Football has been an education for Leeds-born England star James Milner – and he hasn’t stopped learning. Lee Sobot reports.
WITH 404 Premier League appearances and 57 caps for England, James Milner has come a long way since his Westbrook Lane Primary School days.
The midfielder has a Premier League winner’s medal to cherish from his Manchester City days, while national glories have taken him to major tournaments in South Africa, Brazil and a joint bid from Poland and the Ukraine.
France – for Euro 2016 – is potentially next on the agenda.
Yet wherever Milner’s remaining football years take him there is no danger whatsoever of the 29-year-old ever forgetting his proud roots in Leeds.
Milner’s latest assignment took him to Upton Park today for Liverpool’s Premier Division lunch-time kick-off at West Ham but December afforded him time to visit his old stomping ground.
Through his role as Chancellor of the Leeds Children’s University, Milner drove across the Pennines for a presentation at Leeds Trinity University – based in Horsforth – where it all began.
Nineteen years have now passed since Milner signed terms at Leeds United after being scouted at Westbrook Juniors – but the England midfielder remembers his early days vividly and the importance of his Leeds upbringing will never be forgotten. Taking five minutes out of his schedule to talk exclusively to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Milner admitted: “Leeds means everything really.
“Obviously it’s where I grew up and where everything started for me. As I drove in, I was just seeing how it’s changed, the area around.
“I was saying in the car ‘this is where I used to walk home from school’ and things like that, and I think it’s special for anyone going home who doesn’t live around where they grew up any more, going home and reliving those memories.
“Obviously everything started for me here and just down the road. I went to Westbrook School so I was playing for those and Airedale and Wharfedale was the local district side who I played for, and I played for Westbrook Juniors, I think it was under-12s at the time.
“I think my first season was under-9s and then that team stopped and I played one season for the under-12s when I was nine at the time, so I was playing a few years above. I was scouted for Leeds at that time and signed for Leeds when I was 10.”
Another six years later, a 16-year-old Milner made his Whites debut in the 4-3 success at West Ham in November 2002.
The Wortley-born whizz kid went on to make 54 appearances for Leeds but even his star qualities were unable to prevent the Whites from sliding to relegation in May 2004.
By August, the midfielder was lining up for new club Newcastle United with Milner devastated to be leaving the club he supported as a child but sold for £3.6m ‘in the club’s best interests’ and ultimately to further his career.
After four years at Newcastle, Aston Villa were the next beneficiaries of Milner’s services before the big-money move to Manchester City followed by this summer’s switch to Liverpool.
Aside from an early loan spell at Swindon Town, it means Milner has been a Premier League player throughout his career and the only regret is that the Yorkshireman only got to experience two seasons in the top flight with Leeds.
Reminiscing about the day he signed for United, Milner admitted: “That was unbelievable and I think you don’t realise how young I was.
“I think you look back now and obviously with my experience of the Premier League and seeing how few people do come through at that age and seeing photos of myself and how young I was – being in school a few months before and then playing in the Premier League. At the time obviously it is happening so quickly and you are just enjoying it and concentrating on football.
“But looking back now it’s pretty special and obviously playing for the hometown club who I grew up supporting as a kid, all my life and going to watch them with my family and being a ball boy. The only disappointing thing was that I didn’t get to play for Leeds United for longer but, obviously, it’s a massive part of my life as I was there for probably eight years.”
It may yet be that Milner one day returns to his boyhood club – “you never say never” is his response to the chances of a fairy-tale return.
Milner reasoned: “That’s a question I get asked so often, all around the globe as well, and that shows what a big club it is and the number of fans.
“I could be in America or I could be in the Far East on tour with the team or in Europe or in Liverpool or Manchester and you get Leeds fans coming up to you saying ‘I’m a Leeds fan, when are you going to come back’. I’ve been to some pretty different places and been asked that question and I always have the same answer. Leeds fans get everywhere.
“You never say never and it’s so hard to say in football what’s going to happen. Things change weekly so much and that’s the nature of football.
“I want to play at the highest level possible for as long as I can, and hopefully Leeds get back in the Premier League.
“That’s obviously where they belong.”
But these days Liverpool and England are his prime concern.
And away from the beautiful game, Milner and wife Amy are kept busy as young parents to five-week-old Zack and 16-month old Holly. The couple still live in Manchester where Milner relocated to following his move to the Sky Blues, but Yorkshire remains a huge part of the family.
“My parents still live locally in the same place they always have done and I am still in the same place in Manchester,” said Milner.
“Believe it or not, it takes me less time to get to training at Liverpool than it did at Man City with traffic, so that was a nice bonus.”
It means more time to see his young family, with Milner admitting the presence of two children now makes it slightly easier to swallow the pain of losing. Slightly that is.
“I’m enjoying it,” added Milner.
“I’ve got a young boy and a girl and it’s new times for us and exciting times as a family and for myself on and off the field.
“I hate losing more than ever but it slightly softens the blow now when you go home and you get to see your kids. But I still hate losing more than ever.”