The model professional in modern-day football? James Milner. A tongue-in-cheek Twitter account dedicated to him – @BoringMilner – is an inadvertent compliment for a player who works hard, lives well and sticks around at the top.
The lead-up to Christmas in 2002 was his time and his moment. The likeable teenager, who staff at Leeds United rated then, is the same footballer they recognise now. Milner says he has never touched alcohol in his life. Even after his first-team debut, his father insisted that the 16-year-old continue to attend college once a week.
The midfielder admitted several years later that he was always reluctant to assume that he “had already made it.” But the coaches who nudged him through Leeds’ academy and into the hands of Terry Venables realised that Milner would go on to fashion a long and healthy career.
Venables became a maligned figure at Elland Road and his short stint as manager was a disaster but he ticked one box by embracing Milner’s raw talent.
“Versatility has made James such a success,” Venables said in 2004. “He’s always been a good lad and a hard worker. He wanted to be a player and you knew that he would be.”
A young Milner began making headlines after a month of gradual integration under Venables. He completed a six-minute debut in a 4-3 win at West Ham United in November 2002 and came off the bench against Bolton, Tottenham and Fulham. But his first meaningful chance came at Sunderland on Boxing Day when an injury to Alan Smith sent him into the fray after little over half-an-hour.
Having already become the Premiership’s second youngest player, Milner became the division’s youngest ever goalscorer with a second-half strike at the Stadium of Light.
Leeds were trailing to a Michael Proctor goal when Milner read Jason Wilcox’ low ball into the box and met it with a brilliant run and a sharp finish. Rejuvenated and back in the game, United forced a win with late Robbie Fowler penalty.
Two days later, Milner struck again with a glorious finish against Chelsea. Eirik Bakke fed the ball to him on the edge of the box and Milner’s exquisite touch slipped the ball away from the Marcel Desailly, creating space for a curling shot from 20 yards which beat Ed de Goey at full-stretch.
Milner turned 17 soon after and signed a contract worth £800 a week, replacing a deal which paid £80.
Even Chelsea’s manager, Claudio Ranieri, was moved to praise him.
“He was fantastic,” Ranieri said. “He is quick, clever, and he’s got two good feet.”
His time as a first-team player at Leeds was criminally short and he joined Newcastle in 2004 for a fee of £3.6m. The sums invested in him since then say it all: £12m by Aston Villa in 2008 and £26m by Manchester City in 2010. Proof that hard work pays.
Leeds United On This Day
2001: Leeds took a tentative look at Nottingham Forest’s Jermaine Jenas amid growing interest in the young midfielder. Jenas – valued at £4million – said: “It’s flattering for me to be linked with Leeds but I’ll just continue to play my game and concentrate on doing my best.”
2004: Sean Gregan’s future was cast in doubt after a group of angry Leeds fans subjected him, his wife and his children to abuse after a defeat to Leicester City at Elland Road. “What happened was horrendous,” Gregan said. “These people waited over an hour to abuse me and my family.”
2007: United’s bid to overturn a 15-point penalty imposed on them by the Football League was sent to arbitration after the club mounted an unsuccessful bid for a judicial review. The matter would take another five months to reach a conclusion.
2010: Contract talks between Leeds and Bradley Johnson, above, came to a head as the midfielder rejected a final offer from the Elland Road club. The dispute remained unresolved for the rest of the season and Johnson moved on to Norwich City on a free transfer.
2012: Davide Somma made a last-ditch bid to restart his career at Leeds United by beginning another comeback from knee surgery. The South Africa striker failed to re-establish himself and was released in the summer of 2013.