There was a time when those who didn’t know too much about football chose to illustrate their ignorance loudly on Twitter by questioning what James Milner had to offer the England football team. If you’d found them asleep in real life you’d have had to join a queue to write the word idiot on their forehead, but there were plenty of them.
People who assumed the best possible football team in the world would be 10 Ronaldos and Buffon in goals. No understanding of how different types of players make a team. How for a Rooney or an Aguero to score a goal someone has to chase the ball down, win it, drive with it and then give them the ball in the first place. The curse of social media is that the ignorant often shout loudest.
Thankfully now Milner has won everything he conceivably could in the English domestic game, the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup you don’t hear those voices any more. Maybe his continued selection by Roberto Mancini for Manchester City, and Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp for Liverpool finally filtered into that tiniest part of their brain marked ‘Football’.
Maybe some of them are even taking the time to read his best selling new book ‘Ask A Footballer: My Guide To Kicking A Ball About’ to find out what it’s all about. A deadpan amusing title from someone who never complained about a brutal Twitter account which characterised him as boring, primarily because you’d never see him out cold on the streets of Ibiza on the front of the Sunday papers.
As someone who had seen his earliest games for Leeds United during a terrible time for the club, knew about his record-breaking stint in the England Under-21s (he holds the highest number of caps at 46), remembers his record for being the youngest goalscorer in the Premier League (now surpassed by James Vaughan), it was obvious to me what he had to offer over 15 years ago.
Leeds United have a history of producing top-class, hard-working midfield dynamos who leading managers love to pick for club and country: from David Batty to James Milner to Fabian Delph to Lewis Cook. Players who the fans that see them week-in, week-out adore for their honesty and commitment.
You would be hard pushed to find anyone with a sound understanding of the game who follows any of the leading clubs he has represented - Leeds, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Man City, Liverpool - who wouldn’t stand up and sing his praises.
The book itself is a continuation of what James Milner gives on the pitch. It is straightforward, intelligent, helpful, amusing at times and has no pretensions to being something it’s not. As a fellow Leeds fan, I was delighted to get hold of him for a minute before he started a book signing, to discuss his hometown club, Liverpool legends and what anyone can take away from the book.
The book is full of advice for fans and kids who want to be players but if there was just one piece of advice you could pass on what would it be?
“Tough one that. I would say it would have to be to pass on the best piece of advice I ever had, which was from my dad. It was probably the simplest and most important if you want to play football at a high level, and that was he told me to keep practising a lot with both feet so whatever position I play in I’d know how to deal with it.”
Was there a particular coach who you felt you learnt most from when you were coming through as a teenager at Leeds United?
“There were a few different coaches but in terms of one that stood out, Eddie Gray. His son was playing in my age group so he’d be watching us a lot and so he knew about me when he was a first-team coach. I was playing on the wing, which had been his position and what a player he was, so he’d take me for solo sessions.
“After Eddie it would be Terry Venables, who put me in to the first team. I was at school before that so I have Terry to thank for giving me my debut [in November 2002]. There was a lot of ability in the dressing room then but there were also a lot of changes, key players going, so it was a difficult time, it wasn’t easy. Perhaps it’s even more amazing that he put his faith in a 16-year-old."
Did you have total self belief that you were going to be able to hold your own in the first team?
“To make it you have to have self belief in everything, especially for me at that time, getting in and then staying in the first-team squad. Anyone wanting to do that and then to go on, become a regular in the team and score goals, you need to keep pushing yourself and keep improving. I was around David Batty, Dom Matteo, Gary Kelly, Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Harry Kewell and these were great players who helped me both on and off the pitch. They all looked after me, and then people at the club too helped me with learning how to deal with things like the media and so on. I was just so young, that’s the thing that strikes me looking back. I can’t believe how young I was.”
Your book is made up of questions from football fans delivered on Twitter. Were there any questions in your book you wanted to reply to but had to leave out?
“No, not really. We just invited people to ask questions about how to be a professional footballer and used my experience to answer them. So I felt we should answer as much as we could.
There’s a question from a Man City fan calling me a snake and I answered that.
"I just thought it was better to reply than to pretend they hadn’t been asked."
The big question Leeds fans want to know is if you’ll ever come back, and your reply to the fan who asked that question in the book seemed to be worded very constructively, politely but clearly letting him down. It is a long way down from Champions League winner to Championship contenders.
(Laughs) “Well yes, but I am a Leeds lad and I want the team to do well, I’m a fan. I always follow the team and the results. So you can never say No or even Yes because just so much changes in football, you never know what happens. At the moment I’m a Champions League winner with Liverpool and this year we’re really going for the Premier League, but I don’t know what the future will hold. It would be amazing to play for Leeds again but no one from the club has ever contacted me about that. People talk about my age and that I’m getting on, and could I continue after Liverpool, but I don’t think I’m typical physically for my age.”
Have you thought about what you’d like to do if you get to a point where you aren’t playing in the Liverpool first team enough?
“I’m open to anything, I’d be interested in going abroad and experiencing a new league, a new style of football, new lifestyle too, but that all just depends on where it is and also on my family too. I think I’d be more interested in coaching than the media side. I see people going into punditry all the time but I think, in terms of who I’ve played for and with and what I’ve learnt as a player, it would be a shame not to pass that on within football to young players. Then again you see coaches and managers that are doing well for a time and then it doesn’t go so well and the amount of stick they then get week-in, week-out.”
Jordan Henderson ribs you a bit in the book for being good at all sports, is there another sport you think you could have a crack at reaching a pro or top amateur level?
“No, I think that would be disrespectful to the people already in these sports because the levels are just so high. As a kid I was OK at cricket and I love playing golf, when you hit it just right it feels great, and I would love to be a professional golfer. But I just know it’s highly unlikely because these guys have been playing all their life and, no matter how good I am now, the difference between where I am and where they are is enormous. So I don't think I could make it as a pro, no. But when I retire I’d definitely like to play a lot more.”
Finally, do you have favourite Leeds and Liverpool players?
“In terms of the past: Alan Smith. Coming through at Leeds he was a great player and a Leeds lad ahead of me, so he’d be one. Then Eddie Gray, the two goals against Burnley are incredible. In terms of the current team, I just love the way they play as a team and the football they play, it’s very similar to Liverpool. In terms of Liverpool past, Rushy because he was a great player and a great guy and he played for both Liverpool and Leeds. King Kenny of course, Dalglish. And then Kevin Keegan, who I was with at Newcastle. Despite his age, he was a lot older than us obviously, but some of the things he would do on the training pitch, like curl it into the top corner like it was just nothing. He was a total legend.”
Ask A Footballer: My Guide To Kicking A Ball About by James Milner (Quercus) is on sale now.