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Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003
Milner the hottest new kid on the block
LONDON -- James Milner will celebrate his 17th birthday on Saturday by signing a new contract with Leeds United that will earn the forward £800 a week -- 10 times his current apprentice salary of £80.
A few weeks ago Milner was virtually unknown outside of Leeds' youth and reserves teams, but since Christmas he has taken over from Everton's Wayne Rooney as the most talked about teenager in English football.
At this rate clubs will have to build a cradle alongside locker rooms for the kids to change in. Rooney, at 17 years and 2 months, is almost a veteran compared with the new sensation of the Premiership.
Going into 2003, Milner had made only six appearances for Leeds and had scored two goals with, according to official statistics, his only two shots on target -- a 100 percent shooting accuracy.
His first goal against Sunderland on Boxing Day saw Milner enter the history books as the youngest player ever to score in the Premiership. At 16 years and 357 days, Milner was three days younger than Rooney when the Everton striker scored his first Premiership goal against Arsenal on Oct. 19.
Just as Everton manager David Moyes has tried to protect Rooney from the inevitable media frenzy, Terry Venables is doing the same with Milner. Both managers know they are fighting a losing battle because when kids too young to buy a drink in a pub start to score goals in the Premiership, it is easier to sell holiday homes in Kabul than keep their names out of the headlines.
Milner, who wears a No. 38 jersey, made his full debut for Leeds as a substitute at West Ham in November, to become the second-youngest player ever to play in the Premiership behind Coventry's Gary McSheffrey who was 16 years and 198 days old (young?) when he made his debut against Aston Villa in February 1999.
A local lad, Milner impressed for England's Under-17's in a 2002 summer tournament, but nobody could have predicted that by the end of the year Milner would be a household name.
Venables refuses to be drawn on any comparison between Milner and Rooney. But after the manager endured a torrid few weeks with calls for his sacking, Leeds' results have improved and the phone-ins are of a more positive nature these days, with the new sensation of Elland Road the main topic.
"He is aware of what he's done," said Venables. "It's a good story and I'm very pleased for him. James is growing in this group so it's not just a case of him coming through and helping out, because every day he's getting better and better.
"I know his introduction came about because of injuries but he has taken advantage of it to show what he can do.
"He has two good feet, he's courageous and he's very popular. He's a nice, solid, well-mannered boy as well as being a talented player.
"But we are talking about his age. It's early days for him. We've seen lots of lads come in and do well -- the attitude is the important thing. They need to keep their heads straight and not get fancy ideas about what they are.
"At the moment he hasn't achieved anything really and he's the first to admit this. However, a lot of people are confident about his development. We've just got to take it easy."
Milner came on as a 31st-minute substitute for Harry Kewell against Chelsea last Saturday and just before halftime made France's World Cup-winning defender Marcel Desailly look like a rookie, as he skipped past an attempted tackle before beating goalkeeper Ed de Goey -- at 36 more than double Milner's age -- with a well-placed shot.
"I wasn't at all surprised by what he did," said Venables. "He's mature and confident without being cocky. It's very refreshing and he has no fear at all.
"James is quiet in the dressing room but he isn't overawed. He's not 'young Milner' now, he's one of the squad not just peeking around the corner."
Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri thought Milner seemed "more like a 30-year-old than 16."
Ranieri said: "He only left school three months ago. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea. I wish for us he had stayed there."
Kewell recalled the first time he saw Milner in training.
"He picked up the ball and went past three defenders," said Leeds' Australian international.
"You could see that spark in him and it will grow so that he becomes the player he can be. James has real composure on the ball, he's done it in the reserves and it was only a matter of time before he did it in the first team.
"Last Saturday he left one of the best centre-halfs in the world on his backside for the goal and that's something to remember. At the moment he's just going out and scaring the life out of defenders."
There will no doubt be more games and goals for Milner in the near future but the teenager will not be doing any interviews.
English football believes that speaking to the media puts pressure on young players -- the same young players who perform in packed houses in front of live television cameras which presumably is less pressurized than speaking to the Sky Sports interviewer.
"You don't want too many things on his mind that will take away from him being what he's good at," said Venables.
"It's nothing new. Sir Alex [Ferguson] did it with Ryan Giggs and his other youngsters, just keeping their feet on the ground and telling them to just keep playing football.
"I understand that everyone wants to know about him, but the only way you'll keep knowing about him is if he continues to play well. At the moment he just has to concentrate on his football and keep going."
Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.