Aston Villa midfielder James Milner pulls on an England shirt tonight – the most capped player for Stuart Pearce’s Under-21s – believeing the side can blow claims that there is a dirth of young talent coming through this country completely out of the water.
England Under-21s face Wales Under-21s at Ninian Park in Cardiff tonight knowing a victory is a must as the team’s prepare to lock horns in a two legged clash for a place in the prestigious European Under-21 Championships in 2009 in Malmo. Sweden.
Milner claims the English side has never featured so many talented young players and looks in pole position to progress through tonight’s play-offs. He says the side has never looked so strong and points to his own club Aston Villa and the strength in depth of the youngsters there as further proof of some of the up and coming world talent that can be found without having to forage foreign shores.
Milner, who will make his record breaking 39th appearance for the youngsters tonight, said: “We have already put out a top team in Portugal who would have been rated one of the favourites for this competition.
“It would be galling now if we failed to get through. We know the Wales game will be very tough but we also know the job we have to do.”
Milner has been widely tipped for a place in the England senior squad in the near future but insists he is happy biding his time in the Under-21s for now.
He said: “It is fantastic representing your country and I don’t care how many caps I get at under-21 level, it’s a great honour. Obviously I want to progress to the full squad one day but playing for your country at any level is fantastic.”
England Under-21s suffered a cruel exit from the Championships last year when they were defeated 13-12 on penalties by hosts Holland in the semi-finals.
Milner insists that that experience has only served to toughen up Pearce’s young charges. The 22-year-old, who joined Villa from Newcastle in a £12?million move this summer, said: “Hopefully we can go a step further than last time but Wales won’t be push-overs and we are well aware of that. We need to put in a good performance.
“If we were to go on and win it that would be fantastic. People say there is no young talent coming through but I’d disagree with that. I can’t remember the last time we lost in open play. We have a few players who went to the last one so we know what it is all about.”
Milner knows competition to make the step up to Fabio Capello’s side is stiff but hopes his performances for the youngsters and for Aston Villa will stand him in good stead.
He said: “There are a lot of talented players in Premier League. I’m at a great club with some fantastic players around me, a great manager in Martin O’Neill. I’d be struggling if I couldn’t improve my game playing with those players and staff. Confidence is high.”
One player Milner is convinced is destined for a great England senior career is his Under-21 Villa team-mate Gabby Agbonlahor.
Milner, who was at Villa for a season on loan under David O’Leary, when Agbonlahor was with the youth academy, said: “I think he has come a long, long way since I was last at the club.
“When I was at Villa on loan, Gabby wasn’t really training with the first team but since then he has come on leaps and bounds.
“I think working with the boss and the players at Villa has seen him progress really. Gabby is a professional – he wants to play in the full squad.”
Milner and Agbonlahor joined the Under 21s in training on their own Villa training pitch at Bodymoor Heath yesterday and Milner said: “The tackles have been flying in during training because everyone is so up for it. We want to be in that team.
“Gabby is like all of us – you want to play at the higher level but you also want to be part of this championship. We know Wales will pose plenty of dangers.”
Tonight’s match sees England slight favourites with Stuart Pearce’s side having conceded only one goal in the group stages of the tournament.
Milner added: “Stuart Pearce has all the right qualities. His record is very good and he is doing a great job.
“To concede only one goal in a tough group shows how well organised we are and is a good indication of how well prepared we are. It’s a testament to the gaffer that we go out there tonight knowing what we have to do.”
The match kicks off at 7.45pm with the return fixture at Villa Park on Tuesday evening. The winning nation joins the last seven teams in the Championship finals in Malmo next summer.