Everybody loves James ‘Jimmy’ Milner. He’s a cold, wet Wednesday night in Stoke made flesh; the very antithesis of the fancydan glove-wearers who come over ‘ere and steal our hard-earned TV bonanza by shivering in a light breeze.
We love his sensible haircut and dedication to the cause, even when that cause is sometimes a lost one. We love his can-do attitude, versatility, and sturdy Yorkshire frame. Mostly, we love him for his Twitter parody account that reps who we really are beneath the Cool Britannia façade: we have sex with our socks on; we iron to Game of Thrones; and we eat eggs and chips smothered in ketchup. We’re English dammit.
Everybody loves James ‘Jimmy’ Milner. He’s the Dame Judy Dench of football.
City fans used to love him too. Much more than anyone else. His quarrying runs, one-hundred-and-ten per cent industry, and criminally under-rated game-intelligence were a vital component in the club winning two league titles and a pair of domestic cups after decades of being starved of silverware. His song would be lustily sung in the South Stand while in pubs his honour would be staunchly defended to Liverpool and United supporters who saw only limited tenacity.
Then came the contract dispute that dragged its feet through 2014/15. That it was James Milner of all people stringing Manchester City along, jeopardising team spirit mid-campaign, and declining every assurance and pay rise was a twist straight from an ITV drama. Since the ADUG takeover it had become compulsory for the media to describe each new signing as a ‘mercenary’ only for Silva, Aguero, even Toure bar the odd agent meltdown, to loyally pin their colours to the mast. In the event it was the nice vicar character who turned out to be the rotter. It’s always the quiet ones you have to look out for.
It’s not about the money, Milner claimed publicly: it was about feeling under-appreciated and no longer being content playing a bit-part in proceedings. This was a bizarre assertion considering the midfielder made 32 appearances that season and 31 the year before. He was, in every sense, extremely valued and an integral part of a successful side.
Milner changed tack. It’s not about the money, he insisted via orchestrated leaks. It was about being played anywhere but his favoured midfield berth. In hindsight, this grievance seems perplexing since he’s now seemingly happy to toil away in an unfamiliar left-back role for his new club. At the time it was entirely coincidental that there was a huge Gerrard-shaped hole needing to be filled at Anfield.
Around the same time that Milner was holding his employers to ransom Raheem Sterling was doing likewise 35 miles down the M62. “It’s not about the money at all,” the winger stated in an ill-considered interview with the BBC. “I just purely want to be the best I can be.”
If there is a direct parallel in the behaviour of both players – both in terms of exit strategy and outcome – then that’s where all similarities abruptly end. The portrayals of each player in the media and the reaction from the general public could not have differed more wildly thereafter with Milner’s manoeuvres reported without judgement while City fans – despite knowing his motives from the get-go and being simultaneously disgusted and disappointed at being dumped in such a manner – all but made sandwiches for his journey. He was afforded warm applause for his farewell games that only increased to a rapturous acknowledge of his past service on his return to the Etihad last season.
Elsewhere Blues ignored petty jibes made by Milner in the press and continued their defence of his merits to Liverpool fans who seemed remarkably underwhelmed at securing his signature. At Anfield they again rose as one only to see their magnanimity thrown back into their faces when Liverpool’s jack-of-all-trades scored and indulged himself a weird rodeo celebration. This was becoming somewhat one-sided and testing but even then excuses were made by a tolerant fan-base: it was done in the heat of the moment.
By comparison the treatment dished out to Sterling needs little revisiting here, so virulent, hateful and unrelenting has it been. With the wholehearted co-operation of a shit-stirring media – along with an Anfield mafia of former players who really should have known better – the supporters’ intense bile whipped into a frenzy and spread to all four corners of the country. This ensured an ambitious young lad (because let’s not forget at this point that Sterling left for a club who defines themselves by trophies, Milner did not) will now forever be portrayed as a snake dwelling in a diamond-encrusted mansion.
Maybe I have this all wrong? Maybe I’ve missed the part where James Milner donates ninety per cent of his significantly increased wages to local hospices and chooses to live in a modest two-bed semi, allowing himself just enough for protein shakes from Aldi and a subscription to Amazon Prime? It’s not about the money after all.
Yet the stark disparity that has greeted both players for committing an identical ‘sin’ cannot simply be put down to City fans showing an abundance of class and Liverpudlians being nothing but spiteful. There must be something more and something that runs deep into the fabric of our collective psyches.
A bastardised version of the Madonna/whore complex proffered by Freud perhaps that is rooted in the perceptions of each individual involved? Or maybe we can go further back into folklore? Milner is the white, blonde, pure Goldilocks breaking into someone’s property, stealing their food and yet somehow still emerging as the innocent party. Sterling is an ogre.
Yet even after all of the above City fans remained resolute in their determination to be nothing but fair to England’s rose. This was partly due to their proud history of treating former players well but also – so dichotomous had the situation become – there was now a legitimate suspicion they were getting quite a kick from being the good guys, tutting in disapproval at the welter of hate volleyed at Sterling by Reds and Nasri by visiting Gooners. Bragging rights from the moral high ground are the sweetest currency of all for any supporter.
That all changed early last week when James Milner deigned to once again take an unnecessary pot-shot in an easterly direction. While Sterling has fastidiously kept his mouth shut since his fractious move and at least given Liverpool the respect of keeping his head firmly down, Milner has done no such thing and his declaration to Jamie Redknapp on Sky that this Liverpool side was superior to any City team he’d been part of by stuck in the craw.
It was another example of wanton disrespect to a club that had done nothing but lavish him with medals and love and finally – arguably long overdue – the unrequited civility was broken.
The boos that rained down on Liverpool’s makeshift left-back on Sunday confused the hell out of Twitter.
It also led to widespread media criticism including this farcical take on the matter by David McDonnell in the Daily Mirror that impressively manages to contain every inaccuracy and cliché pertaining to be fact ever spawned by the twin sagas. Milner is an honest grafter. Sterling a ‘snake’ and a money-grabber. And so the scripted, nonsensical fairy-tale continues.
You have to wonder where was all this press condemnation was when a twenty year old was being vilified and vocally abused at every opportunity by Reds. The answer to that is simple and wholly depressing: in that instance they greatly encouraged it and perpetrated a smear campaign that was unedifying and cruel.
You would be hard pushed to find a City supporter wishing like-for-like treatment on Milner but then again such an occurrence is incredibly far-fetched given our adherence to stereotypes that casts Milner as a saint and Sterling a demon.
That most English of protests booing then will have to suffice, boos incidentally mixed with applause from those refusing to play the bad guys for once, refusing, bluntly, to stoop to Liverpool’s level. From the majority who did jeer however - considering the circumstances - it was a display of dissent richly warranted and born of needless provocation.