The start of the summer transfer window at the beginning of this season spelled danger ahead for Villa. We had fought long and hard for the duration of 08/09 but came up short – some way short. On top of this, our most prized pearl was being stripped from our necks and we had no palpable replacements. Gareth Barry; our leader, our heartbeat, our hope had smelled the next door neighbour’s cooking and jumped ship at the mercy of temptation. What I didn’t realise was that, in our midst, we had everything we were losing and more in a capable James Milner.
Thankfully, I’m not a Premier League manager and couldn’t see that Villa were not in a ‘crisis’. I would have panicked, overreacted and probably wasted money trying to find a clone of Barry. But O’Neill did not panic, and he did not overreact. In fact, he took the loss of our former captain with a pinch of salt and carried on his predetermined plans for Villa’s season, unshaken. Bolstering our once flappable defence with 3 solid acquisitions in Collins, Dunne and Warnock, MON ignored the apparent hole in the heart of our midfield and went about securing the signing of his long term (and injured) target Stewart Downing (under the nose of our rivals Spurs). So we’re lining out with presumably a weaker front six than last year with Sidwell replacing Barry in the engine room, yet we’re competing. We’re not just competing, we’re performing, and we sweep aside the threat of Liverpool and Chelsea all before Stewart Downing is even introduced. In the absence of Barry (and no replacement), Villa flew out of the blocks and stood toe to toe with the rest of the league in the months between August and December which would stand as a solid stepping stone for the rest of the season. The players had clearly matured with Milner and Gabby looking 5 times the competent players they once were. Then, Stewart Downing is introduced at the perfect time to push us through December, to freshen up our ideas and to move Jamesy inside (and of course, the rest is history). League Cup Final, FA semi (so far) and a much improved shot at 4th place is concrete testament to the development of our squad and to the advancement of our central midfield area (all using the lowest number of starting players in the League); And all without our supposed necessity, Gareth Barry.
So now, England’s World Cup plans are in theoretical ‘meltdown’. Yes, Beckham is a technical marvel, a centurion and of course, a leader (pretty similar to Gareth Barry of Aston Villa). Aaron Lennon, no doubt, has improved in epic proportions. I was never a fan of the Spurs winger (and he’s still suspect to inconsistency), but he has turned his pace and control into effective directness – and, admittedly, will be a loss to England should he lose his fitness battle. Fortunately for Capello, he has the gift of hindsight and would have seen Martin O’Neill diagnose Villa’s ‘crisis’ with an apt prescription of James Milner. Even more luckily for the England manager, in Milner, he has a player better equipped to take on World Cup opposition than Beckham or Lennon would ever have been. And now, with his 2 closest positional rivals out injured, the right midfield slot on the England team must surely reside with Mr Consistency, James Milner.
Not only is Villa’s number 8 a tireless worker, and an all round midfielder (similar to a young Steven Gerrard) with a high aptitude of all the physical and technical skills required, he is a player with a proven track record of making goals. In fact, when you analyse England’s current right sided challengers this season, Aaron Lennon has performed well – second only to who else, but James Milner. Lennon has indeed racked up 8 assists and his natural replacement, Shaun Wright Phillips, boasts a tally of seven assists. However, they both lag behind Milner and Young when it comes to scoring goals – and that been said, they lag behind Milner’s assist record anyway! (James has an incredible 11 this year)
More importantly, Milner lies streets ahead of his counterparts when it comes to actual impact each right sided individual has on their respective teams. Subjectively, we can talk all day about who’s good and who’s not (I think Milner would come out of this conversation well anyway), but when you’re looking for an output from your players, when you’re looking for results, I don’t think Theo Walcott’s 1 goal and 1 assist sounds too appealing. Does it? Maybe the Arsenal player hasn’t got as much game time as the others, but I know I wouldn’t be playing a player who hasn’t played all year just because he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Not in the World Cup anyway! What does sound attractive to me however, is when you take Milner’s 11 assists and 5 goals, and put it into context of his team’s season, he is directly responsible for 44.4% of all Aston Villa’s league goals (pre Wolves match). In fact, none of his rivals can even come half as close to that when comparing their effect on their own teams. And if I was being bold, Gareth Barry has contributed to just 12% of Man City’s league goals (playing in the same position as James) – maybe it’s time Milner got a run out in the centre for his country (if the transition works as well as it has for Villa, then England are laughing).
With more assists, more goals and lets be honest, more technical ability than the rest of his remaining right sided contenders, it’s about time the nation’s second most in-form player (Rooney number one of course) got at least one chance on Capello’s stating team. I don’t think it is an audacious statement at all – if Shaun Wright Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Leighton Baines and Emile Heskey can all line out for their country, why is it so difficult to imagine someone of the higher calibre of James Milner getting the nod (be it anywhere in the midfield)? In fact, it would be an insult to the player, an insult to England, if he didn’t.