Underrated #5

James Milner

Article by Thedamnedunited

Back when he was a youngster, a product of the once famous Leeds United Academy system, the expectations of James Milner were as high as anyone else. With good reason too, since the early days he’s taken in Leeds, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Premier League champions Manchester City, which has seen him grow in stature, and even earn himself 32 caps for England. But you could say he goes largely unnoticed at times in City’s and England’s midfield, despite doing his job so well.

His talent was there to see from an early age, making his debut for the Whites in November 2012, meaning at the time he was the second youngest player ever to play in the Premier League at the age of 16 years and 309 days. A long run of top performances in the Premier League that season led to comparisons between other rising England stars, including Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, and looking at the three of them, it’s no surprise that the three of them went on to shine in the white shirt of the three lions. However, by the time Milner had established himself as a first team regular in the United team, Leeds’ fortunes were on the decline. We all know what happened next.

Relegation to the Championship was inevitable, as was the following clear-out of players including Alan Smith, Dom Matteo and Aaron Lennon, who were all sold at largely reduced prices. The quality of United’s players was obvious; not a single one of them fell dropped down a division to another Championship club. The academy graduates probably didn't want to leave, but knew they had to in order to keep the club a float. Lennon sold to Tottenham, Smith (perhaps most painfully of all to Manchester United) and Milner to Newcastle, where he signed a five-year-contract.

At Leeds he had already established himself as a combative midfielder who could play in the centre of midfield or as a winger, and who also knew how to play the ball. In his first couple of months at Newcastle he wasn’t really in the frame to start matches, but was still developing well under Bobby Robson, who Milner considered to be his ‘mentor’. However, after Robson was sacked and Graeme Souness was brought in, his Newcastle career began to grind to a halt. Souness didn't see Milner as part of his plans and he was loaned out to Aston Villa, a deal which was eventually made permanent.

After experiencing almost every level of England international duty right from the Under 16s, he was recognised by Fabio Capello as having the necessary attributes to succeed as a full England international. By this time, he was playing almost perfectly for Villa in the right wing position, firing in goals as well as creating them, and at the time no Villa side was complete without Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, all full England internationals. His increasing ability wasn't going unnoticed and he was attracting attention from the like of Liverpool, Chelsea and big spenders Manchester City.

At City he has become an integral part of their midfield, controlling the play from a once more familiar central midfield position, known for hitting highly accurate cross-field balls and not being afraid to run with the ball and get forward when the opportunity arises. And with the club spending as much as they did, it was no surprise that they would win the Premier League title, despite almost making a hash of it in the second half of the season. His performances might go a bit unnoticed at times and he might have often been the unsung hero in many teams’ midfields, but he always does an important job well, and it’s obvious to see why he’s enjoyed the success he has.