Terrific, versatile, intelligent: An apology to James Milner

James Milner Liverpool vs PSG

With James Milner set to miss out on one month of competitive action following a hamstring injury, we take a look at midfielder’s career and how he has managed to carve out a place for himself in Jurgen Klopp’s star-studded midfield.

Over the course of the past 24 months, the radical change in the footballing fraternity’s perception of James Milner can be best summed up by Gary Lineker’s tweet following Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Tottenham in September. Lineker tweeted, “I once tweeted that I didn’t really know what @JamesMilner was on the football pitch. I do these days, and owe him an apology. He’s a terrific, versatile and intelligent footballer. My bad.”

Terrific, versatile and intelligent. One would struggle to find three words that better describe the Englishman. However, having started his career away from the gloss and glamour of a big Premier League side, it wasn’t always all rosy for the man. Starting off in the Premier League with Leeds at 16 years of age, Milner was at that time the second youngest player ever to have played in the league. He followed that up by scoring a month later to claim the record for the youngest scorer in the league as well, a record he held for almost three years. Despite the initial fanfare over the young Milner, Leeds, who had been getting perennially worse year-on-year, were relegated in 2004 and were forced to sell Milner because of financial problems, to Newcastle United later that summer.

It was a move up for the youngster as despite what Newcastle have since become, with Alan Shearer as the striker and Sir Bobby Robson managing them, the Newcastle of 2004 were as enigmatic as they were inconsistent and for a boy who had just turned 18, it was a dream come true. Things quickly turned sour, though, as Sir Bobby, who Milner looked up to as his mentor, was sacked while new manager Graeme Souness took exception to the youngster, famously stating “we’ll never win anything with a team of James Milners”. He was finally sent out on loan to Aston Villa at the end of the season. The next few years were back and forth between Villa and Newcastle, finally securing a permanent move to the Midlands club in 2008.

It was at Villa Park that Milner carved out a niche for himself in centre midfield, scoring 12 goals in his final season for the club, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award and finally earning a much deserved move to Manchester City.

At City, Milner had 5 trophy-laden years, winning every English domestic competition, including two Premier League titles. Despite being ever-present in their title wins and heralding in a new era for the club, there was a sense that Milner was under-appreciated and it was duly illustrated when his contract was allowed to run down, leaving him free to sign for another club in 2015.

This sequence ultimately culminated into his current stint as a Liverpool player. He won over his new club instantly, being named vice-captain within a month of his arrival and captaining the side in the Europa League Finals in his very first season. The second and third seasons saw him alternating between left-back and midfield, putting up another admirable shift, racking up a record-breaking 9 assists en route to the Champions League final last year, claiming the record outright from Neymar, a player with far more style but perhaps far less substance.

Now in his fourth season with Liverpool, Milner has comfortably created space in Liverpool’s midfield for himself, so much so that Klopp has instead had to rotate Naby Keita and captain Henderson to fit Milner into the team, in what is clear evidence of his value to the side. He has put in as many big-game performances already as many higher paid players do in an entire season, hassling and harrying each of Chelsea, PSG and Spurs, winning two of the three games.

Which finally brings us to the point.

There is a growing sense now that after years of under-appreciation and lack of recognition, which included being subbed after 30 minutes in a World Cup Finals opener for England, Milner is finally getting his due at Anfield. His doggedness and simplicity are finally being heralded as refreshing in a game so often dominated by unnecessary dives and flicks instead. With pundits and commentators previously restricting praise for him to words such as – “workhorse” and “rugged”, the same people are today generously sprinkling praise on the former Leeds man. While Lineker was gracious enough to admit he had erred, there was no such admission from Milner’s former manager Souness, whose praise for Milner came as part of a pointed jibe at Paul Pogba, saying how he would rather play against the Frenchman than his former player.

Praise has been coming from the very best of players too, as Alan Shearer joined the list of belated appreciators last year. Reminiscing back to their time at Newcastle, Shearer said,“I was at Newcastle with James Milner, he is a manager’s dream with his attitude.”
High praise indeed, albeit delayed.

In a nutshell, Milner has time and again risen from prematurely dug graves and pre-conceived obituaries to make his critics eat their words, (in case of Souness, without even a proper acknowledgement). He is owed an apology by pundits, fans and the media alike and this article is one such attempt at an honest admission of guilt.

Once again, quoting Gary Lineker’s tweet:

Terrific, versatile and intelligent.