In the Premier League, normalcy is an act of radical boringness
James Milner has played a number of important roles over the course of his career. Such is the lot of a versatile player. Yet his most crucial role will never show up on a heatmap and rarely receives the credit it deserves: He is patient zero in the search for boring footballers.
Liverpool’s current left-back is not known for getting into fights or going out to nightclubs or featuring on the cover of menswear magazines. He’s not known for anything, really. He looms around the edges of your memory like an expired satellite that has not yet fallen back to earth. He speaks in clipped, affectless sentences. Milner has been around forever — or at least so it sometimes feels — but has usually been the most forgettable person in any room. At the time of writing, his Wikipedia page lacked a section about his personal life, though his partner gave birth to their child in early 2015. His stated views on parenthood is that his partner is great and it’s best when your child sleeps through the night. Reasonable. If Norman Rockwell were around and focusing on Premier League players, James Milner would be his muse.
That does not sound like an important role. Your team would probably like a top-notch striker more than James Milner, and Liverpool could do with an actual left-back, but soccer needs James Milner. Its fans are united in the belief that what often looks like adults doing cardio for ninety minutes is not boring, but they must acknowledge that boredom exists in their world. Boredom and interest are oppositional forces and a world without the former would, paradoxically, prove to be quite boring indeed. A culprit is therefore needed.
Enter James Milner. He may not be the most interesting man alive but he is far from the least. The rare English footballer to have never consumed alcohol, he has played in most tactical positions at the elite end of the Premier League. The problem with such facts about James Milner is that they all sound like answers on a trivia quiz. “He’s a shockingly versatile English player” sounds apologetic. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.
Finding James Milner interesting is hard work. The easier course of action is to simply declare him boring, which explains the mimetic phenomenon of “Boring James Milner.”
The comedic conceit of the “Boring James Milner” meme is that the player’s interior life is as plain as his exterior. There is no real evidence in support of this claim, but there’s also limited evidence to contradict it because interiority is inherently invisible. This focus on surface level observations is the logical counterpart to a media culture that treats every player with a flashy car and two tickets to Ibiza as fundamentally interesting. Nicklas Bendtner’s internal monologue is likely monosyllabic, but have you seen his latest crash? For the Bendtners of this world to be interesting, the Milners have to be boring.
In their search for the two poles of interest and boredom, many soccer fans have conflated the superficially exciting with the fundamentally interesting. There are, consequently, plenty of stories to be read on a daily basis about Premier League stars and their chromed supercars. The articles appear interesting because they feature gaudy design and gullwings, but boil down to “area rich man buys expensive thing.” Go figure. In addition to being horribly sexist and retrograde, stories about stars’ wives and girlfriends fall into a similar trap. Is it really any surprise that young, fit professionals manage to attract dates and go on vacation? At this point, the more surprising Ryan Giggs story would be one where he had a quiet home life and avoided assignations with his siblings’ partners.
This sort of one-to-one comparison between footballers in the news and Milner is unfair to the latter. There are many flashy footballers out there—they live in the same neighborhoods; they drive the same cars; they go to the same nightspots—but there is only one James Milner. He is an original, or at least a man from a different time.
Such a defense of James Milner functions as a backhanded compliment. James Milner is so dull, the argument goes, that he is actually interesting. That is the curse of James Milner’s mimetic life: even attempts to counter the predominant narrative only serve to reinforce it. It’s a trap.
A useful heuristic in understanding the Milner quagmire is to ask what piece of information could emerge that would convince the masses that he is not actually boring. Boinking the nanny? Drug usage? Gambling debts? Insolvency? Those storylines might change the Milner story for a couple days, but they are all fundamentally boring footballer clichés. When a Manchester United player doesn’t know how to boil an egg, it’s a news story. If James Milner were to discussing boiling an egg, it would confirm everything the public thinks of him.
(Here, dear reader, I should warn you to be careful what you wish for. Many years ago, I suggested that Tiger Woods’ excellence was a bit robotic and could be livened up with a garden-variety marital scandal. Oops? More recently, while working as a Canadian political satirist, I complained about the dullness of our nation’s politicians. Then Rob Ford happened.)
Even developments that aren’t footballer clichés lead to the same conclusion. Another genre of revelation—think criminality or masquerading as a creepy clown—would just confirm that Milner was a quiet, distant loner all along. What does that leave? I have sometimes wondered what would happen if, hypothetically, James Milner came out as the first gay Premier League player. In all likelihood, a certain brand of progressive soccer writers (myself included) would trumpet such an event as proof that gay men can be as boring anyone else.
James Milner is now 30. His career, by any reasonable approximation, is nearing its final act. Managers will probably keep Milner around forever because he is a good sport and versatile player, but if Milner couldn’t convince the world that he was interesting while appearing in the Champions League in his 20s, he will struggle to do so in a few years when he has become a rich man’s Gareth Barry. Time, in a sense, has already run out for James Milner.
One cannot, however, help but suspect that history will be kind to James Milner. The players with eight competing hairstyles and vinyl-covered cars will all coagulate into one shapeless mass. As that happens, Milner will remain a singular figure—the rare player from a moneyed era who treated soccer as a job, with all the attendant dullness employment usually entails.
When that happens, soccer fans will have to concede that the past decade was wasted on the defense of a sport that can often be boring. Instead of reveling in its incongruities, the radical boringness of England’s most singular player was written off as the work of a soporific dullard. Think of all the time that was spent protesting about the entertainment value of nil-nil draws. Think of all the time spent reading supposedly interesting stories about Samir Nasri’s home decor. What a waste. That time could have been better spent doing whatever it is James Milner does in his downtime.