The big interview: James Milner – “My dad banned me from wearing red – I was brought up to dislike Manchester United!”
You know what they say: never work with children, animals or pies. But, in the latest edition of the surreal adventures of FourFourTwo, we are in the kitchen at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, trying to figure out which of the six pies in front of us is the most appropriate to throw at James Milner.
It’s a more difficult undertaking than we anticipated. Some don’t look quite right; others start to crumble between our fingers, completely unwilling to cooperate. When the former England international himself arrives, we find him a whole lot easier to work with than the pies – even allowing for the surprised look on his face when we inform him what we’ve got planned.
He has always been happy to play along with the ‘Boring Milner’ persona bestowed on him in recent years, but in truth it’s largely an act. “Being called boring is win-win for me,” he tells FFT. “People expect me to be boring when they meet me, so if I am, then it’s fine. If I’m the slightest bit interesting, I’ve exceeded expectations!”
Indeed, Milner is an engaging and candid interviewee. As the only member of the Merseysiders’ 2018 Champions League Final squad to have earned a Premier League winner’s medal, the 32-year-old’s aim this term is to bring silverware back to Anfield. And if he succeeds, he knows exactly how he’ll celebrate…
What separated you from your team-mates at youth level for you to make your Leeds debut aged only 16?
Aaron Kidmas, via Instagram
I don’t know – it was a long time ago! It’s hard to say what the coaches saw for Terry Venables to put such a young player in the first team, but I remember going away with the under-19 side to Scotland during pre-season and them sending me home early.
I wondered if I'd done something wrong, but they said, “You’re going to be playing a lot of football this year.” I went into the reserves, then quickly into training with the first team, then I got chucked in for my debut. It was all so fast, from doing my GCSEs over the summer to making my first-team debut by November.
When you netted against Sunderland at the age of 16 years and 346 days, did you know right away that you had become the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history?
Jeff Stewart, Otley
I didn’t. I knew that Wayne Rooney had broken the record against Arsenal just beforehand, and I'd been involved in the matchday squad when he scored another great goal at Elland Road soon after. I hadn’t quite made my debut then, and I still remember the fitness coach turning to me and saying, “You are desperate to play here, aren’t you?”
But I wasn’t thinking about the record during the Sunderland match – just about getting on the pitch. Then Alan Smith got injured, I came on, Jason Wilcox put the ball across and I scored. That was December 26, then on the 28th I scored again against Chelsea. After that, it blew up – and then the fun started. People would come to my local cricket club, asking for me and asking where my parents lived. Everyone at the cricket club would pretend they’d never heard of me!
It’s hard to put into words what that first Leeds goal meant, as a Leeds fan, a ball boy, a season ticket holder. My family and friends, the people I'd gone to school with – they’d be there watching me when I played for Leeds at Elland Road. You don’t really think about it at the time, but they are nice memories. It was disappointing that I didn’t get to play for Leeds for longer, but to do it at all was pretty special.
- 2002-04 Leeds
- 2003 Swindon (loan)
- 2004-08 Newcastle
- 2005-06 Aston Villa (loan)
- 2008-10 Aston Villa
- 2010-15 Manchester City
- 2015- Liverpool
How gutted were you to be sold when Leeds went down? There were all sorts of stories about the club’s cash problems – did you ever have to feed Peter Ridsdale’s tropical goldfish?
Jamie Brown, Skipton
No, nothing like that. It was very tough to get relegated and there were a lot of financial things going on – things in the papers, off-field problems... you had to grow up quickly, by watching the senior players and how they were dealing with everything. As hard as it was, I learned a lot very quickly.
Within two years I’d had numerous managers and highs and lows. By the start of my second season, Peter Reid had come in and I was sent on loan to Swindon – a fantastic club. I did quite well there, went back to Leeds and started playing in every game. But then in 2004 I turned up on the first day of pre-season thinking we were going to discuss a new contract, and someone said, “You’re going up to Newcastle for your medical tomorrow.” I was like: “Am I?”
That was tough. But what little money the club owed me, I gave up to help them, and they got a transfer fee. So it was portrayed to me that it was in the best interests of the club due to all of the financial difficulties. I thought I was doing the right thing by the club.
What’s your favourite memory from your time playing for Newcastle?
@kickthrowhit, via Twitter
The 2005 FA Cup semi-final in Cardiff – we lost 4-1 to Manchester United, but the drive in was incredible. It took us ages to get to the ground – the streets were black and white everywhere; there were fans on lampposts.
The next time I saw something like that was coming into Anfield on the European run with Liverpool. I saw both sides of things at Newcastle, but when things were going well it was an amazing place to go and play football, with great fans.
At Newcastle, Graeme Souness – your boss – said, “I don’t see myself being here for a long time buying a team of James Milners.” Did that hurt?
Graeme Hardcastle, North Shields
I think it was more like: “You don’t win anything with a team of James Milners.” Yeah, it did, reading it as a young lad. But he apologised, said he’d got misquoted and that he didn’t mean it.
Newcastle was tough – the manager who’d signed me, Bobby Robson, got sacked three games into the season, so a new manager arrived and I ended up going on loan again, to Aston Villa. I think the first time I finished a season with the same manager who started it was Martin O’Neill at Villa, probably five seasons into my career.
When someone has an opinion, even if it ends up misquoted, people jump on it. But as a player you love the chance to shut people up. Any time that you’re criticised, it drives you on and you try to prove people wrong. That’s what I did in that part of my career. But I get on with Graeme – there’s no beef. When I won the Premier League title at Manchester City, he was covering the game and he came over to congratulate me.
Did you hear the story that Newcastle only sold you in 2008 because they thought they could bring in Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich?
Amy Norton, Durham
I heard something like that, yeah. I’d have sold me as well! A couple of years earlier, I'd been on loan at Villa for a season and gone back to Newcastle. Then Villa agreed a transfer fee for me on deadline day that summer , so I drove down from Newcastle. I got into Martin O’Neill’s office and he said, “Haven’t you heard? They’ve pulled the plug.”
I started laughing, thinking he was joking, but he wasn’t. They’d tried to sign some other players and those deals had fallen through, so they called me back. It’s not great being at a club when they’ve accepted a bid and said they’ll sell you. To make matters worse, the following Saturday I wasn’t even in the squad for the game. It was probably one of the lowest moments I’ve had in my whole career.
But again, it was about proving people wrong. I got into the team, played most of the games, then signed for Villa two years later. I had a pretty good couple of years at Newcastle, so unfortunately for Villa I think it [the delay] put a few extra million on the price...
NEXT: "Micah Richards wanted to rip Mario Balotelli's head off!"