Time waits for no one.
In an industry as relentless and brutally competitive as professional football, it’s hard enough to reach the top level, let alone stay there for 20 years.
More than just talent, it requires a special mindset – a remarkable amount of focus, dedication and drive, especially with the increased demands of the modern era. Few are up to the challenge.
Should James Milner make his 600th Premier League appearance against Tottenham on Sunday – and although he was taken off against Napoli on Tuesday, manager Jurgen Klopp said he “seems fine” – he will join an exclusive list. Only three others – Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Ryan Giggs – have reached that milestone.
Steven Taylor first met Milner on international duty with England Under-16s in 2001. They came up through the age groups together and were also team-mates at Newcastle United, who the now 36-year-old joined from boyhood club Leeds in 2004.
“It’s amazing. He’s kind of the last of my generation and to see what he’s doing is phenomenal. He deserves all the credit he gets because of the way he is as a character,” said the former centre-back, reflecting on Milner’s performance.
“You know you’re going to get 100% from him. He can play anywhere and he’s a fighter. You want people like that out on the pitch. He never gets injured and you can always count on him. He’s a guaranteed eight out. of 10 each game.”
Milner has always tried to squeeze everything he could out of his career. Teetotal and a fiercely committed coach, even at a young age he would be drawn to the successful senior players in the dressing room.
“He’s around the right people and he’s always willing to learn. A lot of people, when they have one or two good seasons, they ease up. There’s a stage in a professional football player’s career when they get that big contract and that piece of comfort He’s hungry all the time, Taylor says.
“He’s an absolute machine. At Newcastle he always smashed everyone in the races. Pre-season was like a cluster for him. It was how he prepared for games. How he looked after himself. He’s a manager’s dream.”
After a previous loan spell at Aston Villa, Milner joined them permanently in 2008. Previously a flying winger, by this stage he had developed into an energetic and tactically astute central midfielder, who would easily fill in elsewhere when needed.
“He knew every position inside and out. He knew what the demands and responsibilities were. He was a complete player. He had the dedication to come in every day and push himself, and everyone else, to get better results,” recalls the club captain. Stiliyan Petrov.
“I remember there was a meeting once and he actually questioned some of the players’ attitudes in training because he thought the competitive side of it and the work ethic had to be at another level if we wanted to achieve what we wanted to achieve. .
“He couldn’t accept average – it wasn’t in his vocabulary. He was excellent. He had to be first in the running and shooting contests. When the team goes through a difficult period in a game, or a season, you look out for those player.”
Petrov was most impressed by Milner’s steadfast attitude. Where others were prone to complaining, shifting blame or looking for excuses when something went wrong, he held himself accountable and always put the team first.
Although Milner raised the standard at Villa, he was not satisfied with finishing sixth and felt that his dream of winning major trophies and playing in the Champions League could only be fulfilled by moving on.
“He left a huge gap in our team, but we couldn’t blame him because he deserved the opportunity. He was only built to go and make history, and that’s what he’s done. His destiny was to go and achieve more,” he says. Petrov.
Five seasons at Manchester City included two Premier League titles, but Milner was rarely as central to the club’s success as he had hoped. 2015 offered Liverpool a new challenge and increased responsibility.
“He played a big part in changing the culture when Jurgen Klopp came in and helped the team strive to be the mental monsters that people refer to them as now,” said former Reds team-mate Adam Lallana.
“He still plays a vital role as vice-captain in setting an example for the younger guys, the next generation. He helps the management team in so many ways with the experience he’s built. He knows what it takes to win. He knows the sacrifices which must be done.”
Milner works hard behind the scenes and never seeks the limelight. As an unassuming player, with a public persona to match, he has often been underrated or misjudged. A fluent Spanish speaker with a dry sense of humor, there is more to him than meets the eye.
“I’m not sure how he got it boring James Milner label, but he couldn’t be further from it. He is definitely one of the loudest in the dressing room. Full of life. Full of jokes,” explains Brighton midfielder Lallana.
“But he’s definitely old school. Those fundamentals are always there and they’re never going to change. I think that’s what’s made him who he is and given him his success. Those values that he’ll always live by. He taught me how to be a better professional and a better role model.”
Over the past two decades, since his Leeds debut in November 2002, Milner’s career has come full circle. Once the bright-eyed young prospect, he has become the respected veteran of one of the world’s biggest clubs, imparting his knowledge and inspiring others to follow his lead.
Even now, his enthusiasm for the game remains unchanged. Tireless, resilient and determined, those who have shared the pitch and dressing room with Milner are clear about the qualities that define him and how constant they have been.
“He never changed,” says Petrov. “He always has time for his teammates, his friends and his family. This is the biggest verdict and the highest praise for someone who has achieved so much.”
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