When I first moved to Seattle, I took a job working at a movie theatre near the University of Washington. I didn't much expect to like it; while the theatre was part of an art-house movie chain, it was also quite large and functioned as a profit-generator during the slow season for foreign and indie movies. The other places got the newest Almodovar; we ended up with Racing Stripes. I hated the neighborhood, I wasn't especially outgoing and I hadn't worked customer service since high school. It was a means to an end, and I expected it to be a largely miserable experience. Funny thing happened though; it turned out to be one of the best jobs I've ever had. My co-workers were a blast, and I met a lot of people there that are dear friends to this day, including my band mate. There were bad days, but for the most part I loved that place.
After leaving I began managing a video store, and while it wasn't as much fun or as social as working at the theatre, it was still pretty great. I was making decent money, worked six hour days that didn't begin until noon for the most part and made some friends there as well. My boss had a tendency to be a weirdo and the customers weren't always all too friendly, but I made more money than I ever had before and the most challenging thing I ever had to do was schedule around my co-workers' (and my own, it must be said) drinking nights.
Now I work in an office doing a variety of database related tasks. I enjoy the work for the most part, but I rarely talk to my co-workers, I don't get to see the sun from the time I get to the office until the time I leave (which means that, during the winter months, I pretty much don't get to see the sun) and there's a lot of stress and long hours. But if I had the chance to do it all over again, would I leave the video store and take my current job? In a heartbeat.
I left a job I loved and some of my best friends for a job I liked and some people I got along with well, and I left that job for a significantly more stressful job which requires longer hours and a great deal of isolation. And I'm happy to have done so. Which seems odd when you break it down like that I suppose, until you consider the obvious factors; money and future potential. As much fun as I had working at the theatre, I made $8.00 an hour and lived off of beans and rice. As comfortable as I was at the video store, I knew that the job was a complete and total dead end, which has been confirmed by the fact that the store announced they were closing about six months after I left. There are things I don't love about where I am now, but I know that eventually it will pay off. I traded a small amount of happiness now for the promise of a great deal of future happiness.
As I'd hope you've been able to discern, I'm not telling you all of these things because I think that my employment history is incredibly interesting. I know that it's not. I bring it up precisely because it is so boring and typical. I'd imagine that something like 80% of people have stories that are similar to mine, about leaving jobs they've loved for jobs they didn't love as much in an effort to improve their lives outside of work. And I'd wager that a fair amount of people that wish to brand James Milner as a greedy, money-hungry, glory-seeking traitor do as well. And to be honest, it's a disconnect that has always puzzled me.
I'm not naive enough to think that professional athletes are just like you or I; they're clearly not, and not simply because they can run for more than two city blocks without getting winded. To normal folks, the gap between Milner's potential wages at Villa and Milner's potential wages at Manchester City likely seems insignificant; after all, when you're making such an obscene amount of money, what's the difference? But people don't actually work that way. When I was 20, the money I make now seemed like an incomprehensible amount. At 27, with a wife and student loan debt, not so much. Once you reach a certain level, you adapt to your new circumstances. And while the process is certainly different (I now buy fresh rice noodles instead of Top Ramen whereas a professional athlete might trade his BMW 7 Series for an Aston Martin,) the general principle is the same; people generally want more, and no matter how rich someone gets the chances are good that they can justify trying to make themselves a little bit richer.
You could certainly make the case that the world would be a better place if things were different, but this isn't really the forum for a philosophical discussion. The point is, if James Milner wishes to leave Aston Villa because it optimizes his earning potential, that doesn't make him unique in the least. For every athlete that takes less money to stay with their team, several hundred take the best offer. As fans, we like to put our favorite players on a pedestal. We like to think that because James Milner works his tail off, and shows emotion when things go well, that he's different. That it's not about the money for him, and that if Villa make him a fair offer, surely he'll stay. And when it looks as though that might not be the case, we're disappointed. But whose fault is that, really? Is it Milner's for behaving the same way almost everyone else does and choosing to maximize his earnings? Or is it ours, for having unrealistic expectations of our sports heroes, despite the fact that time and time again they show themselves to be flawed in the same ways we ourselves are?
This is assuming this is purely a financial decision for James. While it's all well and good for us to sit here and say "If Milner wants to win, he needs to stay with Villa and take them to the top; the talent is there, and they're so close." And I happen to believe that it's true. I don't think Manchester City are going to blow away the Premier League next season. I have my reasons for that, and this post is already long enough so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say you can't buy tactical awareness and working chemistry on the transfer market. Look at things from his perspective, however; Villa have finished sixth three years running. In that time they've won no domestic silverware and made no impression in Europe. While Villa have done absolutely nothing on the transfer market with fewer than two weeks until the start of the season, Manchester City have added Yaya Toure, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng. Say what you will about the way they go about it, Manchester City are clearly a club that want to win. Whether their strategy will be successful or not only time will tell, but one could certainly see how the opportunity to join a club with such names would be appealing.
We don't know if James Milner wants to leave and, assuming he does, we don't know why. We can make educated guesses, certainly, but until he comes right out and says something we can't be sure. Perhaps it's purely financial. Perhaps it's a desire to win trophies. Milner's hatred of Manchester United is no secret; maybe the appeal of assisting their bitter rivals in usurping their dominance is too much to pass up. Maybe Stilyan Petrov has a really annoying laugh. Maybe Martin O'Neill is a first-rate ass. It's almost certainly a combination of multiple things.
Instead, a lot of people are choosing to look at things through the most simplistic lens imaginable. For many, it's simply an issue of Milner being greedy and that being that. And I think that's unfortunate, for several reasons really. James Milner has been about as classy (in terms of his behavior in public, at least) as possible throughout this entire thing. He's never said a bad word about the club, his teammates or his manager. He has worked as hard on the pitch as anyone I have ever seen while at Villa, and he's blossomed from a promising youngster into a great beacon of hope for England's future and one of the games brightest young stars. And as of this moment, he's still a Villan. If he leaves, I'll understand not liking him; I most likely won't care much for him either, to tell you the truth. It will hurt to miss out on such a future, that much is for certain, and the hatred of Manchester City is certainly understandable.
But I hope that people dislike him because he's now an enemy, not because he didn't live up to standards that weren't reasonable in the first place. I wish James Milner were different. I wish all of the athletes I cheer for were different. But when they're not, I don't have the right to be disappointed when I'm reminded of that fact. This is a business, and these are people's careers; it's a cliche at this point, certainly, but that doesn't make it less true. It doesn't feel that way to us, because we're the ones shelling out money for tickets or shirts or mousepads or the beer to erase the image of Fernando Torres breaking our hearts from the forefronts of our minds. But for those directly involved, it is. It's a different kind of work, but it's still work. And like a lot of other people, just because an athlete wants a change or a better life for themselves, it doesn't mean that they don't have a fondness in their hearts for where they are now and where they've been before.