20 years of James Milner, a Premier League legend who has always ticked every box

Excellent touch and control. Works hard in sessions. Rating: 5
The engine of the team. Can turn a game instantly. Rating: 5
A good communicator, finds space well and has good awareness: Rating 4
Has performed in different positions, always to a high standard of play. Rating: 5
Very quick, covers a tremendous amount of ground during a game. Rating: 5
A natural leader, leads by good example, great athlete and oozes confidence

The report was filled out by Pete Collins, a Leeds United academy coach, in December 1998. And if you didn’t know which player he was evaluating, you could probably guess.

James Milner was 12 at the time, but he was already ticking every box: the excellent touch, the work ethic, the fitness, the driving force, the communication, the awareness, the versatility and the attitude that would see him fast-tracked to make his Premier League debut within four years.

Milner’s academy report at Leeds

Another coach at Leeds identified just one weakness. Daral Pugh lauded Milner’s tremendous ability, but said the youngster “still needs to have more faith in team-mates — in that he will get the ball back if he passes. If he adds this to his game, James has a tremendous future.”

Collins and Pugh could not be reached to discuss how well their observations have stood the test of time, but John Buckley, who coached him at under-14 level, smiles upon hearing his assessment of Milner in May 2000: “possesses real quality”, “touch and technique excellent”, “strong and determined character” and “good athlete who works hard even on an off day”.

“If you really break it down like that, there was nothing he couldn’t do,” Buckley, who is now an academy coach at League Two Doncaster Rovers, says. “It was as if he was destined to be a player. He never did anything wrong. He was like a sponge, the way he soaked everything in.”

Buckley’s constant message to Milner was about mixing his game up, surprising his opponents by trusting his left foot as well as his right. The individualist streak that Pugh mentioned was curbed to the extent that the young Milner matured into the ultimate team player.

Jurgen Klopp says he was “blessed” to inherit Milner at Liverpool. Manuel Pellegrini, his coach at Manchester City, once remarked that there are players who are quicker or more technically gifted, but added, “Show me another who does all the things that Milner does well. There isn’t one. It’s very difficult to find another Milner — an intelligent player with big balls and a massive heart.”

It is 20 years today since Milner made his Premier League debut against West Ham United. On Sunday, all being well after a blow to the head in Liverpool’s Champions League victory over Napoli last week, he will make his 600th top-flight appearance against Southampton at Anfield.

Milner playing for Leeds against Birmingham in January 2003 (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

He stands fourth in the Premier League’s all-time appearances list and is fast closing in on Frank Lampard (609). Gareth Barry (653) and Ryan Giggs (632) are still some way off, but if Milner plays beyond this season — whether at Liverpool, where his latest contract runs until the summer, or elsewhere — he could well break Barry’s record.

The numbers have never interested Milner. He is far more interested in his day-to-day statistics — his high-intensity running, the number of sprints, his lactose levels — than the record books, even if breaking one particular record became a motivation as he set his sights firmly on a breakthrough.

Milner remembers sitting on the bench at Elland Road in early November 2002. This was the Premier League, the big time, and it was tantalisingly out of reach. So near, yet so far.

Two months short of his 17th birthday he had been called up to Leeds’ first-team squad for the first time, but he had just missed out on a place among the substitutes for a match against Everton. He had been invited to sit on the bench for the experience — “to get a taste for it”, he was told, as if he was not hungry enough already.

On the opposition bench that Sunday afternoon was a familiar face. He had first witnessed Wayne Rooney’s incredible talent when the clubs played an under-12s game five years earlier. Rooney had then disappeared from Milner’s radar — within 18 months he had been fast-tracked into Everton’s under-15s team — but now, suddenly, everyone knew about him.

Two weeks earlier, Rooney had become the youngest goalscorer in the Premier League era, aged 16 years and 360 days, when he came off the bench to score a dramatic, spectacular last-minute winner against Arsenal. “Remember the name!” screamed ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley, as if anyone was ever likely to forget it.

And now Rooney was coming off the bench at Elland Road, the Everton supporters chanting his name. And now he was turning away from Eirik Bakke, running at Lucas Radebe and beating Paul Robinson to score another late winner. And now he was running towards the delirious Everton fans and being mobbed by his team-mates. Everyone was mad about the boy.

Rooney celebrates his goal against Leeds in November 2002 (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Milner couldn’t take his eyes off Rooney, who was barely two months his senior but was living a totally different experience. He was determined to make his Premier League debut before he turned 17 in the New Year. If he did that, he might have a shot at breaking Rooney’s goalscoring record.

At the final whistle, one of Leeds’ coaches, Steve McGregor, tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re desperate to do what he’s doing, aren’t you?” he said. “You’re not that far off, you know.”

As it happened, he was only six days away. Terry Venables gave him his Premier League debut as a substitute in the closing stages at West Ham. His first touch was an errant pass which almost played in Paolo Di Canio, but Leeds just about held on for a 4-3 win.

Further appearances from the bench followed, the fourth of them away to Sunderland on Boxing Day as an early substitute for the injured Alan Smith. Five minutes into the second half he slid in to convert Jason Wilcox’s cross in front of the away fans. At 16 years and 356 days, he had broken Rooney’s record by four days.

Two days later Milner scored a beauty against Chelsea at Elland Road, turning the great Marcel Desailly before curling a wonderful shot inside the far post. Like Rooney, this kid was here for the long haul.

Milner ghosting past Mario Stanic in that game against Chelsea in December 2002 (Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Long before the end of an illustrious playing career at Manchester United, before retiring at the age of 40, Giggs seemed like a precious relic from another era. Indeed he could claim to be short-changed by the numbers cited in the previous paragraph; in addition to his 632 Premier League appearances he made 40 in the old Football League.

Giggs’s senior career stretched from March 1991, making his debut against an Everton team that included Neville Southall (born 1958) and Kevin Ratcliffe (born 1960), to May 2014, playing alongside Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson (born 1995). He preceded the Premier League era, the Champions League era, all-seater stadia, the backpass rule. His first professional contract earned him a basic £170 a week, his last getting on for £170,000 a week.

Similar can be said of Milner’s career. He made his debut in 2002 against a West Ham team featuring Nigel Winterburn (born 1963). He now has team-mates at Liverpool (Harvey Elliott and Stefan Bajcetic) who were not even born at the time. At the other end of the spectrum he remarked last week, “I played against David Seaman and he’s just turned 59. It’s mind-blowing.”

Then there are the wider changes in English football over the past two decades, so many of them fuelled by overseas investment and another boom in broadcast revenue. If it is possible to pinpoint Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea in July 2003 as the second watershed of the Premier League era, Milner preceded it. He played against Ken Bates’s Chelsea and he played against Manchester City at Maine Road, where the mood was usually bleak rather than expectant.

On a purely trivial note, there was no pre-match rigmarole in those days. Players just ran out of the tunnel and went to warm up at their end of the pitch — no anthem, fair-play handshake or anything of that sort. As for goal-line technology and VAR, these were the type of mind-blowing ideas that might occasionally be floated in the BBC series Tomorrow’s World before it reached the end of its 38-year run in July 2003.

Wages? Milner was still earning £70 a week as a “scholar” when he made his debut. With his first win bonus he went out and bought “my own phone line, my own Sky box and my own TV, which, if you remember the TVs back then, was way too big for my bedroom at my mum and dad’s”.

As a 12-year-old Milner had accepted a deal that would take him to an eye-watering £600 a week upon turning professional at 17. That was swiftly renegotiated upwards after a record-breaking start to his Premier League career, his weekly wage rocketed to four figures and then, as his career progressed, to five figures and to six figures, swelled by trophy bonuses after he joined Manchester City in 2010 and Liverpool in 2015.

James Milner, Liverpool, Premier League, trophy, quiz

(Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

But even the sums Milner has earned over a long, successful career might soon sound quaint to some of those now taking their first steps in the Premier League.

Likewise the revelation that he was stunned, as a teenager, to learn that Nike were willing to pay him to wear their boots, rather than the reverse. When the man from Nike asked whether there was any more gear he needed, he panicked. All he could think to say was that he needed a new pair of flip-flops.

He feels there was a humility that was ingrained in his generation of players. How could you let your ego get the better of you when, in his case, he returned to the dressing room at Sunderland to be reminded it was his job to pick up his team-mates’ dirty slips and kit off the floor and load the crates onto the bus?

It was all about keeping young players grounded. Milner, it seemed, was born grounded. And he wasn’t going to change.

Footballers’ lives have changed in so many ways since Milner made his debut 20 years ago. And the conventional thing to say here would be that the game itself has remained unchanged.

Conventional, but untrue. Because the football that was played in the Premier League 20 years ago is very different to the football that is played now that the influence of Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa, Jurgen Klopp and others is so widely felt.

At the start of the 2002-03 season there were only four overseas managers in the Premier League (Wenger, Claudio Ranieri, Gerard Houllier and Jean Tigana) and, while the likes of Venables and Sir Bobby Robson were synonymous with a more progressive style, having coached abroad, Graham Taylor, Sam Allardyce, Peter Reid, Mick McCarthy and others were not.

Twenty years on, the Premier League is far more technical. Michael Cox asked recently whether the direct football of the past, having been dying out in recent years, is now extinct. The most influential British coaches currently are Brendan Rodgers, Graham Potter and Eddie Howe, all of them far more possession-focused than the previous generation of managers.

It is borne out in the statistics. In 2006-07, the first season that Opta’s data covers, there was an average of 717 passes per match in the Premier League. So far this season it is 909. More tellingly, 17.3 per cent of passes in 2006-07 were hit long. Now it is just 11.9 per cent. And just 70.5 per cent of passes in 2006-07 were successful. Now it 81.3 per cent. By contrast, the number of tackles per game has dropped significantly from 47.5 to 34.2.

In other words, it is a different game to the one Milner grew up playing. The fundamentals remain the same, but the technical, physical and tactical demands have changed quite dramatically.

The game has evolved and Milner has had to evolve with it.

Of course it has helped that Milner is something of a freak of nature, a cross-country champion in his youth and even now outperforming his younger team-mates at Liverpool in the dreaded lactose test in pre-season training year after year. Virgil van Dijk calls him “the machine”.

But beyond that, it comes down to discipline: never touching a drop of alcohol, obsessing over his nutrition, his conditioning and his fitness. Such dedication might be commonplace now, but it certainly wasn’t when Milner started out on that path two decades ago.

(Photo: John Powell/Getty Images)

The era of marginal gains was dawning, but for many players in those days the concept of sports science went little further than “bin bag Thursday” — making the most of their usual Wednesday afternoon off with a drinking session and then wearing a bin bag under their training kit the next day in order to try to sweat their excesses. Milner took one look at that and decided it wasn’t for him.

“Eat the right things, drink the right things, use the mental side of wanting to prove people wrong,” he said last week when asked to explain the secrets of his longevity. “To have that stubbornness that I have probably helps — that you always want to prove yourself, always want to be the best guy in training or want to show up the young lads in pre-season, if you have a bad game, the frustration of ‘I want to go again the next time’. I think it is probably just having that drive to keep doing it. The mental side is probably the biggest thing.”

Again we come back to Rooney. You do not become Manchester United’s and England’s all-time record goalscorer without a serious dedication to your trade — and rarely would you see a player more driven on the pitch than he appeared in his raging-bull period. But Rooney also liked a burger, liked a drink, liked a cigarette and at times he struggled to keep the weight off.

Since retiring, Rooney has suggested his drinking was problematic; “there were times you’d get a couple of days off from football and I would actually lock myself away and just drink”. Sir Alex Ferguson repeatedly warned Rooney that his lifestyle, as well as his physique, could curtail his career at the highest level. Rooney would probably admit now that Ferguson was right.

(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There are differences of opinion on what constituted Rooney’s peak, but most would agree it was somewhere between the ages of 19 and 24 even if his most two prolific seasons at Manchester United came just a little later.

From around his 27th birthday Rooney’s career seemed like it was in slow-puncture mode; he still scored goals, won trophies and broke records, but the physical intensity that had made him such a force of nature faded. Attempts to reinvent himself as a deep-lying midfielder were not successful. He moved back to Everton at 31, joined DC United a year later, moved to Derby County as player-coach at 33 and then hung up his boots at 35. In terms of longevity, he was never going to be a Milner, a Giggs or indeed a Cristiano Ronaldo.

By contrast, Milner was a teenage sensation who, after the instability he encountered at Leeds and Newcastle United, with so many changes of manager, ended up being a relatively late bloomer at Aston Villa. He won 46 England under-21 caps before finally making his senior debut at the age of 23. He won the PFA Young Player of the Year award at 24 after making more than 300 appearances at club level. He is probably right when he suggests his final season at Villa, in 2009-10, as his best from an individual perspective, but from that point on, at Manchester City and Liverpool, he has been a model of consistency in teams competing for the biggest prizes.

“If I think back to under-14 days, Wayne Rooney was absolutely frightening,” Buckley says. “He had a brilliant career, as I think everyone knew he was going to have. But James has ended up a different kind of example.”

There are two common misconceptions about Milner.

The first is that he is boring. Working with him on his book Ask A Footballer three years ago, I found him to be deadly serious when it comes to his work but also very funny, engaging company in his downtime. Intelligent too; as well as speaking Spanish fluently (including with his children), he got seven A grades at GCSE, including maths, which led him to offer an amusingly thorough (and, sadly, entirely fictitious) answer to a question about how many bottles of Ribena it might take to fill up the European Cup.

The second misconception is that he is low-maintenance. In some respects, yes — Klopp has said Milner makes a manager’s life easier with the way he and Jordan Henderson run the dressing room, setting the highest standards of professionalism — but his driven, demanding nature cuts both ways, as staff would testify. Even at this stage of his career, he finds himself “raging” when left out of the starting line-up.

There have been times when he has found it “unbearable”. “I can remember going home in tears when I was at City because I felt so low,” Milner said in the book. “Not just the usual frustrations that you can have one week to the next, but feeling utterly despondent because I was training really well and playing really well and I was still being left out week after week and I felt there was nothing more that I could do.”

(Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

That recurring sense of rejection was a significant factor in his decision to leave Manchester City for Liverpool in 2015. It was a step down, swapping Champions League for Europa League, but at Anfield he has been a key figure in the resurgence under Klopp, winning the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League a year later. Even if he only started nine Premier League games last season, he played a significant role from the bench in both the Carabao Cup final and FA Cup final victories over Chelsea.

So often, discussion of Milner comes down to his professionalism, but it is also fascinating to note how he has evolved through his career: from fleet-footed winger in his early days at Leeds and Newcastle United to thrusting box-to-box midfielder at Villa, from reluctant wide player at Manchester City to midfield dynamo in his first season at Liverpool, then a reluctant stand-in left-back, back to midfield and, increasingly, as the years have gone on, a utility player who can either speed a game up or slow it down as a substitute, depending on what the circumstances require.

“I remember people some people questioning whether he would make it to the top. Look at his CV!” says Buckley. “Even now, you get people saying he’s too old. I watched him playing for Liverpool the other week. Too old? Really? Are you sure about that?”

As a player, Milner has kept evolving, relentless in his pursuit of self-improvement, in the example he sets and in the demands he makes of his team-mates.

During Milner’s difficult first season at Newcastle, his manager Graeme Souness infamously said that “I don’t see myself being here for a long time (…) if I go down the road (of) buying a team of James Milners”. It was intended as a remark on the need for experience, rather than a slight on a young player bought by his predecessor Robson, but Milner took it personally and vowed to prove Souness wrong when he was sent on loan to Villa the following season.

(Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

It is fair to say Milner has proved his point many times over. Indeed Souness goes out of his way to tell him as much any time their paths cross. As an outspoken critic of many of today’s footballers, he loves the player Milner has blossomed into, combining the best old-fashioned values with the hyper-professionalism the modern game demands.

A team of James Milners? If only there were enough of them for every team to have just one.

(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)