James Milner is Liverpool’s Johnny-on-the-Spot, netting four penalties and being a key part of the midfield in the Reds’ exhilarating start to the season. Tom Simmonds thinks that Milner’s role in the Anfield resurgence under Jurgen Klopp is only the latest episode in high competence from a player who has become an easy target for misguided criticism.
There is something about English football fans and the English football press that seems to need to single out a high-profile player for particular criticism. The pre-sobriety Tony Adams, the post-1990 Paul Gascoigne both fell victim to this, largely for lifestyle reasons. That Milner should also have been heavily criticised before his international retirement seems a tad perverse, given that most of the opprobrium heaped upon him was for supposedly being dull and epitomising the continued stodginess of the English game.
The public perception of Milner’s personality has been accelerated by the “Boring James Milner” Twitter account (an apt title, given its only joke is so worn out that its name is a self-fulfilling prophecy).
The reason behind Milner being largely unloved is, I think, largely caused by that self-loathing paradox within the English fan that runs something like this. We talk up the rustic aspects of the English game (‘passion’, directness, high tempo, etc.) before coruscating them as antiquated every time England fail at an international tournament – thus, revealing a not-so-secret hankering for England to play other-worldly football, which brings the focus onto those players who might be capable of delivering that.
Milner was once seen as one of those. If we look back to the beginning of his career, it’s easy to forget just how fast his start was. A goalscorer in the Premier League for Leeds at Sunderland on Boxing Day 2002, just shy of his 17th birthday, he was being talked up as one-half of a brace of emerging wonderkids whose stratospheric talents would bear great fruit for the England team in years to come. Wayne Rooney was the other one.
In fact, Milner’s subsequent few years saw him become seen as an exciting attacking talent at both Newcastle and Aston Villa. It was at the latter where he really made his name. He moved to Manchester City for £26 million in 2010, perhaps feeling driven to the move after absorbing the subconscious message delivered by Martin O’Neill’s decision to field a reserve team in a UEFA Cup quarter-final in 2009 and losing the League Cup final in 2010.
His time at City is another study in the value of Milner’s worth to an excellent football team. As well as winning every domestic honour during his time at the Etihad, he played 147 times for a club that has generally been a graveyard for English players who have signed for them since their acquisition by UAE royalty (hello, Micah Richards, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair). These are not small achievements.
And so it’s proving again, as he takes a central role in another excellent team. He seems to be pivotal to Klopp’s vision, which provides an amusing contrast. The wisecracking, extrovert coach with his hip, state-of-the-art pressing tactics and “heavy metal” football finding succour in the sort of ostentation-free reliability that Milner personifies.
It brings us back to asking what we expected Milner to be in the first place. If the criticism chiefly levelled at him during his time as an England player was that he wasn’t flash enough, then we should also ask a wider question if England players can ever win a trial-by-media and pub manager, given some of the things the same commentators criticise other England players for.
If people judge Milner as ‘failed’ because he was never quite world class, that says far more about their inability to appreciate low-key excellence than it does about Milner as a player. If managers like Klopp, O’Neill and Manuel Pellegrini can see how the kind of understated proficiency Milner personifies can enable whatever system they wish to play, we should probably concede that they are right.
Do you agree with Tom that James Milner doesn’t deserve the press he gets? Who are your other favourite unsung heroes?
Read more from Tom here.
Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahOnEarth