The curious case of Danny Mills

MANCHESTER City will be without their No 18 when they face Aalborg in the UEFA Cup tonight. Danny Mills will be confined to a role as a television co-commentator at the Energie Nord Arena. It is in no way a surprising piece of team news: Mills hasn’t played a first-team game for City in two-and-a-half years.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Mills is still a City player. He is, in fact, the second longest serving member of their first-team squad: only captain Richard Dunne has been around for longer. Yet so much has changed at the club since the 31-year-old full-back’s last senior appearance, that Mills remains almost as a reminder of a bygone era.

And in a sense, he is. Mills is still at City because of the lengthy contract he was handed by Kevin Keegan in 2004. To City’s fans, the defender’s continuing presence at the club sums up the largesse of the Keegan era.

Keegan’s transfer record at City does not stand up well to scrutiny – too many of his signings were big names who failed to live up to their reputations: Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Trevor Sinclair and Claudio Reyna were all experienced internationals in a City side who almost got relegated in 2004. Mills came in that summer, an England international looking to rebuild his club career after escaping Leeds’ financial and footballing collapse via a loan spell at Middlesbrough. Keegan handed him a five-year deal.

By the end of Mills’ first season, Keegan had walked. Stuart Pearce had few chances to spend in the manner that Keegan had, and responded by calling on a particularly talented crop of players from the youth team: Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha and Stephen Ireland all became established first-teamers under Pearce’s watch. (Although Onuoha had made his first-team debut under Keegan.)

As both Richards and Onuoha can play at right-back, Mills found his chances limited, not helped by a fractured shin, which kept him out for three months, and a series of unimpressive performances on his return. The final straw for Pearce came in a match at Tottenham in April 2006. So poor was Mills’ performance in the 2-1 defeat, that his manager decided to take him off and play Sinclair – an out-and-out winger – at right-back. It was the last time Mills started a game for City.

Mills played the final 10 minutes of City’s 1-0 Premier League win over Arsenal on August 26, 2006. Since then, he has watched the club transform itself on and off the field. Pearce has been replaced by Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has been replaced by Mark Hughes. John Wardle has been replaced as chairman by Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been replaced by Khaldoon Al Mubarak.

In the meantime, Mills has had loan spells at Hull City, Charlton and Derby, and has battled against a series of injuries, most notably a knee problem which cut short his spell at Pride Park last season. He has seen the right-back slot rotate between Richards, Onuoha, Vedran Corluka, Pablo Zabaleta and one or two others. And he has established a reputation as an intelligent, articulate pundit and co-commentator on TV and radio, more than holding his own during two appearances on Radio Five Live’s Fighting Talk.

Mills has also come in for intense criticism from a section of City’s support for deciding to see out his £30,000-a-week contract even though his first-team chances have been hovering somewhere around zero for a long time.

An interview with Mills which appeared on the Manchester Evening News website in the build-up to tonight’s game attracted plenty of ire on the message boards.

“We should employ Danny Mills agent at the club in some capacity, anyone who can pull off a deal like he did is bordering on genius,” wrote Bluescout (not his real name) from Northwich – and that was one of the less critical posts.

Mills’ contract expires in the summer, and will not be renewed. There have been suggestions that the knee problems which have dogged him of late will force him to retire. As with most Premier League footballers, he has no financial need to keep playing.

His future, then, would appear to be in the commentary box. Ironically, that was where his most visible contribution to City’s season came, back in August. He revealed, while co-commentating on the club’s pre-season game against AC Milan for Five, that Stephen Ireland had been pulled out of the squad because he was about to be sold to Sunderland.

As it turned out, there had been a misunderstanding. Ireland had been told not to report for the match by an unnamed third party, who had incorrectly informed him that he was off to the North East.

Ireland came on for the last five minutes as City won 1-0 that day, and has gone on to be arguably their best player this season. Mills has watched on, as he will tonight, preparing for the next stage of his career.

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