On Boxing Day 2002 James Milner became the youngest-ever Premier League goalscorer, for Leeds United at the Stadium of Light. Phil Hay examines why that didn’t exactly come as a surprise.
The irony of Terry Venables’ relationship with Leeds United and the downward spiral of his time as manager is that he got it so right with James Milner.
There are few in Leeds with happy memories of Venables, least of all among those who paid to watch his team decline, but Milner owed him some gratitude.
“Terry always had faith in me,” Milner said, two years after the ex-England coach met his end at Elland Road. Almost every manager since Venables has.
A teenager then, Milner became the model professional and the versatile footballer who, according to his old team-mate Danny Mills, can “do a job and do it well in any position apart from goalkeeper or centre-back.”
Liverpool have proven that point by reinventing him as a left-back as he edges into his early 30s. Jurgen Klopp calls Milner “the complete player, the perfect professional.” Former colleagues at Leeds recognise that description.
He is far removed in years from Boxing Day in 2002 when he unseated Wayne Rooney as the Premiership’s youngest-ever goalscorer but his game and his character are still familiar to the people who bled him and played with him at the start.
“He was exceptional,” says Eddie Gray, one of Venables’ assistants. “He’d always been exceptional which is why he broke through so soon. You can’t say the club’s academy has produced anyone better than him and as a 16-year-old he wasn’t in the squad because we had no-one else to pick. He was in it because he was better than any other option in that position.”
Even as a schoolboy Gray thought of Milner as a “great trainer”. Mills, the right-back who played in the match which dropped Milner’s name into public consciousness, says Milner was a “scrawny 16-year-old who already knew how to deal with men’s football.”
There was little in the way of excess with Milner, a trouble-free character at a club where unflattering headlines regularly hit hard. ‘Shoot’ magazine once asked him if the squad had given him a nickname. “Everyone calls me James,” he replied.
Venables first eased Milner through in the winter of 2002, a period when doubts about Venables and poor results were starting to set in. Milner, who was cast as a dynamic winger, became the second-youngest Premiership debutant behind Gary McSheffrey when he replaced Jason Wilcox for the final six minutes of a 4-3 win at West Ham United in November.
Leeds met Hapoel Tel Aviv in the UEFA Cup the following Thursday but Milner fell foul of rules stating that all players involved must be 17 or over. Forty-eight hours after his debut Venables packed him off to play for the reserves against Bradford City.
From nowhere, Milner was in amongst Lucas Radebe, Lee Bowyer, Mark Viduka and Nick Barmby. Mills says there was never any concern about Venables bringing through a 16-year-old, despite the club’s form drying up. “You could see he was pretty special,” Mills says. “He’d be training with the first team and you only do that if you’re good enough. It’s apparent straight away. If you’re not good enough you get found out quickly. We knew who he was and we knew how he played. I don’t remember his age being an issue.”
Venables spoke about Milner as managers would speak about seasoned professionals, calling him a “fine fellow” and a “solid character”. “The first-teamers have a lot of respect for him,” Venables said. “He’s a nice, well-mannered boy but he’s also a very talented player. Time will tell what we see from him but a lot of people are confident about his prospects.”
Milner made brief appearances here and there until a Boxing-Day visit to Sunderland cleared the stage for him. Venables named him on the bench but took the plunge in the 36th minute after Alan Smith suffered a suspected broken nose. Milner took his place as a substitute with Leeds 1-0 down and the game set up for him to rewrite the records.
Two months earlier, Wayne Rooney had set a new mark for the youngest-ever goalscorer in the Premiership with a long-range strike for Everton against Arsenal. He was 16 years and 360 days old. Milner later suggested that Rooney making history first had helped to keep eyes trained on Merseyside and given him relative peace. “He’s had a lot of pressure put on him and he’s dealt with it really well,” Milner told the Independent. “Maybe if he hadn’t come through it like he has there’d have been a bit more attention on myself.”
Milner was three days younger than Rooney and proved deadly from a closer range at the Stadium of Light, ghosting in to the near post on 51 minutes as Mark Viduka’s backheel opened up space for Jason Wilcox to cross from the left. Milner’s run outpaced Jody Craddock and his sliding finish wrong-footed goalkeeper Jurgen Macho.
“To get in a Premier League team at that age you need to have that something special,” Mills says. “I made my debut at 18 and I always feel that if you’re going to get to the highest level in football, you have to be knocking on the door of the first team as an Under-18. There are some exceptions but not many.
“Back then he was an obvious talent. We could all see it. But you also got great self-discipline and constant hard work from him. That’s what got him his chance so early and that’s what’s got him where he is today. You’ve seen with countless players that having ability on its own isn’t enough. Work ethic was the phrase with him. He had that in bundles.”
Venables felt the same. “James has played his 15 and 20 minutes for the first team but it’s not just a case of coming on and helping out,” he said. “He has been getting better and better with every outing. I’m very pleased with the way he got into the six-yard box to score. He has two good feet and he’s very courageous.”
Leeds snatched a 2-1 win 10 minutes from time when, after periods of bombardment from Sunderland, Proctor tripped Harry Kewell and Robbie Fowler dispatched a penalty. Venables needed that win but the talk afterwards was of the kid who, aged 16 years and 357 days, lit up the Boxing Day night.
The record, Mills feels, mattered more to the public than Milner.
“It’s a record and a really impressive record but you’ll find that a lot of players aren’t interested in the slightest,” he says. “For James it was probably more about being in the team, about getting his chance and about getting a goal.” Two days later Milner scored again with a beautiful goal against Chelsea. “Football moves on and you never want to stand still or rest on anything,” Mills says. “He certainly hasn’t.”
Football moved on in 2005 when Everton’s James Vaughan beat Milner’s record by a margin of 86 days. Vaughan’s mark had not been bettered in 11 years but the striker is at Bury now while Milner chases the Premier League title at Liverpool. “You have to make sure you look forward to things,” Milner said during the final days of his career at Elland Road. “You don’t just sit back and say ‘I’m here now. I’ve made it’. You have to drive on.”