LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 04: James Milner of England in action during the UEFA EURO 2012 group G qualifying match between England and Switzerland at Wembley Stadium on June 4, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
I was hanging out at home on Sunday, doing chores and trying to advance my apartment along from the "if we can't see the boxes they don't exist" phase to actually, functionally moved in. The weather was crap and my wife was at work so I was fine with the arrangement, but having the attention span of a puppy on a sugar high, I spent most of the day half re-watching both of Villa's Asia Trophy games and the Sounders game from the previous evening. Later in the afternoon I flipped over to a replay of the Dublin Super Cup game between Manchester City and Inter Milan, and because I only have so much productivity in me on Sundays I began ignoring my domestic responsibilities and became somewhat bizarrely engrossed in the game. I knew the outcome ahead of time, but I'd heard City looked absolutely deadly and I hadn't been misinformed; it's silly, because I am well aware of how much weight pre-season friendlies actually carry (even when the word "trophy" is tacked on at the end) but for the first time I found myself believing that they may well be the team to beat in the Premier League this season.
As the game wore on, I began paying more and more attention to James Milner. Milner earned a rare start for City and he looked every bit the James Milner that finally announced his long awaited arrival as one of England's best young players in his final season with Aston Villa; a classic English box-to-box midfielder, winning balls in the midfield, sending in good crosses, letting fly with long, speculative shots that seldom missed the target by much. He didn't do anything flashy, and he rarely does. But he was solid. He was, well, James Milner-y. I thought he looked quite good. The older English color commentator was full of praise for his performance. But even I could tell that he just didn't fit in.
I don't mean that in the high school clique sense of the word. Just based on observation post-goal-celebration and the like, he seemed to get along well with his teammates. Even he and Balotelli shared a hug and a joke and a laugh. But watching him play, in the context of that team, just felt odd. For the past few years, Manchester City have spent a lot of money bringing in flashy, big-name players. And for the past few years, they've been less than the sum of their parts. They're an imposing force, without question, and on their day they are as ferocious a beast as has ever been unleashed upon the English Premier League. And on this day, against a very good Inter side, they were at their best. It's a bit miraculous that it only finished 3-0 (and indeed, Eden Dzeko had a goal disallowed that probably shouldn't have been) and while it was only a friendly, it was a glimpse of what's possible from this team. But Milner, as good as he was, just didn't look right in the side. His game is not Manchester City's game. He's not their type of player and he never was their type of player. Manchester City is trying to become something very specific, and in no way did buying James Milner ever advance that goal.
It's not like any of this is news. It's basically what many Villa fans were saying this time last season. I don't think I would have been as upset if Milner had gone to Liverpool or Tottenham or United or hell, maybe even Arsenal. But the thought of him going to City was repellent to me, and not in the same way that other people are repelled by the club's forays into the transfer market. I don't like City, but I don't fault them for doing what they do. It's none of their doing that the European football world is completely broken where financial matters are concerned and I find it odd that many people seem more repulsed by a club that spends vast quantities of its own money than they are by, say, Barcelona and Real Madrid who are functionally subsidized by the banking system of a country whose economy is in horrendously dire straits, But that's a whole separate-and much longer-discussion. The point is, my irritation with City's purchase of Milner had far more to do with my knowing he would be a complete waste there than feeling as though they were destroying the game with their money. He wasn't going to be first choice in the central midfield (the position where he'd finally fulfilled his potential) and he certainly wasn't going to start over David Silva on the right. He was at best a squad player, and as it turned out he was a very little used squad player.
A lot of people saw this coming, and that's where the greatest source of frustration lies. I know that it shouldn't bother me, but it does. I really loved watching James Milner play and it was pretty obvious (to me at least) how much his presence in the center of midfield was missed last season. Even now I think his impact on the side would be huge. But City aren't going to sell him and his wages are too high for Villa in any case. So he's just going to sit there all season, probably getting some time against lesser sides, in cup competitions and in the earlier Champions League go-arounds. A player who many once saw as England's captain-in-waiting will see his reputation continue to suffer. Manchester City fans will continue to hate him. And it never should have happened. City didn't need him and they still don't. They probably never will, because they can always go out and buy someone better. Eventually they'll eat his transfer fee as a sunk cost and sell him and he'll predictably revive his career, but he'll have lost a few of his prime years by then.All because City saw something shiny and decided they'd figure out where to put it once they got home.
I don't think it's a sour grapes thing. I'm happy with what Villa got in return for Milner and I'm certainly happy with how they spent said return. It's just a waste, really. Here's a player that could help a lot of clubs-and I don't mean clubs of Villa's level here I mean real, competitive, big clubs-just sitting there. And I suppose I shouldn't feel bad for him. He made his decision despite all the reasons to think it was the wrong one, and now he's paying the consequences. But I do anyways. It's just a shame. This isn't an "I told you so" type of thing. Watching that game really did bum me out. It bummed me out enough that I didn't even notice that the sun eventually came out.
What a weird way to get to a crappy Sunday.