalating, with talk of a 20m move to Manchester City.

A stomach bug undermined his first game in the World Cup against the USA. Should England win the tournament, however, even James Milner might allow himself a celebratory drink when he's back in familiar territory.

A few yards from the family home there's a pub with an appropriate name: The Old Ball.

YP MAG 19/6/10