You look at James Milner and see nothing noteworthy. A head like a Royal Mail letterbox fitted with stabilisers; an archetypal Yorkshire lad better suited to hacking away down t’pit than sprinting in the heat of the Bernabéu. I, however, see something completely different. I see the most complicated character in football. James Milner is more than just a footballer—he is a blank canvas. A philosophical concept. And if a manager stares into his eyes, he will be spellbound by what stands in front of him: a reflection of his true self.
Whether it’s been seizing the club’s problem position of left back or stroking home high-pressure penalties in pivotal games, James Milner’s been dynamic, fearless, militant: all fitting descriptors, but ones that read more like a love letter penned to his manager Jürgen Klopp than a character assessment of the Yorkshireman. And most football fans will argue the case of a very different James Milner anyway. Leeds remember Terry Venables replacing talisman Alan Smith with a lad who’d barely played and the subsequent debut goal that broke all the records; fans of Newcastle will recall a boy who broke into the team under Glenn Roeder too inexperienced to prevent them from finishing 13th; Villa supporters will reminisce about their number 8 launching into challenges as manager Martin O’Neill sprinted the touchline to blow into the fourth official’s ear; England fans’ prevailing memory will be from World Cup 2010 when, 30 minutes into their tournament opener, a usually consummate Milner was troubled, yellow-carded, and duly replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips. As Milner approached the bench, his jaw ajar, anxious Fabio Capello stood in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium with the same expression, trying to diagnose what on earth was going on as the campaign’s wheels came off.
Milner is a chameleon, you see, who has perfectly reflected the essence of any man who has managed him. But how does one react to being faced with such a pure truth? The true self is, after all, the answer to one of life’s greatest pursuits. Each manager approaches Milner differently—some cannot bear the truth and are too frightened to play him; some must.
In his final months as manager of Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini stuck his head above the parapet and put James Milner up front. Pellegrini was going out smoking a cigar and firing a mini-gun into the sky. Roy Hodgson, however, was a little different. You may think that, as his England side were losing 2–1 to Iceland, he was thinking about the possibility of his nation’s biggest humiliation in football, but you’re wrong. What he was really thinking about was the man shadowing him ominously from the bench behind, James Milner. He had all five strikers on the pitch, lining up like hungry dogs outside the back door and it was the only way he could see us breaking down the 34th ranked side in the world. At that moment, Roy had been outed as his greatest fear: a simplistic, meat and potatoes Englishman—the premonition he’d seen watching the J D Wetherspoon’s England performances of James Milner.
Sometimes, I worry about what will become of James Milner. A limitlessly powerful individual, what happens if he falls into the wrong hands after retiring? Who knows who will employ him? I guess what I’m saying is: what do we do if James Milner falls into the hands of the Nazis? I can’t help but think, deep inside, beneath hundreds of slowly decreasing Russian doll shells, there’s a tiny, decrepit man in there. Let’s call him James. He’s sensitive and insecure, reflecting others so he doesn’t have to face the one that he too fears most: himself. However, then I stop and remember: this is James Milner—and I’m probably just seeing myself.
This appeared in the long sold out issue 9. We’re on 15 now. Get with the zeitgeist and click on the flashy thing.