James Milner knows football. On the 10th of November 2002, he made his debut at the bright-eyed age of 16 years and 309 days. The appearance for Leeds United in their fixture against West Ham made him the second youngest Premier League player ever.
It now means, after 600 league appearances, on his 37th birthday, Milner has played the sport professionally for more than half his life. It’s some accomplishment for a player rivals call boring. But for every team he has been involved with, he’s loved. For every club he’s left, they’ve missed.
It’s not hard to understand where the jibes towards his descript style come from. This is the same player that chose a Ribena as his celebratory Champions League-winning champagne, an athlete that never complains, and a workman that rarely plucks up the courage to do anything but keep it simple.
But there is much to love about the man Jürgen Klopp calls ‘The Machine’. It may not be pretty and may not set the world alight, but what Milner does in each of the teams he plays in should be gauged as a valuable building block for success.
Few in football deserve to hear the chant ‘We all dream of a team of..’ bellowing from the stands; Milner sure is one of them.
A sports-obsessed upbringing
Many kids grow up wanting to be a footballer. Not often is there somebody with a deep-rooted passion for all sports as Milner was in his childhood, though. His ability to play a multitude of roles and keep up with those around him was as plain as a pikestaff from an early age.
Born in Wortley, Leeds, Milner played most of his early football at Westbrook Lane Primary School in Horsforth. Later, he would discover his commendable versatility in sports at Horsforth Secondary School, where he represented the school in football, cricket, and, as if it was ever a doubt, long-distance running.
A total of 11 GCSEs mark him out as anything but the archetypal intellectually uninterested footballer. His dedication to sports was cited with a special award in PE upon ‘graduation’ from his secondary school – a moment in his early life that acted as a precursor to his extraordinary physical prowess in his career.
Despite now plying his trade at a football club that has boasted a culture shift of endurance since the arrival of Klopp in 2015, while Milner doesn’t get any younger, he still smashes preseason in a superhuman way every year.
In each of his seven campaigns with Liverpool, he has beaten his younger teammates in preseason fitness examinations. There are three certainties in life; death, taxes, and James Milner winning Liverpool’s lactate test. This was another thing that was obvious from the word go as he won his school’s cross-country championship three years on the spin.
More recently, Milner’s love for golf was also apparent. In a Sky Sports interview, he was challenged with the question of whether to never play golf again or sign for Manchester United.
‘The Machine’s’ adolescence shows the player he is today in its infancy. But in terms of football, his talents were recognised early on by Graeme Coulson, a coach from amateur football club Rawdon, Milner was persuaded to join up with them for several tournaments, including one at Rawdon Meadow, where the youngster scored four goals in the final to seal the victory.
His abundant talent only grew as Milner went on to carve a future in sport when he joined his boyhood club’s academy.
In 2008, England boss Fabio Capello named Milner as the future of English football. By that point, it wasn’t a rash accusation. Until 2005, Milner held the record for the youngest-ever Premier League goalscorer after his goal against Sunderland at 16 years and 356 days old.
Two days later, he scored against Chelsea, waltzing past Marcel Desailly to find room to curl a shot into the net. The performance stunned reporters who bracketed him alongside the talents of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney – the latter he shared a pitch with during his academy years.
His stamina, ability with both feet, and desire to cover the entirety of the pitch were just some of the reasons Milner became a teacher’s pet to managers across the country. Every team needs a player that goes about their business in silence, playing a key role in being the levelheaded general in the team.
A utility player as such – Milner has played in every position except between the sticks. For Leeds United, he found his feet in midfield, a position he since admitted to being his favourite.
Begrudgingly, Milner was forced out of Leeds, his one true love, after their failure to avoid relegation compounded the club’s financial stability. As Leeds’ demise worsened, the Englishman believed his experience made him emotionally stronger and taught him how to deal with team problems.
Ultimately, it set him apart among other jacks of all trades, and he took the episode as a lesson in how to become a leader in his latter years. Although already wise beyond his age, it once again proved vital to the moulding of the modern-day Milner.
The foundations of a simple but effective career were already there.
Since he departed from Leeds, there has been optimism in The Whites’ fanbase that he would one day return. However, it is yet to happen, and between 2004 and 2010, he endured stints at Aston Villa and Newcastle United.
The transition period
In his first couple of seasons playing for The Toon, Milner used his inquiring mind to learn more about himself and where his place in football was. Studying how Alan Shearer conducted himself in press conferences turned out to be where Milner’s exceptional professionalism was given birth.
Milner’s tight-knit relationship with his peers lasted throughout his career. In the far stretches of the northeast, he worked tirelessly and effectively under his mentor Bobby Robson.
The situation didn’t pan out as swimmingly when Graeme Souness took charge after then-chairman Freddie Shepherd’s thirst for silverware led to the sacking of Robson. Despite guiding the Geordies to the dizzy heights of Champions League football, it wasn’t enough (although it really should have been upon reflection now).
Under Souness, he started 13 league matches, but did not play his first full Premier League match for Newcastle until April 2005. Milner revealed down the line that he was frustrated at not being used as a starter for most of the season.
In the following campaign, during the first leg of a fixture against FK Dubnica, he made his last significant contribution in his first stint on Tyneside. A goal and assist in a 3-1 victory helped Newcastle United win the 2005/06 UEFA Intertoto Cup.
It just so turned out that wouldn’t be his only trophy in his career. But in transit between playing for his boyhood club and two of the most successful clubs in the country, his playing career ebbed and flowed.
A clause in Newcastle’s purchase of Nolberto Solano from Aston Villa resulted in Milner being loaned to Villa for the rest of the season, which had brought hope for him that he would be able to get back on track.
Both parties wanted to extend Milner’s stay in the midlands, but after the appointment by Newcastle of Glenn Roeder, the Leeds-born midfielder, winger, full-back, anything under the sun, was back in contention for a starting spot on Tyneside.
The versatile, ambidextrous footballer finally found prolonged comfort in Newcastle in his second stint. On 1 January 2007, Milner scored his first goal of the season in a 2–2 draw with Manchester United. The goal came from a stunning shot from 25 yards out.
He scored two more goals during the next three weeks, against Birmingham City, and then against West Ham United. During that time, he continued to show off his immense ability to feed attackers tantalising through-balls and crosses with both feet, floating from position to position to consolidate his reputation as a Premier League mainstay.
As a result, he bagged himself a shiny new contract that should have retained his services until 2011. He signed another four-year contract in May 2007 when Sam Allardyce took over as manager of Newcastle.
But in the fear of Milner’s inexertion to play constantly would “burn him out mentally and physically”, Big Sam chose to limit his game time in the 2007/08 season. Frustration built once again, and in the same vein as the hokey cokey, Milner was out of The Toon and back in the midlands with Villa come 2008.
Milner signed permanently for Villa on 29 August 2008 for £12 million. Still only 22 when joining, it already felt as though the Englishman, who joined up with teammate Gareth Barry, had been playing for centuries.
But it was in his second stint in the midlands that Milner earned his first cap for England, scored a memorable 25-yard free-kick against Everton, and won Aston Villa’s Player of the Year after scoring 12 goals in the 2009/10 season – which also saw him dubbed as the PFA Young Player of the Year.
The accolades of a brilliant campaign led Milner to sign for Manchester City in the summer of 2010, joining Barry as Roberto Mancini placed faith in the duo to catalyze the Citizens’ meteoric rise to the top.
Now 24, Milner unassumingly was entering the height of his career. Joining City and then Liverpool would see the hushed enigma of the Leeds man conquer England and Europe, sweeping every trophy he could possibly win.
The fruits of Milner’s indefatigable labour
Manchester City reportedly paid £26 million for Milner in a deal that saw Stephen Ireland going the other way in 2010, and the player managed to become a mainstay in the squad at the expense of his preferred position.
He was shunted out wide and picked ahead of Jesús Navas, playing a vital part as the team continued to develop into one of England’s elite. He picked up two league titles during his time at City, offering balance on the flank thanks to his positioning and ability to read the game.
In his Man City tenure, both Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini were big fans of whom they called the most complete English player. Though his performances weren’t anything to rave about from just a glance, his punctuality of always being fit and working hard were two components to his game that was evident back then as much as they are today.
Described as polyfunctional, Milner was essentially the taskmaster in the first great Man City squad in the wake of Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club.
Playing with big names like Yaya Touré, Sergio Agüero, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, and Carlos Tevez meant Milner was never going to be in the limelight in Manchester. But in his own special way, he shone like a diamond among a deep cave of crystals.
Whilst playing in sky blue, Milner continued to show his dependable talents, playing 203 games, winning 122 of them, and scoring 18 goals across five seasons.
His leadership, personality, reliability and determination merited his consistent starting spot in the City lineup. Having won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, League Cup, and Charity Shield, he almost completed the set by the age of 30.
Luckily for him, his next move, 35 miles west to Liverpool, would help him do just that.
Originally signed by Brendan Rodgers for a mouthwatering £0, the Englishman didn’t feature much under his Northern Irish head coach. But when Klopp entered the picture, Milner became one of the first pioneers of the football his German boss pursued.
With Adam Lallana as his partner in crime, the duo caused headaches for opponents from the offset, as their endless running and third-lung capacities brought about the gegenpress revolution in the Premier League.
He is now the last man standing from the typical Jürgen Klopp players within that squad the former Borussia Dortmund coach inherited. As he continues to outlast his younger peers, Milner is the model professional every club would dream to have a team of.
In his first two seasons at Anfield, he scored 12 times and assisted 14 times in the Premier League alone. During his first Champions League campaign with The Reds in 2017/18, he also boasted a pass completion rate of over 81 percent, a solid defensive contribution throughout, and assists coming from a range of crosses and through balls, which proved his worth once again.
These are statistics that all go against the idea that Milner is a boring player. While he may not excite in his style, he sure makes up for it in contributions to his team.
One of the best qualities a player can have is consistency. It separates amateurs from the experts, and Milner has it in spades. He’s far from average and testament to such a fact is that he’s missed by every team he’s graced over a career that has seen him play for some of the biggest clubs in the country.
Adding the Champions League, Club World Cup, and another Premier League to his trophy cabinet in 309 Liverpool appearances (and counting) only tells half the story of a player that has long been a manager’s dream in football.
Now celebrating his 38th birthday with a pint of Ribena, there’s no sign that Milner is getting any less efficacious. His legs may be getting slower, and his retirement might be sooner than he’d like to admit, but he still has a lot to say in this Liverpool squad of 2023.
Heck, it was just a few months ago that he pocketed Phil Foden whilst playing right back, so he must be pretty good still. His value extends far beyond the reach of an entertaining sophistication on the pitch.
Athletes like James Milner only come around once in a blue moon, and for that, we must be grateful to have witnessed the longevity of a total freak of nature.
A modern-day mentality monster.
Klopp’s most-loved apprentice.
Happy birthday James Milner.