Sick everywhere

Proposal: Don’t let Brighton sign James Milner

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Two photos of James Milner next to each other: on the right, the spotty teenager in a Leeds shirt; on the left the bearded veteran at Liverpool

European football, a cup semi-final, a managerial upgrade, and a World Cup winner in midfield — Brighton are showing Leeds United it’s possible to be a sustainable Premier League club and still have fun, as long as you have competent employees making smart decisions. They have a lot to be smug about. Give ‘em a biscuit. Just please don’t give them James Milner.

With his Liverpool contract expiring at the end of the season, it has been reported over the last month that Brighton are favourites to sign Milner. According to The Athletic, Milner’s former Manchester City teammate Vincent Kompany is also keen to take him to Burnley. Last week, one of their stories on Milner contained one of those vague lines of transfer speculation that could be concrete reporting or simply convenient rumour: ‘Leeds United are also understood to have expressed an interest in taking Milner back to the club for whom he made his Premier League debut as a 16-year-old in 2002.’

Which begs the question, who at Leeds has expressed an interest in Milner? Heading into the summer, we still don’t know who is going to own the club, and uncertainty filters down to the positions of director of football, manager, and coaching staff. Milner has a reputation as a versatile operator, but it might be asking a bit much for him to fulfil all those roles while still playing. Although I’m not necessarily against it.

I’m usually wary of the idea of former players or managers returning. It’s rarely as good as the first time around. But Milner’s breakthrough was so long ago, Leeds wouldn’t be trying to re-sign the player he once was; we need the player Milner has since become.

Luke Ayling’s comments after the defeat at West Ham confirmed what we could all see: standards have slipped at Elland Road since the sacking of Marcelo Bielsa. It has become a running joke at Liverpool that, upon their return to pre-season training, nobody can beat Milner in the lactate test. When Andy Robertson attempted the fitness challenge for the first time, he was “sick everywhere”. Milner has won it in all seven seasons he has been at Anfield. If fitness levels have been allowed to deteriorate at Elland Road, struggling to catch up to a 37-year-old supposedly nearing the end of his career should shame the squad into running as hard as they used to.

Speaking about Milner’s influence at Liverpool, Trent Alexander-Arnold recently told The Athletic:

“He’s a criminally underrated player. Some think of him as just a workhorse who will do his job. But, technically, James Milner is among the best I’ve ever played with.

“Then there’s everything else he brings to the squad with his leadership. He’s truly relentless in everything he does. I’ll definitely never play with anyone like him again. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give him.

“We will all need to fill that big gap. I don’t think it’s just down to a single person. All of us need to step up and ensure that we maintain the standards that Millie has set for the past eight years here.”

Judging by an anecdote from a profile of Milner by Neil Jones, he even has an attention to detail that would make Bielsa proud:

He’s not always easy to work with – he’s been known to challenge coaches and managers if he thinks something needs to be done a certain way, or if he believes standards are slipping.

One story from Melwood is legendary, Milner complaining loudly about “half-measures” and “complacency creeping in” during the first session after Liverpool’s Champions League win. The reason? His recovery drink was not in its usual spot at the side of the pitch.

He can be abrasive, for sure. Intimidating even, especially for young players. Winning Milner’s respect in training is seen as the first big challenge for those progressing to Melwood from the academy. “If you get a well done, you’re buzzing!” says teenage full-back Neco Williams.

With Leeds bound for the Championship, signing Milner would adhere to a club tradition. Leeds’ last three sides to win promotion to the top flight have been built around the experience of midfielders who were meant to be past their best and had something to prove: Pablo Hernandez, Gordon Strachan, Bobby Collins. Roberto De Zerbi wants Milner to be a squad player at Brighton, part of a senior core he views as ‘extra coaches’. While his minutes have declined in the last two seasons, he still had the durability to make 81 appearances in all competitions. Why settle for being rotated in and out of the side?

But mainly — Brighton, seriously? Come on, mate! Milner has never lost his pride in being a Leeds boy, a dour Yorkshireman, a gritty northerner. Retiring on the south coast, being shown around the prettiest beaches and nicest ice cream huts by Adam Lallana, just isn’t for him. It doesn’t matter how close you are to the sea in England, it’s never as nice as it looks on a postcard. And how much of a draw is the Europa League when you’ve already won the European Cup? As for Burnley, he’s been on the wrong side of the Pennines for over a decade now, being forced to drink PG Tips any longer could be dangerous. Bring him home to Horsforth. If Marcelo Bielsa and MF DOOM can live in Leeds without being bothered, we’ll leave Milner in peace and celebrate him on the pitch, where he’s still got a job to do, and a happy ending to write. ⬢


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