One that got away – James Milner
Every football fan of every club will have their tales of great players, who were let go prematurely and went on to achieve amazing success in their later careers.
It feels to me though, like Newcastle United have more of those players than most.
So many tales of what might have been as former employees achieved great success elsewhere while our last major trophy win becomes an ever more distant memory.
One of these players came to mind this week when I saw various social media channels wishing James Milner a happy birthday.
Now plying his trade with Liverpool at the age of 34, Milner is still at the top of his game, in one of the greatest teams in the history of football, a far cry from the days when Graeme Souness, clumsily claimed that “we’ll never win anything with a team of James Milners.”
Speaking to FourFourTwo during a Q&A, Milner said that there was never any hard feelings between the two:
“When someone has an opinion, even if it ends up misquoted, people jump on it. But as a player you love the chance to shut people up. Any time that you’re criticised, it drives you on and you try to prove people wrong. That’s what I did in that part of my career. But I get on with Graeme – there’s no beef. When I won the Premier League title at Manchester City, he was covering the game and he came over to congratulate me.”
As a football fan you get an idea of what a player is capable of, even if they don’t show you their full potential during their time at the club. Milner was one of those players.
We had signed him for next to nothing following Leeds United’s catastrophic relegation from the Premier League in 2004. He had burst on to the scene as a 16 year old, becoming the competition’s youngest ever goalscorer with a goal in a 2-1 victory over Sunderland on Boxing Day in 2002. He would make 54 appearances over the course of two seasons, scoring five goals and establishing himself as one of the best young talents in the English game.
Sir Bobby Robson saw his potential but was sacked early the following season and replaced by Souness. Milner would make 41 appearances for the club during that debut season, scoring only once, possibly prompting that harsh opinion from his manager.
Looking back, Souness’ comments were grossly unfair – Milner was still a teenager and was playing in a struggling team. To single him out could have ruined a less mentally tough player.
Milner used it as motivation to prove his manager wrong. He spent the 2005-06 season on loan at Aston Villa as part of a swap deal that saw Nolberto Solano return to the club. The view was widely held that this deal would be made permanent at the end of the season but an inability to agree a transfer fee and Glenn Roeder’s appointment as Souness’s successor saw the deal fall through.
James Milner returned to Newcastle a more mature, though still sometimes inconsistent, player. He played 85 games over the next two seasons, scoring seven goals. His dedication, work-rate and energy could never be questioned and the Toon Army loved his wholehearted commitment to the cause. His crossing and goal threat needed work but everyone was in agreement that this was a player that the club should be building its future around.
Unfortunately, Mike Ashley had other ideas and a fee of £12 million was enough to persuade the club to part ways with James Milner and see him return to Villa Park. This was also the beginning of the end for Kevin Keegan’s time at the club. Keegan had reluctantly agreed to the sale of Milner, on the assumption that a decent replacement would be signed. That, as we all know, failed to occur.
Under the stable management of Martin O’Neill at Villa, Milner really started to thrive. Over the next three seasons he would play 126 games, score 22 goals and play in a League Cup final. He was also voted PFA Young Player of the Year in 2009-10 and featured in the PFA Team of the Year.
That consistency saw him earn a big money move to Manchester City. He would stay at the club for five seasons and although he was never the first name on the team sheet, his versatility would make him a vital part of the squad and see him win two Premier League titles, both domestic cup competitions and the Community Shield.
Although the offer of a new contract was on the table, Milner chose to leave the blue half of Manchester in search of more regular football, going on to sign for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. Milner is now in his fifth season on Merseyside and has recently put pen to paper on a new two year deal which will see him remain at Anfield until the summer of 2022.
He has continued to add to his medal collection winning the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup in the last 12 months. Barring a collapse of catastrophic proportions he should add another Premier League title to his collection at the end of this season.
At time of writing, Milner has made 730 club appearances and been capped 61 times by his country.
Not bad for someone written off by Graeme Souness and undoubtedly one of the most successful players that we allowed to slip through our grasp.
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]