Last summer, Gordon Cowans lamented the sale of Gareth Barry from Aston Villa to Manchester City. But, unlike sections of the club's support who criticised the player, the Villa legend understood Barry's decision to end his 12-year association. In a strange twist of fate, Barry's departure led to an opening for James Milner to take over his midfield role and become the club's bright hope for the future.
So good have been his performances this season that Milner, 24, was named the PFA Young Player of the Year and has drawn comparisons with Steven Gerrard, the inspirational Liverpool captain. Cowans, who played more than 300 games for the club and was at the heart of the Villa midfield when they won the league title in 1981 and the European Cup the following year, said: "You can build a team around James. He is that good and will only get better.
"It's amazing when you think he only moved into central midfield this season. He has taken to it like a duck to water. "He's a great role model and has become a superb player. The way he drives forward, he's a younger version of Gerrard. A good engine, good range of passing, awareness and the energy to get box to box. He scores goals and creates chances. He's got everything. "Gerrard is an awesome player and James is still young, but in time he could go on to achieve everything he wants because the attitude he has got will get him there. He wants to be up there as a top player."
Cowans added: "There's talk of clubs wanting to buy James, but I'm sure Martin O'Neill will strive to keep him. "We cannot lose another of our best players like Gareth Barry. For me, he was far and away the best player at the club at the time. "He didn't owe the club a thing either when he left. As a footballer, you want to go to the best clubs, not for the money but to achieve things. I think Gareth went to Manchester City for the right reasons, but he is now in the same position as he was last year with Villa."
That position is just outside the top four, but City's meeting with Villa today will be pivotal in who finishes there at the end. If Roberto Mancini's men, who could feature Marton Fulop, the on-loan Sunderland keeper, in goal for his debut, win and then beat Spurs and West Ham, a place in next season's Champions League will be their reward. Yet successive victories for Villa in their final two matches could yet see them pip both City and Spurs.
Cowans, who is now youth coach at Villa, believes a run of four wins out five has given them the momentum at the right time. "We are on a high at the moment," he added. "Spurs and City are the favourites, but there's pressure there and I don't think City are playing as well as they done earlier in the season have either." A hamstring injury could rule Barry out of an intriguing match-up with Milner, but Cowans said Villa, who also boast Richard Dunne, the former City captain, will not be out to prove a personal point. "I don't think they will need any extra motivation like that. They are fighting to get into the Champions League and I don't think there's any bigger incentive," he added.
"When we won it [the European Cup], you had to be champions of your league so it made it even harder to get into and then win. "Getting into it this time will definitely have a knock-on effect for the club. When you are up against the best teams, the top players, it helps you improve. It's also the biggest selling point to attract the best players and to keep yours." firstname.lastname@example.org Man City v Aston Villa, 6pm, Showsports 1 & 2