KEVIN Keegan’s plans for the season have been thrown into disarray after James Milner handed in a transfer request, a move the England Under-21 midfielder feels he was forced into by Newcastle’s decision not to offer him a new deal.
Despite Milner’s reticence to leave St James’s Park, the breakdown in relations between the club and the player’s advisers – illustrated by the two parties releasing contradictory statements yesterday – has cleared the way for him to depart Newcastle’s threadbare squad.
Losing one of his key men is a nightmare scenario for Keegan, already struggling to recruit new players, but it now appears only a matter of time before the midfielder leaves Tyneside.
A source close to the player told The Journal it is “likely” Milner will leave St James’s Park by the time the transfer deadline expires on September 1 – with Premier League rivals Aston Villa almost certainly his destination.
A delegation including Martin O’Neill and chief scout Ian Storey-Moore watched Milner score in Newcastle’s 3-2 win at the Ricoh Arena and they are readying a final ‘take it or leave it’ £10m bid for the player.
O’Neill refused to be drawn on Milner yesterday but significantly he admitted to his “disappointment” at not securing the player’s services two years ago, when United pulled the plug on the deal at the eleventh hour.
Villa have already had a £9m bid for the player turned down, but given Milner’s apparent disillusionment the extra £1m should be enough to persuade Newcastle to let the 22-year-old leave.
Newcastle have told Milner that his request for a new contract will be considered in due course, but they are obviously unwilling to have their hand forced by the transfer deadline looming on the horizon.
With interest from Villa and Liverpool – and both clubs understood to be prepared to offer terms that would comfortably outstrip his current £30,000-a-week wage – Milner and his advisers feel the time is right to talk on an improved deal.
In the middle of this battle of wills is Keegan, who is desperate not to lose Milner and admits his team will struggle if they don’t manage to reinforce a squad which included three untried teenagers on the bench on Tuesday.
It is a messy saga which throws into question the lines of power at St James’s Park, and adds weight to suggestions that Keegan wields only limited power at the club he manages.
A day of uncertainty at St James’s Park began with a surprise statement from Newcastle confirming that Milner had handed in a transfer request. The wording of the statement barely concealed the club’s anger at his decision, calling it “disappointing” in light of his decision to sign a new deal 12 months ago.
That drew a fiercely-worded response from the PFA, the body who handle Milner’s affairs, which criticised the club for making public a request that had been handed in over a week ago.
The statement, attributed to deputy chief executive Mick McGuire, also confirmed that Milner’s decision has been motivated by the lack of progress over a new contract, which the player feels he is “due” after his development in the last 18 months. The Journal has been told that Milner’s weekly wage is significantly below that of the two Argentinians who have arrived at St James’s Park over the summer, and his camp were seeking to bring his terms into line with other first team regulars.
Milner has a significant ally in his campaign for a new deal in the form of Keegan, but the manager’s obvious enthusiasm for securing one of his dressing room leaders has not, it appears, been shared in the boardroom.
The club’s statement read: “The club is very disappointed that James sees his footballing future as being away from St James’s Park. He’s a valued member of the squad and it’s only a year ago that he signed an improved long-term contract.
“We’ve yet to receive an offer for James that has matched our valuation. However, should such an offer be received then the club would be reluctantly forced to consider it, given James’ desire to leave.”
Ahead of a testing trip to Arsenal on Saturday the Milner saga is a hugely unwelcome distraction for Keegan. The Newcastle manager has overseen an unbeaten start to the season, which has been helped by some excellent attacking play, but he knows it will be difficult to sustain if he loses a player he describes as “top notch”.
He has admitted himself that he is “out of the loop” in the Milner contract situation – and there is a palpable sense of unease at the delay over a new deal for Owen too.
The wider ramifications of the Milner saga on his position at St James’s Park will become apparent over the next few days, but it will have made for some interesting discussions at last night’s meeting between the manager, owner Mike Ashley, chairman Derek Llambias and executive director (football) Dennis Wise.
The Newcastle manager has publicly insisted that there is no rift with Wise but the pair do not appear to agree on the Milner contract issue. It has been claimed by sources close to Milner that it was United’s executive director (football) who turned down two separate requests over the last three months to initiate contract talks.
Keegan, by contrast, has made little secret of his admiration for Milner, leading calls for Fabio Capello to promote him to the England senior squad after his excellent performance helped book United’s place in the third round of the Carling Cup.
Reports last night claimed negotiations over Owen’s new contract have been mothballed as well, although there is no immediate danger of the England striker leaving St James’s Park before the transfer deadline. Having a new deal in place by January is the key for United on that front – if nothing has been finalised the striker can begin to negotiate a pre-contract agreement with other teams.
“Michael is a very special player. He is very important to this club and my vision for it. If other people do not share that it is their problem. I do not say these things publicly for any other reason than I believe it,” Keegan said on Tuesday.
“I know the kind of people you need at a football club. You can wait a lifetime for people who can help take it forward and he is one.”
The uncertainty will hardly help the recruitment efforts of Keegan, Wise and Tony Jimenez as they look to make vital reinforcements over the next four days.
Newcastle have funds available but have failed to gain much momentum in the transfer market. Their interest in Udinese midfielder Goklan Inler has yet to reap dividends and time is running out to pull off the “wow signing” that Ashley is reported to have promised to lapsed corporate sponsors last month.
The need for new players at United is stark. Mark Viduka is out for up to five weeks, and Obafemi Martins and Damien Duff will not play again for a month. Steven Taylor should be back from an ankle injury in time for the trip to the Emirates Stadium, however.