Over the past few seasons, Manchester City fans have come to recognise James Milner as one of the most reliable players at the club. Work rate and fitness are his defining attributes, but he can also pass with unerring accuracy and whip dangerous crosses into the box. He’s an all-around, selfless player—the type almost every squad in the world could do with.
Outside the Etihad, however, he’s seen a player who possesses little natural ability; a carthorse who, against decent opposition, gets found out.
Of course, much of that opinion is based in Milner’s performances for England, playing in a rigid system full of players who often look reluctant to express themselves. At City, alongside the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure, Milner operates in a more fluid, attack-minded side, and it's in that context he can best demonstrate his ability.
He’s City’s Mr. Consistency. Already this season, he’s played across the midfield—left, right and centre—with aplomb, used to help turn the screw in tight games or help protect a lead and secure the points. Ask any Manchester City fan to list the players they recognise as the most important, and James Milner would be near the top of most people's response.
He started at Leeds United, making his debut as a 16-year-old, before becoming the youngest player to score a Premier League goal when he struck against Sunderland on Boxing Day in 2002 at the age of 16 years and 355 days.
The hype around Milner at that stage was predictably intense. It’s not often a player aged 16 takes to top-flight football with the ease that he did. He played out wide for Leeds, usually on the left, and impressed with his ability to go beyond his man and cross the ball with pace and accuracy.
A month-long loan spell at Swindon Town saw Milner score two goals and gain first-team experience before returning to his hometown club. However, with Leeds in decline and selling off their star players, Milner left for Newcastle in 2004.
It was there where he began playing on the right, and under the tutelage of Bobby Robson, he was flourishing. It was when Graeme Souness came in that things began to sour. Regularly benched and generally not fancied, Souness even went as far as to say the club would win nothing with "a team full of James Milners" (via the Guardian).
A loan move to Aston Villa followed, where he played 27 times during the 2005/06 season, and Villa were keen to strike a permanent deal. A fee was agreed, but new Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder wanted him to return, and the move was off.
He went back to St James' Park and played regularly for the next two seasons, impressing most observers with his performances. He was showing that his mix of strength, commitment and crossing ability made him an incredibly useful player.
Villa came back in for him and finally landed their man permanently, but his value had rocketed from the £4 million fee the Midlanders had agreed in the summer of 2006 to the £12 million they had to pay to prize him from Newcastle's grasp in 2008 (via the Guardian).
It was during his second spell at Villa that he really began to shine, carving out a reputation as one of the best professionals around. Initially, he played wide on the right, but in 2009/10, he moved inside to occupy a central-midfield role where he blossomed. His strength and range of passing seemed best utilised there; his lack of blistering pace less of a hindrance.
That was his finest season to date, and City made a move for him during the summer of 2010. Protracted transfer negotiations were eventually concluded when City included Stephen Ireland as part of a deal worth around £26 million. It was an expensive fee, but with City cash rich and success poor, they were paying over the odds for most players.
It's turned out to be a great deal for the club. He's still only 28 and arguably has his best years remaining. He's been a huge part of City's success since his move, making over 100 appearances for the club, helping them to an FA Cup (the club's first trophy in 35 years) and their first league title in 44 years. His commitment and professionalism have been key elements to those great moments and the reason for his popularity amongst the City fans.
Throughout his time at City, he has spent periods out of the first-team, only to force his way back in with excellent displays. Most managers eventually realise that Milner's involvement makes the side stronger. His problem this season is the form of City's midfield four of Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and David Silva. Breaking their stranglehold on the midfield positions isn't easy, but with City's involvement in various competitions, he's seen plenty of action and continually impresses.
He has represented his country at every level (including a record number of Under-21 appearances), has 44 senior caps and looks set to achieve even more with his club in the coming seasons.
Say what you will about James Milner, but he's a player who always seems to impress those who watch him regularly.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.