Tim Wade reviews James Milner’s new book Ask a Footballer
Perhaps it was inevitable that when James Milner wrote a book it would have to live in the shadow of his parody Twitter account. Like Frankenstein and his monster, Milner is out for revenge, stalking his boring alter-ego from page to page. It is ‘weird’, the player thinks, ‘that someone would go to the trouble of setting up @BoringMilner in my ‘honour’ and keeping it going for years’. Weirder still ‘that more than half a million people are so amused by jokes about me doing household chores and drinking tea’. He has chuckled at a few of the posts himself, he tells us, and has ‘enjoyed playing along with it’. But now it is time to set the record straight. ‘Of course you might end up thinking I’m even more boring than @BoringMilner’, he half jokes, ‘but maybe being boring has helped me keep going in the Premier League for 17 years’. Maybe boring is good?
I can’t speak for professional football but in the realm of books boring is not good. Ask a Footballer promises to give its readers an insight into the day-to-day activities of a professional athlete, with a few autobiographical asides thrown in. The question it begs, then, is whether any of this is really of interest. The answer to that question, I suspect, depends quite a lot on what age you are and who you support. Younger fans of Liverpool, Leeds or Man City will surely lap up the minutiae of sporting life which Milner exhaustingly and, at times repetitively, catalogues. They may even be aspiring players wishing to know more about why Milner can’t play as much golf as he likes or how to practice with their left foot, in which case this book may prove educational.
But what about snarks like me? What will we gain from reading Ask a Footballer? I once sprained my wrist celebrating a goal in a pub and am unfit for the rigours of sporting life, darts aside (pending wrist recovery). I also don’t care if Milner eats, shoots and sleeps or wishes to have these activities recorded in a robot diary for kids. My hopes, in contrast, were pinned on the book’s other stated aims: the question of how the day-to-day life of a footballer has changed over the player’s 22-year Premier League stint; and the autobiographical sections, detailing his highs and lows. But it is in these sections that we realise that Ask a Footballer is not an assassination attempt on Milner’s Mr Boring image. It is a suicide pact.
For one thing, the spectre of @BoringMilner means the reader has to suppress the urge to receive the entire book as if it were delivered over an ironing board. ‘Channel 4 was great on Saturday mornings’, he opines between slurps of sugary squash, ‘kabaddi, then Transworld Sport, then Gazzetta. They don’t make Saturday morning TV like that anymore’. Worse, the question-and-answer format sends Milner into footballer interview mode. Words like ‘mad’ and ‘unbelievable’ multiply. ‘Looking back now, that just seems ridiculous’. Milner writes that he doesn’t ‘know how to describe my emotions’ on scoring his first goal for Leeds, which the reader can forgive at first. ‘It was a ridiculous feeling’. But then a tone of total incredulity takes over the narrative. ‘Even now, I find it unbelievable, the way it happened’, Milner says of winning the league with Manchester City in the last minute. ‘If it was a film… you would just say, “Nah, that’s just stupid. That wouldn’t happen”. But it did. And it was one of the most amazing moments in football history’.
Ask a Footballer is not an assassination attempt on Milner’s Mr Boring image. It is a suicide pact.
In these moments, it was hard not to think of all of the trees that had to die for Milner’s words to fail him. What role, I wondered, had award-winning journalist Oliver Kay played in this? Typist? Impersonator? Perhaps, I had been duped by those clever clogs @BoringMilner and had accidentally purchased the equivalent of a deep fake.
Grandpa Milner is no less illuminating when dutifully cataloguing the changes in the professional life of players. Players now wear headphones so there is less talk in the dressing room. You can get a massage before a game now without anyone raising an eyebrow. The food is generally better. Unlike your Grandpa, however, Milner doesn’t seem much fussed that the world has changed around him. The most betrayed he feels by the passage of time is when he complains that he can no longer get black boots.
The problem with Ask a Footballer is that it is an exercise in self-preservation. I have some sympathy with Milner on this count. He admits to being shy and that he finds it difficult to interact meaningfully with his fans over social media. He’s also doing good things away from the game with his charitable foundation. In the book, however, it leads Milner to give just enough, but not too much. Pages go by without any real sense of blood pumping in the jugular. Character portraits are relentlessly nice: Balotelli is a good kid really; Beckham always handled himself so well; Gary Neville seemed incredibly annoying at first but was actually hilarious. The only real sense of loathing towards a person is reserved for Graeme Sounness, who famously singled out the 18-year-old Milner as an example of where Newcastle had gone wrong (‘You’ll never win anything with a team of James Milners’). Even then, Milner doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers, saying it probably bothers Sounness more than him now.
A lack of self-absorption, of course, is still admirable. We don’t necessarily need another bloated, ego-filled, autobiography. We already have Johann Cruyff and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for that. On the pitch, Milner is more often praised for professionalism than spectacular trickery or record-breaking goal-scoring and my admiration for the player is undimmed. When Milner retires, he might write another book with all the safety belts, stabilisers and arm-bands cast aside. Then we might get a fairer fight between Milner and his Monster. ‘I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe’, Mary Shelley once wrote in the guise of James Milner. ‘If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other’.