You may be forgiven for thinking that James Milner is older than his 23 years, having made his Premier League debut for Leeds at the tender age of 16. A traditional winger with the ability to beat a man and, importantly, produce an end product has seen Milner tipped for the top from various sources within football, and his record number of appearances for England under-21s means he has vast international experience. But is he ready to step up to the next level and challenge for a place in Capello’s World Cup squad?
The first thing one immediately notices with Milner is his pace – indeed he was sprint champion when he was a schoolboy. But pace alone does not necessarily make a footballer. Milner is blessed with the skill and intelligence to take the ball around defenders and he works exceptionally hard in training developing his game, with Aston Villa assistant John Robertson – himself a former winger – contributing to his football education hugely. Over the course of last season, this positive influence seems to have paid off for Villa, with Milner producing consistently week in, week out at club level. And although he has always been on the radar of the international scouts, it is this form which has seen him flirting with Fabio Capello’s England squad.
Milner was given the chance to shine in the second half if the international friendly with Holland in August, 2009, and he duly grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Johnny Heitinga was given a torrid time as Milner almost single-handedly dragged England back into the game, earning massive commendation, and a chance to repeat the feat at Wembley in England’s next match versus Slovenia. Once again as a second half substitute, he couldn’t quite match his performance, but in fairness to him England as a whole didn’t look overly impressive. Despite this there were times when he showed some neat touches, and a willingness to stay on the left wing – something England are desperately lacking.
Capello’s selections for the Slovenia game suggest that Milner has overtaken Ashley Young in the race for the first team, and he is determined to now kick on further. “When you are growing up as a kid, kicking a ball against the garage at nine or 10, you are dreaming of scoring for England in a World Cup final. To get on [against Holland] was great but, hopefully, that is just the start of a new chapter. I have to prove I should be in the team.”, remarked an ambitious Milner
It is difficult to see exactly where in the starting XI he would fit in, as surely displacing Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry or Frank Lampard is currently beyond him, and the right wing berth seems to be a three-way battle between Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott (when fit). However, as demonstrated against the Dutch, Milner is chomping at the bit and now more than ready to perform on the international stage. Pace, versatility, and a true enthusiasm for the game are just three of his qualities. Milner has arguably seen his development hindered by the fact that he has twice played for financially unstable clubs, and in his relatively short club career he has, incredibly, already been managed by thirteen different managers. Sold from boyhood team Leeds to balance the books, in hindsight moving to Newcastle may not have been the dream move it promised. Now in a stable environment at Aston Villa, and with Martin O’Neill as his manager, expect to see the very best of Milner.
It is highly likely that if Milner has another solid season at Villa, then he will be a part of Capello’s World Cup squad. Although probably not a starter, he would be an invaluable asset running at tiring defenders later on in games. With youth very much on his side, expect this to be the first of many major tournaments for Milner. Since his debut with Leeds he has continued to grow, mentally and physically, and he could ultimately prove to be the jewel in England’s crown.