Useful. Like a tea tray. Or a garlic press. Or a potato masher. We have previously toyed with ‘fish slice’ but decided it’s not quite useful enough, while a kettle takes you too far the other way, deep into ‘essential’ territory. Every time we construct an England ladder to reflect Roy Hodgson’s thoughts about his squad, we take a few collective minutes to come up with a piece of kitchen equipment that is just the right level of usefulness to describe James Milner. Right now, we might be edging towards tin opener; we all own at least one, but when was the last time you actually used it?
Football365’s England ladder pre-dates Milner’s England career but he has been a mainstay since 2009, with one early edition – before he had made a single start – noting that he was ‘no world-beater but a reliable and versatile option’. Almost seven years and over 50 caps later and little has changed, except the ages and reputations of the players pushing him towards the fringes. Where once he was playing fourth fiddle to Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, he is now standing on the sidelines watching Eric Dier, Ross Barkley and Dele Alli.
Astonishingly – to those who are not bizarrely obsessed with such things – only injury and suspension have kept Milner out of an England squad since he made his debut under Fabio Capello in 2009; it has never seemed remotely likely that an England manager would sit down, take out their quill and write a squad list that did not feature the name of James Philip Milner. Until now.
Less than six months have passed since Milner last started for England but a great deal can happen in less than six months. Tottenham can happen. Leicester can happen. In fact, there was only a month between Milner starting against Estonia and Alli, Dier and Barkley taking to the field against France. Milner missed that game through injury, but did anybody lament his absence? Did anybody notice? When did anybody last use their tin opener?
This week the Daily Mail asked 11 of their football writers to name their own England XI for Euro 2016 if everybody was fully fit and the tournament started tomorrow. Just two named Milner and both tellingly used the word ‘experience’. Has being 30 with 57 caps become Milner’s only selling point? Even his versatility is no longer cited as a reason for his inclusion; there’s no longer an England position for which he should even be second choice.
Henry Winter wrote this about Milner in 2014: ‘Borrowing one of Hodgson’s phrases, Milner is also “a good tourist”. He will travel with a smile, never upsetting anyone, joining in, giving everything in training and supporting other squad members even if not in the starting XI. He will not say anything controversial to bring a storm to the dressing-room door. He’s James Milner, not boring, just dependable and Hodgson needs those who won’t let him down.’
Milner then went to the World Cup, presumably travelling with a smile, never upsetting anyone, joining in, giving everything in training and supporting other squad members even if not in the starting XI. England were a disaster in Brazil despite this benign presence. Milner travelling once again purely because he is a ‘good tourist’ seems absurd. Surely the FA have staff who collect all the passports and make sure everybody has a wee before the seatbelt signs go on? Do they really need Milner to simply be older and more responsible?
Milner has been useful but useful has brought England absolutely no joy in their last three major tournaments. I have long argued against wholesale changes to England squads based purely on form, but I can already taste the disappointment of both Milner and Jordan ‘Enabler’ Henderson being named in Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad. England deserve a 7/10 tournament if they take too many 7/10 players. And nobody needs two tin openers in 2016.