Paul Smith

As the clock counts down towards the World Cup, Fabio Capello has just six months to decide on the personnel he will take with him to the Rainbow Nation. It can be assumed that barring injury, Capello will already have a fair idea of who will be joining him in South Africa.

One surprising addition to those names that already appear to have secured their seat on the plane is Aston Villa’s James Milner. Up until four months ago the former Leeds United trainee had not even earned a senior cap after being an under-21 stalwart for many years. Now he looks all set to barge his way past other more established stars and grab a boarding pass.

Milner’s full international career could not have started any better. He came on as a substitute for Aston Villa team mate Ashley Young and immediately created the equaliser for Jermain Defoe in England’s 2-2 draw with Holland at the Amsterdam ArenA. The youngster’s first senior start came in England’s recent 1-0 defeat to Brazil in Doha, where he was one of the few England players to come out of the game with any plaudits; he even received praise from Capello himself.

Late last year, when Capello described the then uncapped Milner as the ‘future of English football’, many eyebrows were raised. Milner was performing well for a Villa side flirting with Champions League qualification but at the time it didn’t appear close to receiving a call up from the Italian.
However, it’s easy to see why Milner has instantly become an almost integral part of the England set-up, and why Capello is a fully paid up member of the James Milner fan club. Both on and off the pitch the former Newcastle United player is a manager’s dream. In an age where players at the top level live a life of excess in the public eye the Villa winger is the complete opposite of that trend.

Milner is a teetotaller who enjoys his football and isn’t interested in the celebrity lifestyle many of his peers enjoy. On the pitch the 23-year-old is a skilful wide player with two good feet, itself something of a rarity. Out on the flank he is an industrious workhorse, attacking the opposition full-back at any opportunity as well as helping his own with defensive duties. It’s a classic football cliché but Milner is a player that gives 110% every time he enters the field of play.

The Englishman’s versatility is another of his key assets. Milner primarily plays on the right of midfield for Aston Villa but will often swap with Ashley Young who normally plays on the Premier League club’s left flank. He has also played at full-back with success for both club and country and in his early years also played as a striker. Such versatility could become very useful for Fabio Capello in South Africa.

The Villa wide man will be the first to admit he doesn’t have the turn of pace of someone like Tottenham Hotspur’s Aaron Lennon, cannot hit a rasping shot like Manchester City’s Shaun Wright-Phillips, cannot cross a ball like club team-mate Ashley Young, does not have the silky skill of other Villa man Stewart Downing or even the creative eye of Tottenham’s David Bentley, but Milner’s hard working style has edged him ahead of these players in the World Cup pecking order.

Having already played Milner in an unfamiliar left-back role for England it appears that the youngster is a player Capello trusts both in terms of his attitude and his ability. The Villa man would appear to be well set to be England’s surprise package in South Africa.

Former England manager Terry Venables has already compared Milner to the late Alan Ball in the context of the 1966 World Cup squad. Ball was a wide player in his early 20s who broke into the national team the season before the tournament and ultimately played a pivotal part in England’s triumph. If Milner can match the exploits of Alan Ball it can only increase England’s chances of lifting the World Cup for only the second time in their history.


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