Milner eases worries for Venables

 

ENGLISH FA PREMIERSHIP/Leeds Utd ... 2 Chelsea ... 0: Terry Venables allowed himself a peek at the posh seats and, for the first time in a long time, his chairman Peter Ridsdale and the finance director Allan Leighton were not peering down with the grizzled expressions of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets. Venables knows he is safe and, for that, the Leeds manager should be grateful to his experienced players showing courage in adversity, and to a pimply prodigy who will not qualify for a provisional driver's licence until Saturday.

Milner mania is yet to sweep the nation like the Wayne Rooney show, and it has not reached the stage where Sky has got "a camera up his nose", as David Moyes puts it, but James Milner has shown enough of his precocious talent to suggest it is not going to be a passing fad.

Five days shy of his 17th birthday, the fledgling striker with sixth-form stubble and a post-match milkshake is two months younger and much slighter than Everton's wunderkind, but shares the same intrepid streak, a disregard for reputations and a fondness for embarrassing salubrious company.

"The first time he trained with us he took the ball past three or four defenders and put it in the back of the net," recalls Harry Kewell. "We all just thought, wow!"

On Saturday Milner resisted Mario Stanic's attempts at bullying and displayed an appreciation of the game which prompted Claudio Ranieri to observe that "he plays with the brain of a 30-year-old". The teenager flits from one side of the field to the other, is equally adept with either foot, and there was a touch of Peter Lorimer about the manner in which he fashioned his second goal in three days.

His emergence has also coincided with Leeds' best spell of a difficult season, a run of three wins in four matches that has spared Venables from the guillotine. The fans seem to have shelved their anti-Venables campaign in favour of getting behind the players, prompting the best performances from the likes of Mark Viduka, Gary Kelly and Eirik Bakke for longer than they will care to remember.

Most of all, there was a renewed sense of desire, a performance brimming with industry and endeavour rewarded on the half-hour when Jonathan Woodgate's header from Jason Wilcox's cross flicked off William Gallas for the first goal, and illuminated by Milner's elegant strike.

For the 16-year-old to replace the injured Kewell was tribute enough, considering Robbie Fowler was also on the bench. What followed as Milner took a short pass from Bakke, waltzed past Marcel Desailly and speared a right-foot curling shot beyond Ed de Goey was Boy's Own stuff. "He's put one of the best centre-halves in the world on his backside there," said Kewell.

Ranieri accepted his folly in making seven changes to the Chelsea team, having made six in the stalemate against Southampton on St Stephen's Day. However, that does not fully explain why they provided only one of 14 scoring attempts on target. Nor, indeed, why the subdued Gianfranco Zola and Eidur Gudjohnsen were outshone by a teenager.

Milner's academy scholarship earns him £80 a week, although that will increase tenfold when he signs his first professional contract. It is easy to imagine a stream of avaricious agents trying to woo his parents (season-ticket holders at Elland Road) at the house in Horsforth where he grew up with posters of David Batty and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on his bedroom walls.

"He's very quiet," said Venables. "But he's not peering round the corner wondering whether he's welcome. He's part of the team now. And the other lads love him."

LEEDS: Robinson, Kelly, Woodgate, Mills, Lucic, Bakke (Seth Johnson 85), Smith, Okon, Wilcox, Kewell (Milner 31), Viduka (Fowler 83). Subs Not Used: Martyn, Duberry. Booked: Smith, Okon. Goals: Woodgate 30, Milner 45.

CHELSEA: de Goey, Ferrer (Hasselbaink 45), Desailly, Gallas, Le Saux, Stanic, Morris, Lampard, Gronkjaer (De Lucas 45), Zola, Gudjohnsen. Subs Not Used: Babayaro, Terry, Pidgeley.

Referee: G Barber (Hertfordshire).