Why James Milner can be England’s new Owen Hargreaves

James Milner0306a

I wonder whether James Milner can have a similar impact on England’s World Cup as Owen Hargreaves did in 2006…

It’s fashionable to knock James Milner. His sheer unfashionability demands it.

Milner has a certain longevity which is barely credible. He broke Wayne Rooney’s short-lived record as the youngest Premier League goalscorer nearly 12 years ago in December 2002 at 16 years and 309 days. He won 46 caps for the England U21s, over a five-year period, a total that he has only recently passed with the senior side – cap number 47 coming, ironically, filling in at right-back.

He was the recipient of the 2009-10 Young Player of the Year award, in his eighth season as a professional footballer, which says as much about the credentials of that award as it does Milner’s unspectacular consistency in the years leading up to it.

Everyone expected something different from Milner. When a 16-year old breaks the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer record you’re inclined to expect something more fantastical than what Milner has offered during his dependable and steady career.

He made 54 appearances for Leeds, 139 appearances for Newcastle (including a 33-game loan spell at Aston Villa in 2005-6) and 93 appearances after permanently moving to Villa in 2008. Milner played 319 professional games before winning the Young Player gong in 2010, which while being scandalous on the part of the PFA, also speaks volumes of the hard-yards the Englishman put in for his first token of recognition.

The £24m that Manchester City paid Aston Villa for his services in 2010 was eye-watering, especially with regard to the other sums spent that summer to sign David Silva and Yaya Toure. But Villa at the time were able to command that type of premium for young English talent – a fee of £17m secured the services of Ashley Young for Manchester United, but few would now argue United got the better deal.

Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini have often been accused of underusing Milner, but he has played 156 games in four seasons there; many of them, though, cameo appearances plugging gaps.

When trusted in big games, he has shone, scoring at Old Trafford, the Emirates and the Allianz in recent seasons. But many observers forget this.

That he can plod away unnoticed in the background is Milner’s greatest virtue. He’s an easy target, but his tactical awareness and relentless energy are qualities that few of his native peers possess in abundance. In the heat of Manaus, and elsewhere during the next month in Brazil, these are qualities that will underpin England’s progress.

He’s become a victim of his own flexibility to a certain extent; good in any position across the midfield, not spectacular enough to make one his own. England have been here before.

Quarter-final England v Portugal - World Cup 2006

Once upon a time it was fashionable to knock Owen Hargreaves. His sheer unfashionability demanded it.

Memories of Hargreaves have been heavily distorted in recent years. Injuries destroyed the upward trajectory that his career had reached in 2006; though he recovered from a leg break after the World Cup and eventually moved to Manchester United, where he won the Champions League and two Premier Leagues, he never replicated the rampaging bull mode he had been during the latter stages of that tournament.

A left-field selection under Sven Goran Eriksson, the Swede was roundly derided for his continuing selection of the cosmopolitan Canadian-German-Englishman. Early selections of Hargreaves were met with curiosity, he was an unknown factor, playing in the Bundesliga in the days before Bayern Munich’s domestic and European action was readily available, his debut coming against Holland in a friendly defeat at White Hart Lane in August 2001.

Glimpses of him were fleeting at best, the odd cameo in a friendly along with a conveyor belt of supporting talent. His selection for the 2006 World Cup in Germany was met with almost widespread scepticism, after he had done little to impress in South Korea and Japan and Euro 2004.

He was viewed as an indulgence too far for a manager whose credit with the wider public and media had nose-dived come 2006. It was also, if anything, a product of latent xenophobia; the country had reached a peak of World Cup hysteria and patriotism that had not been seen before or repeated since. Hargreaves, with his Canadian roots, his shaggy hair, his essence of “German-ness” didn’t fit into that.

Perceptions of the Bayern Munich man were at an all-time low prior to the tournament – booed at Old Trafford in a warm-up match against Hungary, he received similar treatment when he replaced Joe Cole in the last 10 minutes of the opening group game victory over Paraguay.

He did not feature at all against Trinidad and Tobago, before starting England’s final three games of the tournament; a dead-rubber against Sweden, filling in for Gary Neville at right-back against Ecuador, and a man-of-the-match display in the quarter-final penalty defeat to Portugal.

Against the Portuguese Hargreaves played at the base of a midfield five; finally Sven had stumbled across the formula that could bring the most out of the infamous Gerrard-Lampard conundrum. In that game Hargreaves did the ugly stuff well – niggling away, providing support and spraying the ball long and short.

His energy was such that he could cover the marauding runs of Ashley Cole and Neville at full-back, but his arrival in the first XI was too little, too late for England in Germany 2006. It ranks as one of the greatest individual performances by an Englishman at a major tournament, and in recent times has only been rivalled by David Beckham’s all-action job against Greece in 2001. He was one of barely a handful to return from that World Cup with credit in the bank, and the only man to convert from 12-yards in the penalty shootout against Portugal.

He was the most impressive holding midfielder England have had since the turn of the century, it’s a crying shame that he was only allowed to showcase his talent for 120 minutes. Injury robbed England of solving an age-old crisis. After another man-of-the-match display in Steve McClaren’s debut victory against Greece in August that year, Hargreaves broke his leg playing for Bayern and gained only five more England caps.

The most like-for-like footballer England currently possess is Jordan Henderson, but the similarities with Milner bear more fruit. Henderson’s value is now appreciated, whereas Milner, despite his seasoned solidity is still, like Hargreaves, chastised.

Bayern-Munich-v-Manchester-City-James-Milner-_3049831

The Boring Milner twitter parody is, though very funny, testament to this; one can only imagine the parody accounts that could have been dedicated to Hargreaves in 2006. But again it smacks of a wider unappreciation of the unspectacular, the undervalued. World Cups can be transformative experiences, your value and worth can change in a matter of weeks as the tournament progresses.

He arrives in Brazil this summer at his peak – 28 – and as a player England, and their fans, should learn to trust more. Given a role and given a purpose he can flourish. His future at the Etihad is uncertain – he wants to be trusted more, and have a more prominent and consistent role, which can be fulfilled with England in the meantime. Hargreaves was stifled for so long as a safety sub, to see a game out, his extraordinary value to the team hidden in plain sight.

Milner has been caricatured as the ultimate Roy Hodgson player, a yard-dog who will go out and do his job no questions asked. But he can offer so much more than that. What Milner offers may appear “boring” on the outside, but those are the players that winning teams can be founded upon, and the Yorkshireman has proved countless times that he is the man for the big occasion.

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