James Milner has made 534 Premier League appearances since his Leeds debut as a 16-year-old
Having made his Premier League debut at the age of 16, it feels as though James Milner has been around forever.
A player of enduring excellence – as well as a Twitter star with 1.1 million followers – Manchester City were still another 10 years away from winning the Premier League when he set out in 2002.
Milner, a two-time Premier League winner with City and veteran of 534 Premier League appearances and 61 England caps, is one of the fittest members of Liverpool’s squad and is producing some of the best football of his career at the age of 34.
But who is the best manager he has played under? Why is he not completely happy with one aspect of his career? And what’s one of the most ‘nonsense’ game he has appeared in?
In a wide-ranging interview on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Friday Night Football Social, Milner reveals all in a typical no-nonsense style.
You can listen to the full interview on the Friday Night Football Social on BBC Radio 5 Live from 19:00 BST.
‘Watching Rooney whetted my appetite’
Milner started at boyhood club Leeds United and, after being an unused substitute in the previous league game, a 1-0 home defeat by Everton, when a 17-year-old Wayne Rooney scored the winner, he was handed his debut by Terry Venables when he replaced Jason Wilcox as a late substitute in a 4-3 win at West Ham, aged just 16.
I travelled with the first team a few times. Wazza scored for Everton at Elland Road and I was on the bench – and that whetted the appetite.
Then it was West Ham away, we were dominating the game, we were comfortable but it got to 4-3. I came on and I repaid him [Venables] with my first touch which was straight to West Ham’s Paolo Di Canio!
Luckily he put it over the bar. One of the lads asked me afterwards ‘did you have a bet on 4-4?’. That was the start of it all and 18 years on I’m still playing.
You need to be lucky but I have always tried to give myself the best opportunity. Diet and gym work, I did all that early in my career as Leeds. I have always tried to push myself and always having to work and grind has definitely helped my mental strength.
That competitive streak was always driven into me as a kid. I wanted to be the best and at the front.
Milner shows off core strength in ‘plank-off’ with Timbsy
‘I’ve worked for some fantastic managers – and some shockers’
As well as former England boss Venables, Milner’s club and England career has seen him play for some well known names including Graeme Souness [Newcastle], Martin O’Neill [Aston Villa], Roberto Mancini [Man City], Manuel Pellegrini [Man City], while his current boss at Liverpool is Jurgen Klopp.
I was lucky in terms of the players I played with early in my career and standards they set – like Gary Speed – while I have always taken the best from the managers I have worked with.
The first year I had the same manager all season was with Martin O’Neill at Aston Villa, five or six years into my career. It’s not ideal for a young lad to change managers so many times but it has definitely helped me in my career.
I have been fortunate to work under some fantastic managers – and some shockers as well. I have had a lot of managers from different countries. Different countries have different styles and different ways.
He [Klopp] is right up there at the top, if not the best. How he goes about training is different to anything I’ve done before.
Never do you have a session when you are in auto pilot. Everything is about reacting to the next situation.
He has a good relationship with the players and knows when a rocket is needed. He is very good at taking other opinions on board. The team always comes first.
How we play as a team is different to how I have played anywhere else. If one player doesn’t do his job, the whole thing breaks down. That is down the characters he has put together.
As a player, you are always asked about the team spirit and you always give the same generic answer ‘its great’.
But this is probably one of the first times I can genuinely say it is incredible. You could put any two players eating dinner together or in a room together and they would get on without any problems.
‘I had my best season in the middle’
Throughout his impressive career, Milner has operated in almost every position, from left-back to midfield, on the wing to even playing in a temporary forward role for Manchester City, where he won the Premier League in 2012 and 2014. Where does he feel he has been most effective?
Every move I made was up in terms of the quality of the club I went to.
I had one of my best individual seasons at Aston Villa, when I played in the middle, and that got me into the England squad. I then played on the wing all the time for England and I went to Man City and played on the wing.
I have always found it strange that I probably had my best season when I played in the middle but after that I was still moved out wide.
James Milner won the Premier League twice while at Manchester City
‘Nonsense, that would never happen’
In 2011-12, one of the most enthralling Premier League seasons in history went down to the final minute as Manchester City snatched the title from Manchester United after Sergio Aguero’s stoppage time winner against QPR. What are Milner’s memories of that day?
It was fantastic. There had been a lot of signings and the attraction of moving to Man City was to be part of the next generation of success.
Winning the FA Cup the season before gave us confidence as a team to go on and claim that title win.
If someone wrote a film and put that ending in, you’d walk out and say ‘nonsense, that would never happen’.
That was incredible. To win the league like that will be remembered for a long, long time.
‘We’d have played better if we hadn’t scored early’
Milner won his first major honour at Liverpool last season when he helped Klopp’s side beat Tottenham 2-0 in the Champions League final after Mohamed Salah’s second-minute penalty set them on their way. In December, he agreed a contract extension to stay at the Premier League leaders until 2022 – when he will be 36.
The biggest thing that affected us in the Champions League final was scoring early. It isn’t a bad thing to score early but I think our performance would have been much better if we hadn’t.
It is easy to go into your shell and protect what you have. We made a point of saying in the team meeting before the game that if we scored early we get on the front foot again.
In terms of performance, the goal did affect us.
Whether that was because of the wounds of losing in previous finals, I’m not sure. That shows the character of this team. We lost the 2018 Champions League final but you have to find a way to learn how to win in these finals.