The battle has surely been won. For some years a small but hardy band of loyalists were proudly waving the flag, amid much ridicule and often hard evidence, convinced that we were right. Perhaps we were being contrary, trying to go against the orthodoxy, or perhaps our keen collective eye for a footballer saw what others didn’t.
For it is now surely a truth universally acknowledged that James Milner is a good footballer. Nobody disputes that, while not the sexiest or most flamboyant performer the world has ever seen, he is at the top of the pile in the ‘useful to have around’ stakes. In fact, that demeans his qualities, for he’s more artful than his artisan reputation gives him credit for; he’s not David Silva, but he’s bloody reliable, and we could all do with one or two of those in our sides. He’s an all-rounder, in that he doesn’t do one thing exceptionally, but he does most things very well indeed.
And it’s not just whelps like us who think so. Even though it was – as Manchester City tried to get him to sign a new contract – a toadying attempt to butter him up that would make a freelance football writer talking to a new editor blush, Manuel Pellegrini had this to say about Milner a few weeks ago: “Milner’s a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big. Intelligent, great mentality…I’m Milner’s No1 fan. Find me a more complete English player. There are players who’re better technically, yes. Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn’t one.”
Indeed, so keen were City to keep him that they apparently offered him a contract worth, give or take a few clauses, £165,000 a week. So he’s good, in summary. And Brendan Rodgers agrees, for by the time you read this it’s possible that Milner’s move to Liverpool on a free transfer, but on suitably colossal wages, will have been confirmed.
In theory, this seems like a good move for both club and player. Milner wanted to leave City in order to play every week, and he’s certainly a better option than most currently at Anfield so it would be a surprise if he didn’t rack up the appearances. And for Liverpool, Milner will be an upgrade on their departing No.8 (or at least the version of him that was wandering around this season), and how often does a £20m-plus international midfielder pop up as a free agent, available to sign without the pesky business of having to persuade someone to sell him? Sure, if they’re paying him, a man who turns 30 shortly, the same as they offered Raheem Sterling, then you have to wonder about the real value for money, but at this point for Premier League clubs, with the new TV deal approaching like a massive cash Godzilla, it’s just money.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Brendan Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has of course been oft-discussed…actually, scratch that, because calling it a ‘discussion’ implies there are two sides to the argument, that some people think Rodgers has recruited wisely. You can file a few of his purchases under ‘we’ll see, jury out’ etc, but the common consensus is that he’s only signed two genuine successes in Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. And even those two have question marks over them; Rodgers himself has made noises to suggest Sturridge’s fitness can’t be trusted, while the enormously talented Coutinho had one of the most overrated seasons in recent times, a hugely impressive spell around the time all the season awards were voted for seemingly cementing his status as one of the campaign’s top performers.
It’s reached the point that all past evidence makes you inherently suspicious of anyone Rodgers signs, no matter how good or perfect for the team they may appear. It’s a little like Bernie Madoff walking up to you in the street with a large sack of cash, handing it over and walking away – you feel certain that it’s too good to be true, that it’s all forged bills or there’s going to be one of those paint bombs at the bottom of the bag, like (warning: 20-year-old spoiler alert) the ransom they give Dennis Hopper in ‘Speed’.
Hanging over this is the suspicion that Rodgers is going to make a frightful hash of Milner, largely around the nagging sense that he simply won’t use his man to his full potential. One of the reasons he’s leaving City is that he wants to play in central midfield, and not to be shoved into whatever position needs filling, and with some justification too. City spent £24m on Milner after a brilliant couple of seasons in the middle for Aston Villa, and two managers have played him there about four times in the last five years.
While you have to assume that Milner has been given some sort of assurance that he will be used in his preferred position, do you really trust Rodgers to stick to that? This is a season, after all, when Rodgers has persisted with the idea that Emre Can is a defender, that Lazar Markovic is a wing-back, that Sterling is a utility player to play in one place for three games then shifted somewhere else. Rodgers, possibly in some sort of blue sky, outside the box, envelope-pushing thinking designed to demonstrate his own brilliance, seems to relish moving players all over the place, and signing Milner simply screams of that. A player used to being the Jack of all trades, a willing sap who, as the old cliché has it, will literally play in goal if you ask him to.
All of this makes you wonder how much Rodgers really thinks through his signings before making them. This is the manager who signed Mario Balotelli, then promptly complained that he didn’t run around enough and didn’t fit with Liverpool’s pressing game. Balotelli has of course been awful, but quite what else Rodgers expected is anyone’s guess.
James Milner would probably have been a brilliant signing for 18 or 19 Premier League sides, Liverpool being one of them. The problem being that only Liverpool have Brendan Rodgers as their manager, the man who – with little encouragement – can turn the silkiest of purses into the sowiest of ears. Please Brendan, don’t ruin him.