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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Putting the ‘Professional’ in ‘Professional Footballer’

There is an awful lot wrong with the game these days. I’ve been a football fan for only twenty years now and I already find myself daydreaming about times passed; traditions long gone, the way things used to be. Simple things like cigarettes, beer and Bovril that created the smell of a match day. Away days at grounds where you were genuinely a little bit scared of the raucous home support. The rivers of piss streaming down the terrace that marked the start of the second half. Good times.

One of the many changes during these twenty years is of course to the players. No longer will overweight strikers be derided and loved in equal measure (Micky Quinn anyone?). Even the worst players in your team now are regarded as ‘athletes’. But along with these strides towards a truly global brand of the game, we have had to endure the rise of the celebrity footballer. The modern day player who not only dresses like he’s from the Bronx, but actually believes he is from the Bronx. The cars, bling, WAGs etc I can handle, providing the players do the business on the pitch. But what really crosses the line, to the point where the line has become a distant memory, is the change in attitude of some of the players.

The recent events with messrs. Mascherano and Begovic made plenty of headlines, not least because deadline day has become some sort of waking wet dream for SSN. A yellow ticker, after all, is a yellow ticker – especially when it misses the point completely, even more so if you are watching it in HD. Yes, they were possibly moving clubs. But the real amazing feature of these stories was that players were refusing to play for the side which have paid, are paying and will be paying their substantial wages every week.

Where do these guys get off? Worst of all, the teams lumbered with these idiots usually have to bow to their petulance due to the financial state they have got themselves in. Few have the power to fine a player the obligatory two weeks’ wages and shove him in the stiffs for the next couple of months to teach the little beggar a lesson.

One man recently did the decent thing and just got on with it. This lad has built his promising career on doing just that, getting on with it. This is what players used to do. He’s an old school pro who really, we should all be getting far more excited about.

Step forward James Milner. As a fifteen year-old he decided he wouldn’t drink as it would not make him any better at football. And he wanted to be a professional footballer. During the fuss with his move to City from Villa, did you hear a peep from him? Did he refuse to play? Did he use the excuse of returning from the World Cup tired as means of not playing for a team he wanted to leave?

At the time, I questioned his motives and discussed my disappointment with the wife that he of all players would leave a club in turmoil. But in hindsight he saw what was going to happen at Villa regarding Lerner and O’Neill, saw City were building a team to compete at the very top. They wanted him and he wanted out. Fair enough.

Nevertheless, playing for Villa in the opening game of the season he put in a man of the match performance and scored a goal which led to a 3-0 win. They were paying his wages, he did his job. Along came his first game for City shortly after – big money move, plenty of pressure, just met your team-mates and so on and so forth. The result? Another man of the match performance, ran the midfield, set one up in a 3-0 win over Liverpool.

His performance for England against Bulgaria was typical Milner. Full of energy, pace and commitment. Here is a player comfortable on either side, with some great passing, intelligent running, who loves a tackle and can set up and score goals. He’s wasted out wide. Capello should bite the bullet. Drop Lampard (did anybody miss him on Friday night?) and play Milner as the holding man to support Gerrard in midfield. Karl Henry aside*, we don’t have any outstanding natural holding players so lets turn our second most complete midfielder into the best ‘holding’ player we can get. Do it now during qualifying and he’ll shine during tournaments to come. Lampard has never played well for England and stunts Gerrard’s natural game. And Gareth Barry, after the Germany game, should count himself lucky to be allowed to wear a replica England shirt at Wembley, let alone a real one. Barry was the worst player I saw last season by a considerable margin (and Greg Halford made fifteen appearances for Wolves). Milner is capable of filling his England boots just as comfortably as he did at Villa.

The highlight of the whole game at Wembley was when Milner took a crunching elbow from Bulgaria’s number 16 half way through the second half. He didn’t roll around as if shot by a sniper. He didn’t sit and moan. He didn’t complain to the referee. He did not take issue with the player who should have been sent off, but didn’t even get a yellow card. He simply put his eyeballs back in their sockets, noted the player’s number and got on with it. Cometh the 89th minute and Milner has completed another impressive display for England. His chance comes to nail that number 16. He does just that. He takes the yellow card without complaint. Free kick Bulgaria. Hit into the wall. The ball rebounds down the left hand side of the pitch. 90 minutes is up, England are into injury time with a 4-0 lead. Who is sprinting as if his life depends on winning the 60-40 against the defender on the half way line? Yep, there’s your man, James Milner. An old school player in the modern game and all the better for it. Drew Kearns

*We should point out that Drew is a Wolves fan, as you might remember from his previous article. Not that we’re saying Karl Henry isn’t a very good footballer. He might be. We really have no idea.

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