DOMINIC KING: The 30-year-old ‘free’ who became a Liverpool legend… James Milner’s leaving Anfield but his incredible work ethic will help him play at highest level until he’s 40 (like his pal Jimmy Anderson)
- James Milner is leaving Liverpool at the end of the season after eight years
- As a free transfer aged 30, Milner became a club legend with the Reds
- As he continues to play high level football, he’ll break a number of records
James Milner is a fitness fanatic who follows a strict dietary regime so the irony of the dinner to celebrate his signing for Liverpool won’t be lost.
In early 2015, with his contract running down at Manchester City, many clubs were pursuing him, one being Atletico Madrid. Diego Simeone is a fan and the idea of move to La Liga intrigued Milner, who taught himself to speak Spanish fluently so he could converse in City’s dressing room.
City didn’t want to lose someone who had played a key role in helping usher in an era of success at the club but they came up against a serious counter offer. Brendan Rodgers, having lost Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, was determined to take him to Anfield.
So one evening Liverpool’s then manager drove to Milner’s Cheshire home to make an ambitious pitch. Rodgers’ wife, Charlotte, accompanied him and her role was to explain to Milner’s wife, Amy, the sense of community in the squad for players’ families.
Rodgers’ plan, once the talking was done, was to take Charlotte out but the night went on so long — and so well — that, by the end, they realised almost everywhere local was shut. There was, though, one last option: McDonald’s. The pair were overdressed for the surrounds but it didn’t matter.
James Milner is to leave Liverpool after eight years of service where he has won everything
Brendan Rodgers and his wife fought hard to persuade Milner to join on a free deal in 2015
With Milner having given his word he would join Liverpool, suddenly the term ‘happy meal’ had a new meaning. And what a signing he proved to be, the best Bosman in Liverpool’s history. He has been a transformative figure, instrumental to all that has been achieved in the last eight years.
Milner would recognise he wasn’t the most talented player to be entrusted with Liverpool’s iconic No 7 shirt — plenty wondered, at that time, whether he should have even be considered to wear it — but his obsessive nature made him a perfect fit. Seven trophies, in due course, followed.
Though Rodgers never got the opportunity to work with Milner long-term, it took only a week to see the impact he could have. He was a particularly influential presence on Jordan Henderson, who had just been named club captain after Gerrard’s exit.
‘I remember when he came in, he said he wanted to win the Champions League here,’ Henderson recalls. ‘He doesn’t get the headlines but he is so important to a successful team and everything that goes on in the background that people don’t see. He is a world-class footballer. You can talk about him working hard and being a leader but he’s top, top level. The level of detail he goes to in order to ensure he is properly prepared is ridiculous. Doing the right things, eating the right stuff, creating the team environment, in the gym constantly.
Milner’s regime is hard work, and he will always be remembered at Liverpool’s training facility
‘We’ve built a relationship up where it is good cop-bad cop. Milly collects the fines and things are very much black and white. The lads say to me, “Hendo, I got stuck in traffic, it wasn’t my fault”. They know I’m softer. Milly? Not a chance. It’s just, “Fine! No! It’s done!” That’s him.’
One of Milner’s mantras is that if you are on time, you are late and he won’t accept excuses. He’s never been one to back away from a discussion and the refusal to cut corners in terms of how he looks after himself is the reason he will still be playing in the Premier League next year at 38. Performing at an elite level at the age of 40 as his good friend, the England fast bowler Jimmy Anderson, is doing is a huge target; should that happen, he will probably eclipse Gareth Barry and take the Premier League record for most appearances.
His routine is set in stone. He will arrive at Liverpool’s training ground first to do a session of his own work before breakfast, sometimes yoga other times conditioning work. After breakfast, he will do the club’s scheduled daily work, then train before going into a recovery session in the gym.
And he will always be remembered there. When Liverpool’s new training facility was built, it was planned out that the gym would be next to the players’ rest area. But to access it meant walking out of one door, around the side of the building and then back into the gym.
Never one to stay quiet if he thinks something can be improved, he asked why the rest area and gym wasn’t connected. It didn’t take long for this to be rectified and, in tribute, it is now known as the James Milner Door — fitting for a man who pushes himself to the limits physically.
A story from last summer illustrates this: a keen golfer with a very respectable handicap, Milner was invited to play in the Icon Series, a pro-am tournament in New York; the standard was competitive but it was an opportunity for a cross section of sport stars to unwind.
There was a good social scene in the evening, with figures such as the great Australian batsman Ricky Ponting, his tennis playing compatriot Ash Barty, NBA legend Steph Curry and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps all enjoying the hospitality.
But Milner was out running around the course at 6am each morning, at a pace around six minutes per mile, determined not to miss a beat. He had been the subject of an enquiry from Aston Villa 12 months ago but Reds boss Jurgen Klopp had made it clear he still had a role to play.
Jurgen Klopp would have kept Milner had circumstances allowed, but no new contract came
Klopp, had circumstances allowed, would have kept Milner around but no new contract offer was made. He has been doing his coaching badges at the club’s Academy and the example he sets to the younger professionals has never faltered — nor has his bond with Liverpool.
His foundation will continue to fund holiday camps for children, aged between 6 and 13 who live in the city’s most deprived area, until 2025 so they have the opportunity to play football, cricket, netball and other sports. This is just as important as anything he has done on the pitch.
For one final time this weekend, Milner will step on to the pitch as a Liverpool player and the ovation he will receive will be loud and deserved. Nobody expected a 30-year-old free transfer to become a legend but 331 games, 26 goals and 45 assists later that is exactly what he is.
He came without a fanfare and questions to answer. He leaves having won the lot.
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