Football lifer Milner's dedication pays off as Liverpool taste Champions League glory

The Reds veteran won his first trophy with the club on Saturday in Madrid but even though he’s now 33, it’s unlikely to be his last

“You don’t win anything with a team of James Milners.”

That was once the infamous verdict of former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness, who was manager of Milner at Newcastle for a short, unhappy spell.

Since Souness said those words, the man himself has gone on to win two Premier League titles, the FA Cup, the League Cup and now the Champions League.

Not a bad haul.

He was captain for the runners-up medals in Kyiv last year and against Sevilla in the Europa League a couple of years ago too. He stayed the course this season in the Champions League, when Liverpool gained 97 points, pushing Manchester City right to the very brink.

And even in those setbacks, Liverpool got stronger, setting themselves on the course for this decisive sixth European Champions Cup.

“You don’t always get what you deserve in football,” Milner said on Saturday night inside the Wanda Metropolitano. “Ninety-seven points wasn’t enough, we lost out to an incredible Man City team. Last year, getting to the final.

“We got to another one this year which shows the heart, the balls, this team has to go and do that again, especially what happened in the semis.

“It doesn’t mean you’re going to win it but I think those experiences and disappointments we’ve gone through, it’s helped us become the team we are and deal with ups and downs and weather the storm like we did tonight.

“I think just being in European finals helps, you know what’s coming.”

This Champions League of course is Milner’s first trophy at Liverpool but by no means will it be the last, if he has his way.

There are no plans to depart Anfield now, aged 33, for this is a player who Jurgen Klopp said could easily play until he was 37 or 38.

Milner has already been a Premier League footballer over half of his life. He made his Leeds United debut in 2002, aged 16, and recently became the second-youngest man to reach the 500 league game milestone.

To play professional sport at any level for that duration is incredible, to do so consistently at the highest level is another thing altogether.

Milner was diligent, bright, thorough boy and has grown into a diligent, bright, thorough man.

He had been sold to Newcastle by his beloved Leeds on the eve of the season in 2004 as the club battled insolvency. His £3.6 million transfer fee – and payments waived by Milner himself – helped keep the beleaguered club on its feet, if still staggering.

He was at Manchester City in 2012 when Sergio Aguero slammed home the late winner against Queens Park Rangers to deliver a first Premier League title to the Etihad.

But when he made his debut, City were still at Maine Road. There was no Abu Dhabi investment vehicle and they had a team including Shaun Goater and Ali Bernarbia.

On Boxing Day 2002, Milner had become the youngest Premier League goalscorer of all time with a strike against Sunderland in a 2-1 defeat at the Stadium of Light. He followed that up two days later by bagging against Chelsea.

He beat Wayne Rooney’s record against Sunderland and was always compared with the Everton prodigy back then, who he first played against aged 11.

Rooney was outstanding through his teens and into his mid-twenties but there is a feeling that his lifestyle caught up with him as evidenced by numerous appearances on the front pages and various scrapes with the law.

Milner on the other hand is teetotal; well-grounded, with 11 GCSEs, and was still studying sport and leisure in Boston Spa two years into his professional football career.

He was a multi-faceted sportsman, who gave up on playing cricket for Yorkshire owing to his interest in pursuing a football career and was district champion in track events over both the short and long distances.

And those who knew him in his school days speak of a popular but hard-working personality.

And now in his latter years, all those hard-won years of experience are irreplaceable. He was one of a handful of players in the squad who, until Saturday night, had won proper medals in the game.

He has been depended upon by Klopp to deliver dressing-room pep talks, as the manager had no experience of English dressing rooms until 2015. Milner had seen more in football by that stage than many people would see in a lifetime.

“We do everything as a team and we try to do it together, so everybody helps where they can,” says Milner.

“I’d be pretty foolish if I hadn’t learned a thing or two in the long time I’ve been playing so I just try and help, get the tempo set, and get us going.

“The job the manager’s done since he’s been here, the recruitment of the club as well, to build the team we have and get to back-to-back Champions League finals, 97 points in the league.

“You can see how we’ve improved year and year and hopefully we’ll keep improving because it’s such a young team.

“I’m an older guy and hopefully I can use that experience but there are so many leaders in this squad.”

And that legendary stamina holds to this day too; here is a player who’s scored against teams containing French World Cup winners from 1998 and 2018 in Marcel Desailly and Kylian Mbappe. He has truly straddled the generations.

Indeed it was against Mbappe’s PSG earlier this season when Milner really set the tone for Liverpool’s Champions League campaign. He welcomed Neymar to Anfield in the group stage with a thumping challenge early doors, slotted a penalty kick and made sure Mbappe couldn’t get away in the last minute before instigating the move which led to Roberto Firmino’s winner.

He was upsetting people again in the semi-final when clattering Lionel Messi, who infamously referred to Milner as a “donkey”. No matter; Messi might be the GOAT but it’s this donkey who’s got the cup.

“Coming back against Barcelona, the experience and the ability of their team, going to Bayern Munich away… there have been some amazing performances all through the year and that’s down to the team spirit that’s within the squad and that’s everyone together,” he says.

Milner was an unused substitute the day Manchester City got their trophy-laden era up and running, but admits that winning the FA Cup against Stoke was key to the club’s fortunes that followed.

He didn’t play either in the famous “Aguerooooo!!!” match the following season, and there was a nagging sensation that he would only ever be bit-part, if well regarded, so long as he stuck around.

It was a risky move, swapping City and near-guaranteed Champions League football for a Liverpool team under the newly installed ownership of FSG and still very much in transition.

There were financial penalties too as the Reds were simply not paying as much as City. But it was less about cash than about a 29-year-old who wanted to play a bigger part. And who could say he hasn’t?

“It’s felt like a journey since I’ve been here and we’ve had a few close scrapes so to get over the line is amazing and we’re going to enjoy this one,” he says.

“But we all know it blows over very quickly and it’s in the past and you have to go again. But it’s so important to get that first one as a group of players.

“I experienced that at City when we got that first one, scraped over the line against Stoke in an FA Cup final, and from then you have that belief and you know you can do it.

“Hopefully that can be the same but, first of all, we don’t want to think about that – we want to enjoy tonight.”

He was not signed by Klopp but has come to epitomise the Klopp/FSG era. Dedicated, hard-running, spirited, never less than fully committed.

Those are the kinds of players it takes to win Champions Leagues. Luckily, Liverpool have a team of them. 

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