Would I rather be a fringe player on a perennial title contender or a star man on a mid-table side?
This is hardly a question unique to one player, but no man illustrates this dilemma better than James Milner. Here is a player who has been described promising, inspiring, frustrating, and currently: disappointing. And this is a man who should theoretically be in his prime at 26 years old. Let's have a a look at his CV shall we:
- 2002 - Crashed on to the scene at age 16 for Leeds, youngest player to score in the Premier League at the time.
- 2004 - Sold to Newcastle for £3.6 million at age 18, showed glimpses of promise but wasn't given enough opportunities to become a mainstay in the side.
- 2005 - Loaned to Aston Villa, continued to improve, is one of the few bright spots on a poor team, announces desire to make loan permanent with hopes of becoming regular starter
- 2006-08 - Returns to Newcastle, enjoys his two successful campaigns and starts the majority of games, integral to Newcastle's success
- 2008-10 - Signs permanently with Aston Villa for £12 million, is a key piece of a formidable Aston Villa squad
- 2010-12 - Signs for Manchester City for £24 million, sees gradual decrease in role as Man City beef up their squad and pedigree.
Because of The Times
The modern transfer windows have become dominated and ultimately driven by insatiable media speculation which in turn fuels several select clubs' lavish spending and egregious stockpiling of talent to the extent that there are always a few newly signed players that will start their campaign with only an outside chance of breaking into their new teams' starting XI. We cannot take the misinformed assumption that regular football is the goal of every player as countless careers have gone to fester and rot away on the benches of big name clubs. I know that I would not like the idea of never getting to play a meaningful game if I were a professional, but that is an article for another day. Yes, much like the ill-informed, starry-eyed NCAA freshman who hires an agent only to not be selected in the NBA draft, this ridiculous state of affairs has robbed some of the more naive players entire years of their career . This problem is not new of course, but it has only become more visible as the financial distance between the haves and have-nots is more exaggerated and the UEFA's laughable "financial fair-play" (rule/slogan/mantra/credo, I don't even know what to call it but unenforced) continues to claim its victims.
Manchester City have quickly added themselves to the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Liverpool as some of the worst offenders in this area that spring to mind in the last decade. These clubs quickly pounce on want-away signings fresh off their best full season to the promise of playing time, a focal role, and champions league football (well, not in Liverpool's case) only to find themselves firmly rooted to the bench on matchday. Like the spinning of the wheel, each year these signings raise eyebrows and beg the question: how the hell is he going to get minutes in that squad? (I'm looking at you, Romelu Lukaku)
But you really can't blame the clubs for this policy as the laws of transfers clearly allow this unregulated behavior. Although managers might be guilty of misleading players in terms of playing time, it is the players who all too often more than happy to oblige, perhaps living under some egotistical cloud of their own perceived abilities and stature. There are of course other considerations to factor: age, international future, position depth, etc.
Enough is Enough
How long will a young James Milner persist with Manchester City before he reaches his breaking point? At what point does reality set in? How long does one stick with the big club? Shea Given, like many others before him, had to swallow his pride and take a familiar trip down the M6 to Aston Villa where he'd be assured of first team action.
Although we cannot completely dismiss the factors of age and positions, (goalkeeper being the extreme exception in terms of playing time) one could posit that these two men found themselves in similar situations at the beginning of last year's campaign, on the outside of the Manchester City starting 11 looking in. Given left, Milner stayed. Given is the everyday keeper for the previously respectable Aston Villa, (before Alex Mcleish got a chance to inject his odious brand of crosstown Birmingham style football and almost got them relegated). But Milner is sadly stuck in this fringe role at Manchester City and seems unlikely to break free of its shackles unless he would leave the club. The problem he faces if he leaves is that this would be seen as detrimental to his career and as a failure in too many people's eyes and perhaps even his own.
The hard truth of the matter is, James Milner simply is not good enough to start every game for today's Manchester City. Such is the culture that encourages footballers like him to jump at every opportunity to move on to a bigger club at any cost. There is not enough room at the top of this pyramid for every player to thrive. What makes these players stay? For those that insist on plodding away and making the odd 15 minute Carling Cup cameo you have to assume that the answer to this question is the same answer to many others in this world. To quote DJ Shadow, "It's the money."
Will Milner return to Villa Park for the third time? Or will he add himself to the likes of Sean Wright-Phillips, Nuri Sahin, Alberto Acquilani, and who will join this unenviable list of under-utilized, unfulfilled stars? Only time will tell, but a safe bet is that many will be temporary Mancurians and Madridistas.