The emergence of a young James Milner was the smallest suggestion of hope in an otherwise dark and gloomy period at Elland Road.
His debut, as the then second youngest player to have ever played in the Premier League, hinted that the future could still be bright despite increasing awareness of the dire straits Leeds United were in.
Wayne Rooney had burst onto the scene in the 2002-03 season, overshadowing everyone around him and famously scoring the goal which ended Arsenal’s 30-game undefeated streak. Milner on the other hand slipped in under the radar.
Just over two months after Rooney became the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history with that significant strike, Milner eclipsed him and claimed that title for himself with a tap-in for United in a 2-1 win at Sunderland on Boxing Day in 2002.
Leeds fans never saw the best of him, only a young talent making his first steps in the game, but his goal against Chelsea at Elland Road two days after his effort on Wearside showed them the prodigious talent the club held in their hands.
His first touch outside the area took him away from experienced defender Marcel Desailly, avoiding the Frenchman’s tackle completely. Fashioning an inch of space for himself, he then bent the ball around Chelsea goalkeeper Ed de Goey who had no chance of reaching Milner’s curling shot.
“I’d say either my first goal at Elland Road for Leeds against Chelsea”, said Milner on the subject of his favourite strike, “or my goal against Man Utd with Newcastle. It’s always nice to score against Man Utd.”
Milner’s love of the club who nurtured him remains strong to this day and despite the relatively short spell he had in the first team at Leeds, Milner himself seems to think there’s unfinished business awaiting him at Elland Road.
When asked if he’d ever come back to United, Milner said that he would “like to”. Given the task of designing some boots for promotional work with Nike, he came back with a pair in white, yellow, and blue. This is not a player who has forgotten his roots.
Despite the clear alteration in playing style, from young striker to experienced wide midfielder, Milner still operates in a manner that appeals to fans from Leeds. He runs, he works hard and doesn’t slack in his defensive duties but he can offer up moments of absolute quality when required. Leeds fans on social media always go wild when Milner strikes on television, as if he were never really taken from them.
His departure to Newcastle was inevitable at the time, and the manner in which he has succeeded since will be unsurprising to those fans lucky enough to see him play in those early years at United.
Ranking him amongst those players who Leeds were forced to sell under grave financial pressure, Milner is probably Thorp Arch’s greatest success. He led Aston Villa to a League Cup final, which they were exceedingly unlucky to lose, and he has gone on to win an FA Cup and a Premier League title with Manchester City, a key part of their squad of global stars.
Small wonder, then, that Leeds fans are proud of what the kid from Horsforth has gone on to achieve.