On Saturday evening, you’re unlikely to see James Milner’s name in Liverpool’s starting lineup. Liverpool are going for their seventh European Cup win in Paris against a Real Madrid side hunting for their 14th. It’s the proverbial clash of the titans, and all being well, Jürgen Klopp will have no need to call on the 36-year-old former England midfielder an hour before kick off; he’ll have too much quality at his disposal for that.
Thiago Alcántara and Fabinho are both looking likely to be fit for the game. If that’s the case then Klopp will be able to field his team at full strength, and that’s bad news for Madrid. But not starting is not the same thing as being involved for Milner; in fact, if you asked Klopp about the most important players in his squad, in terms of what they bring off the pitch as well as on it, he’d be hard-pressed to name somebody ahead of the former Leeds United, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, and Manchester City man.
Nobody is more professional, more capable across the board, or more reliable. Klopp can fully trust Milner to not only perform when needed, but also to set and drive standards in the camp. Although a starting berth is only likely in times of need, if Liverpool are winning and in need of a calming influence late in the game, you know who they’ll call upon. Milner will play his part beautifully; for all the headlines deservedly thrown the way of Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, and Sadio Mane, he is the kind of player and person that holds everything together. It is far from a surprise that he hasn’t always got the credit he deserves, but for those who have seen him, judged him and got to know him, few are more deserving of praise. The same traits that Liverpool are benefitting from were evident even as a teenager.
#UCLfinal preparations 👊 pic.twitter.com/6d0SAptL4K
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 27, 2022
Coming through at Leeds, his hometown club, he was always highly-rated. His drive and character stood out, but he shot to fame as a 16-year-old when he promptly broke Wayne Rooney’s record as the youngest ever Premier League goalscorer with a goal against Sunderland in 2002. Leeds were struggling at the time, and Milner had to establish himself as a first-team player against a backdrop of financial issues and relegation battles. But his personality, character and quality stood him in good stead, and he impressed the right people — namely Newcastle’s chief scout in the summer of 2004, Charlie Woods.
“I went to see a game and he impressed me,” Woods tells Compare.Bet about the then 18-year-old. “I liked the look of the boy. He put his foot in, saw a pass, worked hard, got forward, got back. He was such a good young player.”
Newcastle struck early, with Sir Bobby Robson making sure Milner would be staying in the Premier League even though Leeds were about to face a 16-year absence from the top flight.
“I went to see him a second time, and then Bobby came the third time. Milner was really good each time, and he agreed that he wanted him. Bobby always liked young players, even when we were at Ipswich together, and he trusted my judgement. We went back to the club, Bobby saw the chairman and we signed him. He was only 18 and he really proved a very good asset.”
It wasn’t plain sailing for Milner at St James’ Park, not least because just a week after arriving, Robson and Woods had left Newcastle. Milner eventually went out on loan to Aston Villa and, although he would only cement his place on his return, in 2008 he joined Villa permanently. From there, he morphed from a right-winger into an all-action midfielder, becoming an England regular while at Manchester City and more recently gaining a new lease of life at Anfield. Woods, however, is not surprised to see how his career has turned out.
“I always knew he’d go to the top,” he continues. “He was an all-rounder, a good player and a good character. I was at the training ground every day and he stood out even then. He worked so hard and always gave his all. He always set the tone, and Bobby liked him a lot. You could see what he’d become even then because of his attitude.
Final prep done, next stop Paris 🇫🇷#UCLfinal #YNWA #Allezallezallez pic.twitter.com/MFkhBrMfFn
— James Milner (@JamesMilner) May 26, 2022
“It is no surprise to me, because you can imagine wherever he’s been, City, Liverpool, people follow his lead. Whether he starts for Liverpool or comes off the bench, Jürgen Klopp trusts him and that is the mark of the man.”
Woods was in the stands to watch Milner put on a masterclass against his former club at St James’ Park at the end of last month. Liverpool, at the time juggling their ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the quadruple, had to rest key players due to the number of games they had remaining. Klopp needed Milner to stand up, and that is exactly what he did.
“He is an excellent player, and that is why he can play so many positions. He can tackle, he can run, he can impact the game at both ends. He was really tough about himself, even as a young player; he could hold himself and stand up for himself. He’d be in first and out last, the kind of player who took everything seriously and he was desperate to fulfil his potential. There aren’t many who have got more out of their careers than him and he deserves everything.”
While Newcastle didn’t get to see the best of Milner, Liverpool certainly have. His name won’t strike fear into Real Madrid like Salah’s or Mane’s will, but his role will be crucial. He could even be key to getting the job done.
Even back in 2004, his work rate and quality clearly set him apart. Perhaps some people didn’t quite appreciate it at the time, but the fact the qualities Woods spotted 17 years ago are on the brink of making him a European champion for the second time says everything you need to know about James Milner.