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Milner keeps feet on the ground

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James Milner keeps feet on the ground

By Roy Collins, Sunday Telegraph


Early stardom is not always good for one's health. Ask any number of washed-up footballers who were once the George Bests of the playground.


The secret, says James Milner, is not how brightly your feet twinkle on the pitch but how tightly they stick to terra firma off it.


One minute, the young Milner was collecting balls at Leeds United's Elland Road ground, the next he was signing them for teenagers older than himself, having made his debut in 2002 aged 16 years and 309 days.


One minute he was cheering on his hero Alan Smith, the next he was sharing a dressing room with him and calling him 'Smudge' like everyone else, enough to turn any young head. Luckily for young Milner, he had supportive family and friends, his father Peter insisting that he continue his education after joining the Leeds academy at 10, resulting in 11 GCSE passes.


Looking back, Milner admits that it was all a bit scary but says: "At the time, you just go along with the ride. It's only afterwards that you think, how did this happen, how did that happen? Smudge was an inspiration to all of us because he did what we all aspired to, he came through the system to play in the first team for his hometown club. It doesn't get much better than that.


"It was funny to end up playing alongside him but when I first stepped up to the reserves, I looked round to see David Batty on one side of me and Olivier Dacourt on the other. You had to pinch yourself sometimes but it's all about learning from big players. It's easy for youngsters to play one or two games and then lose their heads, get excited and get ahead of themselves. That can be the difference between playing at the top for 10 or 15 years and going out of the game after a couple of games because you think you've made it."


Milner, 21, took the opportunity to watch another master at work and play when he joined Newcastle for £3.6 million in the summer of 2004. He says: "When I arrived that summer, we went on a pre-season tour to the Far East and Alan Shearer was absolutely mobbed all the time. You wondered how he dealt with it but the sort of person he is and the professionalism he has, he just took it all in his stride. It's from being associated with people like that, day in and day out, that you learn how to deal with things on and off the field."


Milner's performances this season have put him on the verge of Steve McClaren's England team but unlike Blackburn's David Bentley, who refused to play in the summer's Under-21 championships, he would never turn down a shirt bearing the Three Lions crest. He won his 28th Under-21 cap in Friday's 3-0 win in the Euro 2009 qualifier in Montenegro and should get a record 29th in Bulgaria on Tuesday.


He says: "Getting to the semis in the summer was a great experience and a great disappointment. I've now lost two European championships to the hosts on penalties in the semi-finals after winning all the way through. But it's how you cope with that, so that the next time you get in that position, you can produce a different outcome. Hopefully, it will stand all of us in good stead."


He is cautiously optimistic about the fortunes of Newcastle under new manager Sam Allardyce, who he says has provided the most professional set-up most of the players have seen. Allardyce has brought his entire 'science set' to St James' Park, involving a lot more preparation before games and debriefings afterwards, and giving the players more detailed analyses of opponents. Even the compulsory ice baths have not put the players off.


Milner says: "Expectations are always huge at a club like Newcastle. My first season here, we got to the quarter final of the Uefa Cup and the semi-final of the FA Cup and in the space of four days, we were dumped out of both.


"When things are tough, there are days when you think, 'I don't really want to go in today', but right now it's a pleasure to go in in the morning. And we are so lucky to do what we do, play football for a living."


When did you last hear a Baby Bentley-driving, champagne-guzzling, perennially exhausted Premier League player say that? But then you know Milner is different when he tells you that he celebrated that debut at 16 with a quiet night in. And how about when he became the Premier League's youngest goalscorer on Boxing Day 2002? The same.

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