James Milner, he of the square jaw and slightly hunched run, is the epitome of the workhorse-like utility man. He has quietly amassed more than 50 caps for England, and a ten-year career in the top flight, without ever really seeing his spark catch light.
A player of strong and versatile technical skills, and a workrate that makes up for a lack of startling pace of surprising skill, he has an admirer in his current manager Manuel Pellegrini – but Milner himself appears to be tiring of the journeyman utility role.
Milner’s career to date has been one of hired hand, a couple of years each at Newcastle and Aston Villa, following spells as a youngster at Leeds United and Swindon, before his current five year stay at Manchester City. In each case, he has failed to hold down a permanent role, shuffling across the midfield and filling in at full back as required- the curse of a man of his all-round ability.
But his City contract is up at the end of the season, and talks negotiating a renewal have repeatedly stalled; the sticking point isn’t money, but playing time, with Milner looking for assurances he will get the appearances he feels he deserves.
Pellegrini has said he wants Milner to stay, but with a squad the size of City’s, and one so overflowing with capable attacking players, assurances are difficult to come by.
So, where might Milner’s talents find a home?
Talk of a move overseas has gathered pace since the turn of the year, with initial talks held with Internationale, AC Milan and AS Roma – where former England teammate Ashley Cole is now plying his trade. Two Spanish clubs have also apparently shown interest.
Much of this talk will be a highly paid agent doing what they are highly paid for – a player in demand earns more and commands a higher signing-on fee. A bigger pie to take a slice of.
Closer to home, Liverpool have made positive noises about the prospect of signing young James, but less positive noises about his wages, suggesting they need to come down from their current level within touching distance of £100,000 a week.
At 29, Milner is right to be weighing up his options. He is at the peak of his earning power, and has probably one long-term contract left in him. The right balance of regular football and being in the quality of team you deserve is a difficult one to strike.
Here Milner would benefit from looking to his sometime England and Newcastle teammate, and fellow midfield workhorse, Scott Parker.
Parker’s career mirrors Milner’s – not just in the time they spent at Newcastle United – but both have struggled to find a place they can settle. Milner’s five years at City have been good to him in terms of success – two league titles, an FA cup and a league cup – but his on the field contribution has been sporadic. Prior to that, he flitted around.
Parker was the shining light in the Charlton Athletic team of the mid-2000s, leaving in the 2003-04 season as the team finished seventh in the Premier League. Parker took the big club, big money move and headed across London to Chelsea. He played 15 times, mostly as part of Chelsea’s league cup team. Not even enough appearances for a league winners medal in 2005. And off he trotted to Newcastle. Two years there, one as captain, then West Ham. Four years, then Spurs. Two years, then Fulham. Contract renewals not a big problem for Scotty, he’s rarely been around long enough to need one.
Finding a home in football for the less flashy talents is a difficult. Parker’s Chelsea mis-step came early in his career – he won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in the same season he moved – and at 34, he is likely to see out his career at Craven Cottage.
Incidentally, Milner won that same PFA Young Player of the Year award in 2010, shortly before joining Manchester City. He’ll now be looking to avoid a continuation his mirror of Parker’s struggle, although has had a better time of it at City than Parker did at Chelsea.
Those two clubs, and these two players, point to the dangers of big clubs stockpiling talent. Manchester City and Chelsea are by no means the only offenders, but they certainly have squads which reflect the resources they have to throw around. Spare a thought for poor Scott Sinclair, who has been stockpiled by both teams – between 2005-2010, he had more loan clubs than he had first team appearances for Chelsea.
But the tide may be turning, Financial Fair Play and players realising there’s more to it all than that slightly larger pay-cheque are making it harder to put together a massive squad.
Milner might stay at City, or he might go. Fingers crossed for him he finds his place.