It’s a very unfashionable opinion to like James Milner. Unless you’re a Manchester City fan, the midfielder is someone who is derided for his ability -- or seemingly lack thereof -- and is routinely the subject of the Twitter critics whenever he’s named in an England team. He’s nothing more than a workhorse; someone who will run around a lot, get stuck in and put his body on the line for the team but when it comes to unlocking defences or providing that killer through ball, he just doesn’t cut it.
Well, he completely does. He has been doing for a while but he’s a victim of his own personality.
The news this week is that he’s unhappy at Manchester City for the playing time he receives and the position in which he’s played; two concerns Blues fans will find it very difficult to argue against. Over the course of his time with the club, supporters have called for two things: more starts for Milner and for him to be played in the centre of midfield.
So it can hardly come as a surprise that he’s asked for a transfer on that basis.
Speaking to the Blue Moon Podcast for the final show of the season, the Englishman seemed to drop a hint that he might have played his final game for the club. It wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it -- almost resigned to the fact that if he were to stay in Manchester he’d have to continue playing on the wing and appearing sporadically.
In answer to a question about his future at the club, he replied: “Who knows? I’ve got one year left on my contract, we’ve won two trophies this year, I’ve been at the club four years now and I’ve enjoyed every minute. That’s why I came here -- to win trophies -- and I just want to contribute as much as I can and play as many games as I can.”
It certainly felt as though he knew the end of his time with City was coming.
Immediately on hearing the news that Milner had requested a transfer there were those who dismissed it as an agent trying to get his client a better deal -- Milner was reportedly the subject of a new contract offer from City last week, after all. But if it’s still the case that he doesn’t have an agent as was reported in the Guardian, then it would seem a little bizarre if it were true. He’s not the type of character to cause problems.
Indeed, he causes so little fuss that he’s often the easy option. Former City captain Andy Morrison once explained that when a manager needs to substitute somebody and it’s a choice between a player who’ll applaud the fans, jog off and take his place on the bench or a player who will glare at the dugouts, sulk off and go straight down the tunnel, the former will frequently get the hook. That’s James Milner.
He’ll do what he needs to for the team, often at the expense of his own desires. He’ll do what he’s asked. It’s the same reason why he was willing to drop into right wing-back when Roberto Mancini experimented with his 3-5-2 system.
He might not have been happy with what was going on, but there were never stories in the press about his disagreements with managers -- partly because Milner isn’t the sort to start a war of words but mainly because he’s not the type of character to air dirty laundry in public. He’s the ultimate professional and it makes it all the more easy for his managers to slot him in various positions when they need cover.
Equally, he has not been moaning in interviews when he’s relegated to the bench -- again making it a very easy decision for his managers when previously unavailable or rested players come back to the starting lineup.
However, as much as Milner has been a huge part to City’s recent successes -- he’s been a valuable member of both Premier League winning teams and played significant roles in the 2011 FA Cup win and the 2014 League Cup victory -- there’s one attribute that has affected his playing time at Eastlands. Frequently, he’s come on from the bench to change a game but when given a starting berth in the following game, he has failed to impress. That’s exactly what happened when he came on in the 3-2 defeat at Anfield and then started the next match at home to Sunderland.
The bigger implication for City is that he’s one of a small number of homegrown talents in the squad -- one aspect of the team that could become all the more important following the decision to reduce the Blues’ Champions League playing squad to 21 after they failed the Financial Fair Play regulations. Should they be unable to fill the homegrown portion of the squad, there may be further restrictions on places.
With Micah Richards, Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott already leaving, the departure of Milner this summer could have serious effects on this front, depending on whom the club are aiming to bring in.
Should Milner also be departing this summer, it will be with a heavy heart for the fans -- but it will be with warm wishes, too.