Danny Mills: Becks’ World Cup party & upsetting Man Utd’s England players
“I love broken metatarsals if I’m honest! It made my career!”
As someone who witnessed so many major 2000s talking points firsthand – the 2002 World Cup, Leeds United’s run to the Champions League semi-finals, Manchester City under Sven-Goran Eriksson – Danny Mills seemed an obvious guest to have on our podcast devoted to the decade, The Broken Metatarsal.
Mills was more than happy to oblige, given he has the injury to thank for ruling Gary Neville out of England’s 2002 World Cup campaign, paving the way for the then-Leeds right-back to make the No.2 shirt his own.
“I think I was in a bar when the news came through that Gary Neville had got injured and broken his foot,” Mills says, appearing on our second player special of series three. “Beckham had already had that injury, and then Gary Neville is injured. I think I did about four somersaults at the time.
“I genuinely thought that would give me an opportunity just to make the squad. The only game I’d started for England was at Elland Road, and that was a sort of charity gesture because all the Leeds players played.
“I’d never played more than 45 minutes at that stage. I genuinely thought there’s an outside chance that I could possibly make the squad; I never in my wildest dreams thought about going to the World Cup and starting.”
Not only did Mills start, but he played every minute of England’s five games at the tournament as the Three Lions navigated a tricky group featuring Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria before thumping Denmark in the round of 16 and then losing 2-1 to Brazil in the quarter-final.
“You don’t usually take off your full-backs unless they’re having a shocker, so I guess I did okay!”
He adds: “I’d had a good season. Disciplinary-wise, not so good; 14 yellow cards, two reds and an FA ban for abusing Jeff Winter – well, y’know, who wouldn’t?
“I missed the last two games of the season through suspension. I knew that Tord Grip had been watching an awful lot of our games. We had quite a lot of England players in that Leeds squad at the time. I knew Tord Grip was a big fan, I’d been in the Under-21 set-up and I’d been in squads but not got on [the pitch].
“But when the squad was officially announced, we came back in from training one day and it was, ‘This is the World Cup squad.’ There were the four of us from Leeds and it was like, ‘Wow, now what?’
“You turn up to Stockwell House at the time and your kit is in your room and it’s No.2. I was thinking, ‘Woah, hang on a minute, this is looking a little bit promising!’
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Before Mills travelled with the squad to Japan and South Korea, there was the not-so-small matter of David Beckham’s pre-tournament party to navigate.
Known for his incendiary opinions as a pundit, Mills has an overlooked knack for telling stories. You need to listen to the episode to truly appreciate his humour, but it’s safe to say his disbelief at the scale of such a lavish party, and how out of place he felt there, had us in bits.
“It was just a who’s who from the world of celebrity, from the world of film, music,” he says. “I think Mick Hucknall sang. The table next to us was Steps bizarrely – that was a bit of a weird one.
“To the left was Ray Winstone. In front of that was Natalie Imbruglia and Baby Spice. Elton John was there. Joan Collins was there for goodness sake! It was bonkers, absolutely bonkers.
“The dress code was white tie and diamonds. I didn’t even know what white tie was back then in 2002, let alone white tie and diamonds. I was not turning up in one of those, and the diamonds definitely not.
“The kids were invited as well and I wasn’t going to go originally. ‘This is not really my scene; this is not what I’m going to do.’ The wife sort of twisted my arm, ‘We are going. This is Posh and Becks. We are going.’
“I spent most of the four hours in the kids marquee. When I say marquee, this is bigger than the pavilion at Elland Road – bouncy castles inside it, all that sort of stuff. My kids were one and three at the time, so I spent a lot of time in there.
“It was just a bizarre, surreal experience. Everywhere you looked there were A-listers…and then Steps.”
Mills’ 19-cap England career under Eriksson gave him a glimpse of the inner-workings of the ill-fated, much-maligned Golden Generation. While there are plenty of tales of damaging cliques within the camp, Mills suggests such factors have been overblown by the press and public.
“People go on about this cliques, ‘What was it like Manchester United vs Liverpool vs Leeds vs Chelsea?’ Well, Nigel [Martyn] was my room-mate at Leeds, we used to room next to each other with England, we’d go down and sit next to each other at the dinner table – it’s because we knew each other and we were friends.
“The clique thing is a little bit of a myth. It’s just what you do.”
Mills insists he “never witnessed any issue” between players from rival clubs on international duty but admits tensions rose when Rio Ferdinand missed a drugs test in September 2003 and was dropped from the squad before being subsequently hit with an eight-month FA ban.
Senior members of the England squad proposed a boycott of the side’s Euro 2004 qualifier in Turkey should Ferdinand not be reinstated, but a strike, which would have seen England thrown out of the tournament, was averted.
“I think Sir Alex Ferguson had had a word in the United players’ ears and said, ‘Look, if Rio gets banned then you’re all going to go on strike and pull out of the England squad.’ There was that threat of going on strike for England, which I was never going to be a part of. I didn’t like it.
“It didn’t go down well, especially with G Nev and the Manchester United contingent, but I wasn’t prepared to go on strike at the time for something that I didn’t know all the facts about. It didn’t put me in good light with the senior players at Manchester United for sure.”
Listen to the full episode now to hear more from Danny Mills on the drama of beating Argentina, sharing a room with Ronaldinho for a drugs test after getting the Brazilian sent off in the World Cup quarter-final, *that* Robert Pires penalty and lots and lots of flying elbows.