Danny Mills exclusive: Leeds memories, England and more

The Football Faithful sat down with former Leeds full-back and England international Danny Mills this week to discuss his career in the Premier League.

From reaching the Champions League semi-finals under David O’Leary at Elland Road, to comparisons with Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds and World Cup exploits with the Three Lions, Mills revisited some of the highs and lows from his career, at an event hosted by 888sport.

Q: You joined Leeds from Charlton just before the heights of the David O’Leary era, what was the feeling like around the club at that time? Were the club’s runs in Europe unexpected?

“It was an exciting time. I think his (David O’Leary) first signing was David Batty, who he brought back to bring in experience. Then, in the summer, they decided to go down a younger route of recruitment.

“They already had Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith, Ian Harte, Harry Kewell, and Lee Bowyer to name a few. There was a core group of experienced players in there but a real core of some very promising youngsters. Myself, Michael Duberry and Michael Bridges came in, all England u-21 internationals at that stage, so it was a really exciting project.

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“They had been in Europe that season and had played Roma in the UEFA Cup. I think they had finished fourth the season before I had signed so I looked at it and thought ‘Wow, what a project this is’. What an opportunity, to go and play in front of 40,000 people every week.

“Look at the young players they had signed and there’s some real experience in there as well, Alfie Haaland and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were there when I signed. And then an abundance of players coming through of real quality, some of those I knew from the England set-up. It was an opportunity that I had to make happen. I saw it as a real opportunity to go to the next level and play European football.

“It didn’t go as smoothly as I wanted it to, you’re in and out of the team as a young player. Gary Kelly got fit, a fantastic player as well, and there was competition for places. But I worked hard and knuckled down and we had fantastic success. Until we didn’t…”


Q: What do you think that team was missing in terms of the final step to silverware?

“If I’m honest I think we only had one way of playing, a little bit like Marcelo Bielsa’s team for those that can’t remember 20 years back. We were high-temp, high energy, aggressive. We would try to score in the first half, the first 20 minutes of games and try and steamroller teams that way.

“We were a little bit naive. I think with a more experienced manager and better coaching, we would have done better against the top teams. We went out and tried to win every single game, in the first half of the game. We struggled against the top five or six teams, in and around us, we very rarely beat them and didn’t often pick up draws. Some would call us flat-track bullies if you like. We struggled to take points against those top teams and that was ultimately our downfall because we had one way of playing and that was it.

“I compare it to Marcelo Bielsa’s team because we were high energy and high tempo. We had Plan A. If Plan A didn’t work, we still only had Plan A. There wasn’t really a Plan B.

“We had a fantastic squad and fantastic players, but maybe a more experienced manager would have gotten us closer to a title or trophy.”


Q: Your form for Leeds saw you feature for England at the 2002 World Cup. Did that tournament feel like a missed opportunity with the way the Brazil quarter-final unfolded?

“Yes and no. From a personal level, the tournament was a relative success, I never expected to be there in the first place and proved to myself that I could compete at the highest level. When we drew Brazil in the quarter-finals after thumping Denmark, we then looked at it like if we can beat Brazil, IF we can beat Brazil, then no one can stop us, there’s every chance we go on and win this.

“We went 1-0 up, but you just have to look at their team. You’ve got Roberto Carlos and Cafu, two of the world’s best full-backs at that time, though I’d argue Ashley Cole was on par with Carlos. You’ve got Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo. Kaka couldn’t even get in the squad in that World Cup, that’s how good they were. Gilberto Silva went on to become an Invincible at Arsenal.

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“We came close. People go on about tactics and this and that, of course, that plays a part, but they were better than us that’s what it comes down to. If we had beaten them I think there’s a chance we would have gone on to win it, because of the confidence that would have given us and I think they were the strongest team in the tournament.

“Ronaldo, the Ronaldo, won the Golden Boot, Rivaldo had won the Ballon d’Or, Ronaldinho, it was a sensational team that they had. Of course, a massive disappointment but I don’t look at it like an opportunity missed. Ultimately, we were beaten by a better team.”

Q: Our Noughties Nines series features some of your former teammates for club and country. Who was the best centre-forward you played alongside or against from that era and why?

“Mark Viduka on his day was unplayable. Didn’t move, didn’t run, but didn’t need to. He needed a partner. Robbie Fowler was the best finisher that I’ve ever seen, in terms of ability to score different goals. When he came to Leeds he was injured but when he was at Liverpool he was sensational.

“You look at the Champions League run we (Leeds 2000/01) had. I played against (Andriy) Shevchenko and (Oliver) Bierhoff. At that time, possibly the best strike partnership in the world. Early 2000s, (Andy) Cole and (Dwight) Yorke at Manchester United. After that you had Shearer and whoever, up at Newcastle playing against them. (Thierry) Henry and (Dennis) Bergkamp.

“Diego Tristan, who was the top scorer in La Liga when Deportivo La Coruna won the league. Real Madrid at that time had Ronaldo. I look back and think that era was way stronger than the era of today. If you go through the teams in the Premier League at that time and pick out all the centre-forwards, they were all incredibly dangerous and really good players. Christophe Dugarry, A French World Cup winner, went to Birmingham. How did that happen? Every single team had top quality.

“Playing with the likes of Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was obviously superb. Against, there wasn’t too much harder than playing against Didier Drogba.

“If you go back through that era, most of the time it was a two up top, Owen-Fowler, then Owen-Heskey at Liverpool, Chelsea and all the riches they had, but even as you dropped through some of the players in those teams, sensational. Jermain Defoe, a constant thorn in your side and a fantastic goalscorer.

“I think it was a tougher era back then in terms of quality of centre-forwards than we have today.”

Q: Can you give us a best XI of your former teammates to play alongside?

GK: Nigel Martyn

RB: Danny Mills

CB: Rio Ferdinand

CB: John Terry

LB: Ashley Cole

MF: Olivier Dacourt

MF: David Batty

MF: Gaizka Mendieta

LW: Harry Kewell

RW: Bolo Zenden

CF: Mark Viduka.

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