James Milner – 20 years, 16 managers, ‘50 different positions’, one haircut and one attitude

James Milner made his Premier League debut for Terry Venables' Leeds United team 20 years ago this week.

Richard JollyUK Independent

WHEN some want to catch up with their peers or to remember people from their past, they look for their phone and their diary. James Milner only needs to reach for the remote control or glance at the technical area.

“Every time you turn on the TV there are people talking who you played with or the manager in the other dugout,” he reflected.

His former team-mates include Patrick Vieira, Scott Parker and Frank Lampard and he has seen his old midfield sidekicks directing proceedings from the sidelines in Liverpool games already this season. Milner now lines up alongside the teenager Harvey Elliott and has faced footballers four decades older.

“I played against David Seaman and he’s just turned 59,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing.”

He played for Bobby Robson, too, who was born 89 years ago.

“He was so bubbly and his enthusiasm and knowledge of football was incredible,” Milner recalled.

He was 18 when he played for Robson, half a lifetime ago, and has long been the old man of Anfield – it is four seasons since he pretended he had a walking stick in a goal celebration, after a few jibes about his age from Virgil van Dijk.

He is already the only man to play in the Premier League at both 16 and 36. On Thursday, it will be the 20th anniversary of his debut, a six-minute cameo when Terry Venables sent him on in Leeds’ 4-3 win at West Ham. Few play for two decades. Fewer manage two decades at the top.

Milner has been the ever-changing constant. He has been selected by 16 managers, even before factoring in his international career, played, in his own phrase, “50 different positions” for six different clubs and had one haircut and one attitude. He feels timeless, but times have changed.

He was the paragon of professionalism when still precocious. He has spanned eras. The Leeds lad who grew up idolising Alan Smith, who cites relegation with his hometown club in 2004 as one of the great disappointments of his career, sounded nostalgic for a bygone era.

“You had the likes of Dom Matteo and David Batty at Leeds, and it was a different time,” he recalled. “You had Wednesday and Sunday off so the lads mostly went out on a Saturday night, had ‘team-building’ on a Wednesday and some trained in a bin bag on the Thursday to sweat it out. It was different. On the other hand, some of the injuries I saw Dom Matteo play with . . . he was cutting holes in his boots to be able to play, he was in pain but just got out there and got on with it, even with a grade-two hamstring.”

Youngsters served another kind of apprenticeship. Milner was so young he was playing Premier League football and cleaning the U-19 captain Alan Kinsella’s boots. He was the teenager charged with making the teas on the bus, but also the team-mate.

Milner was too young to legally join the senior professionals on their drinking sessions when the beverages contained stronger substances than just caffeine. Famously teetotal, he was never tempted anyway.

“I have lost count of the amount of times people said, ‘Can I be there when you have your first drink?’” he said. “If it had happened they would probably have regretted actually being there. I could have turned into being pretty ruthless. You don’t know. I could have been a hugger and a kisser as well.”

It would have felt out of character for the stolid Yorkshireman. Parodied on Twitter as an earnest dullard, Milner has actually displayed a commitment to self-improvement that also made him an anomaly in 2002.

“It is probably the worst saying in football when you are coming through: ‘You are busy, you,’” he said. “It is doing your job to the best of your ability. It is the norm now.”

It is why Jurgen Klopp said in April that nothing Liverpool have achieved would have been possible without Milner setting the standard.

For two decades, he has been busy.

Longevity stems from formidable fitness. He still excels at the bleep test, showing up some of the youngsters.

“I do all right, yes,” he said. “It is always nice to make them feel a bit ropey after the running session.”

He has kept on running: for 832 club games, 61 matches for England and a further 46 U-21 caps. Wayne Rooney was the 16-year-old who emerged in 2002 looking a generational talent, but his last Premier League game came four-and-a-half years ago.

“When you think about it, there are so many stumbling blocks,” Milner said. “It’s not like every manager had come in and said: ‘I’m having him as a player’.”

He may have proved Peter Reid and Graeme Souness wrong when he set a record for most assists in the Champions League in a season; that 2017-’18 season was one Milner felt he was at his personal peak, along with his 12-goal final campaign at Aston Villa.

There is a select group who have defied the ageing process. James Anderson became the first fast bowler in his forties to represent England in six decades this summer. The cricketer has been involved in Milner’s charitable foundation. “He’s unbelievable isn’t he?” said the footballer.

“I saw him the other week, he is an inspiration. He said he feels unbelievable and the level he is still playing at it is fantastic.”

Milner also casts his gaze to rugby league: if Matteo is one Leeds captain he respects, Kevin Sinfield, the serial Super League champion who became the Rhinos’ record points-scorer, is another inspiration. Sinfield is now a fundraiser for his former team-mate Rob Burrow and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

“He has been doing ultra-marathons for an unbelievable cause,” Milner said. “We had a chat and we were joking and said we would get together and do one. He said he was doing his last one and I said: ‘You might have to wait for me. When I retire we will do one together.’”

Sinfield may have to wait a little longer. Twenty years into an ultra-marathon of a footballing career, Milner still isn’t finished.

Today's Headlines

More Soccer

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices

WatchMore Videos