Does James Milner make me feel old or young? It’s a question I’ve been considering since we spoke this week, because the longer he plays the longer I have an active link to the game that gave me everything. I can point to the pitch as Liverpool press and dominate, still hunting down four trophies, and say I shared a dressing room with that lad, the one running and running and running. The lad who never stops.
But football didn’t just give. It also took a few things from me and I couldn’t jog for more than a few yards now without my knees screaming for bloody mercy. And so, in another sense, the more James runs, the more I’m reminded that I can’t, the more I’m conscious of how parts of me ache. In those moments, memories of that 18-year-old kid, buzzing around me at Newcastle United… well, it all feels so distant.
I’m now a statue outside St James’ Park, for heaven’s sake, a bronzed memory at constant risk of bird shit, and he’s still flesh and blood, a whirring, blurring man of the match, who won every domestic honour with Manchester City and then pushed himself to outdo himself.
This, of course, is a big part of Millie’s story. He’s been so good for so long. We are 20 years on from his Premier League debut for Leeds United, his boyhood club, and it is not as if he is now clinging on, traipsing down the divisions. He might be playing less often than he would like at Liverpool, but he is still a leader and tone-setter, one trusted with the first penalty in the Carabao Cup final. Naturally, he scored.
Against Newcastle a couple of weeks ago, James made his first league start since January and was exceptional, driving the team, covering every blade of grass. There was a tiny moment in the first half when Sadio Mane was pressing near the halfway line and Mille roared at him “AGAIN!” — it was utterly inconsequential and everything Liverpool are, now 59 games into an epic season and still fighting for every inch.
In the middle of it, a 36-year-old freak of nature — forgive me, James — and the biggest “mentality monster” of the lot.
“That’s what we have to do as a group,” James tells me. “We have to push each other on. It’s hard to keep doing it game-in game-out for every minute. Every single player is going to have a bad five minutes and so they just need a rocket or a, ‘Go on, keep going’. It’s so important. You see the togetherness in the group when things haven’t gone our way. We keep fighting.”
Jurgen Klopp was asked about James after the Newcastle match and this is what he said: “Nothing we’ve achieved here over the last few years would have happened without James Milner — easy as that, whether he’s on the pitch or not. It’s because he’s set standards in a way that not a lot of people can set standards. He’s educated all of us.”
“Coming from a manager like him and what he’s achieved, the players he’s worked with and the job he’s done, yeah, it’s nice,” James says coyly. “It’s been great to be part of that process. When he came in, the injection of intensity happened straight away. We got to a point where we could beat anybody on our day, but then the next week we could be horrendous. It was about getting that consistency, then learning how to win ugly — improving all those little bits. It’s been fun.”
Fun? It’s been transformative, astonishing, Liverpool winning their first league title for 30 years, the Champions League, a League Cup, the European Super Cup, the World Club Cup. And now? One trophy in the bag already this season, an FA Cup final against Chelsea, a Champions League final against Real Madrid, still pushing Manchester City in the Premier League. And if a quadruple ultimately proves beyond them, my god, to even be having that conversation…
It reminds me of something Graeme Souness once said as Newcastle manager: “You’ll never win anything with a team of James Milners.” Let’s face it, we all make mistakes but Millie has made a fucking mockery of that! “I remember it!” James says with a laugh. “To be fair, when we won the title at City — the (Sergio) Aguero one — he was doing the TV and came up to me and said something about it, that he was misquoted.
“It’s one of them things. Back then I wanted to prove him wrong, but it was never something I carried around and thought ‘I hate this guy’. I respect him so much as a player and I love watching him on Sky. He said he didn’t mean it and I’m sure he didn’t. It’s one of those parts of your career that drive you on. It’s like, ‘Let’s use this as fuel’.”
James is a master of self-propulsion, one of few survivors from Klopp’s first game for Liverpool — away to Tottenham Hotspur in October 2015. He started that day, as did Divock Origi (Jordan Henderson was injured).
“In one of our first training sessions, one of the younger guys — I think it was Joao Teixeira — was throwing up on the side of the pitch,” James says. “The levels just went through the roof. We were doing sessions on the day of a game and there were hamstring injuries everywhere. Levels again.
“A lot of the training we do is different to anything I’ve seen. There are two or three balls going in at once during shooting drills, so you have your shot and the next thing you’re reacting to the other ball. Everything is about staying in the moment. It conditions you to a game where if you lose the ball you’re not disappointed or moan, ‘Why didn’t you run there?’. It’s ‘Go and get it back immediately’. That intensity and relentlessness was the first thing he had to get into us.
“After that, it was about how we wanted to play and attack and then developing through our signings. You’ve got Mo (Salah) and Sadio coming in, people like that. In amongst it, I had a season at left-back. Looking back now, I don’t know whether the manager thought I was going to be here or whether he thought I’d be phased out — I was probably at the back of the queue — but I managed to find my way back in.
“You have spells like that at every club, where it’s make-or-break. That’s a proud time for me because I managed to fight my way back into midfield and I’m still here now. You look at the amount of good players we have, the turnover and the competition for places. Seeing all that development… but I remember some of the comments when Mo came in — ‘He was rubbish for Chelsea’. Virgil van Dijk — ‘How much?’. It’s brilliant to see, because they haven’t done bad, have they?”
On a similar subject, I bring up Pep Guardiola’s recent remarks, when the City boss said “everyone in this country supports Liverpool”. To me, it was pure Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and the way he excelled at making the biggest club in the world all about a tight dressing room. “It was interesting!” James says. “But, you know, that was the big week he’d had and the emotion of it and I can see both sides because I’ve experienced both sides.
“When I came to Liverpool, there was this feeling around Man City that they’d bought a lot of players and come into success. Man City see Liverpool’s tradition as a massive club and so they have a hunch on their back from that perspective and Liverpool have it from the other. It’s a rivalry but a healthy rivalry. There’s a lot of respect for both teams and what they’ve done. You look at Premier League history and they’re probably both up there with the best we’ve seen.”
And then some. Wow, they’re so accomplished — heavy metal versus hot ballet — each worthy of dominance but going toe-to-toe, churning out victories. “I never, ever watch their games,” Millie says. “It was the same when I was at City and it was going down to the wire. You sit there, so tense, hoping, a waste of energy. I can’t do anything about it.
“They’re an unbelievable team. They’re relentless, too. You go back to 2019 when we got to 97 points, an incredible number, and still didn’t win the league. They’re just so good. With them, you need to take your chances. It’s good and bad we’re playing at the same time as them.”
As he says, James knows both clubs. It’s seven years since he left the Etihad Stadium on a free transfer, a brave call but one he has vindicated. “I loved my time at City,” he says. “We had a fantastic team, there were trophies, the Aguero moment… every time I see it on TV, the hairs still go up on the back of my neck! The reason I went there was because it was a big club that hadn’t had success for such a long time.
“The decision on whether to leave City or not was similar. Liverpool was a huge club that hadn’t won too much in their recent history. It was a big decision, a gamble, but I’d managed to do it at City and if I could be part of a Liverpool side that went on to win the league… every day here you’re confronted with the history of the great Liverpool teams and the amount of trophies they won and you’re just desperate to contribute.
“In that first season, we lost in a League Cup final and a Europa League final and that hurt. You’re thinking, ‘Was that the chance to justify what you’ve done?’. To go on and do what we have, to help start another brilliant era, is special. It’s one thing to play for Liverpool but, to really earn your right to be here you’ve got to put silverware in the cabinet like all the greats before you.”
Three Champions League finals in the space of five years is further justification. James came on as a substitute in the victory over Spurs in 2019 and had started 12 months earlier, when Liverpool lost 3-1 to Real Madrid. Salah, who came off early after a rudimentary challenge by Sergio Ramos, has said on social media, “We have a score to settle” ahead of their rematch with Real in Paris.
Does James agree? And what are his memories of Kyiv? “(Gareth) Bale’s goal is the memory,” he says. “They went ahead, we got back into it and at that time in that season we had 20-minute spells in games where we just destroyed teams, blitzed them. We didn’t have consistency, but we’d score two or three goals and the game would be done.
“We were on top against Real, we were ratting all over them and this hopeful ball is floated in to the edge of the box and Bale does what he does. It’s got to be one of the greatest goals in Champions League history and it flipped the game. After that it was tough, hard to take, because it felt in that moment that we had our backs up.
“We’ve trained at their training ground two or three times when we’ve played in Madrid and they have all the big European Cups as you drive in and it says ‘Kyiv’ under that one. And you think, ‘That could have been ours’.
“Their history in the Champions League is incredible, the experience they have, the players — (Karim) Benzema and (Luka) Modric are so dangerous — the manager, the know-how. I think it’ll be a great game and one we definitely owe them. It would be nice to get one back on them.”
Before that, another trip to Wembley and the FA Cup final. Three times they’ve played Chelsea this season and three times they’ve drawn, with Liverpool eking past them 11-10 on penalties in the League Cup. “They’re a good team,” Millie says. “They have experience at winning trophies which makes a big difference in these games because they’re comfortable with that pressure. It would be nice if we could it without needing penalties…”
But if they did and he was on the pitch, would James step up again, would he go first? “Yeah,” he says, simple as that. “Hopefully it doesn’t happen but yeah, I’ll be there.” And this, to me, sums James up perfectly. This is the man — the fierce, strong, indefatigable man — he has grown into. This is what Klopp means by setting standards.
They are on the cusp of something unprecedented, yet they have no scope to take it in. Every game is all or nothing. “The mentality is next game, next game, next game,” he says. “We’ve got the FA Cup final, a game you grow up dreaming about with all its history, but we’ve been concentrating on a midweek league match and then it’s, right, we start thinking about it two days before.
“With so few games left and three trophies to play for and when you’ve gone so deep, it would be disappointing to only come out of it with the Carabao Cup. These are very big weeks ahead of us. We have to keep that intensity up.”
I ask James to cast his mind back to his debut for Newcastle 18 years ago. “Middlesbrough away, wasn’t it?” he says, correctly. “I remember Bellers (Craig Bellamy) bollocking me for crossing the ball and he shouted, ‘Why are you crossing it in?’. I think my answer was, ‘Well, we’ve got Alan Shearer in the middle!’. That was my introduction to Newcastle. Welcome!”
Point of fact: I scored a penalty.
It was some dressing room we had under Sir Bobby Robson — a mix of youth and experience and spiky with it. “We had some big players and characters at Leeds, but there were more egos at Newcastle,” James says. “It was a team that had been doing well under a legendary manager and it was a new experience for me, my first transfer. I’d never been away before apart from on loan. It was a big change.
“I’d grown up watching you. I had videos of your goals and you were a legend then as you are now (aw, shucks). Then there were younger players like Kieron Dyer and Bellers. I was different to them. They liked to go out and enjoy themselves and that side never really appealed to me. It was always football first.
“It’s easy to come into dressing rooms now because it’s softer banter. It was quite harsh back then, cut-throat, tough love and you either sank or swam. You’d have your go, Kieron and Bellers would be giving you grief, you’d give it back and I just wanted to keep my head down! But you had to give enough back so that if Bellers was on you he’d be like, ‘Ah, forget it, I can’t be arsed’. It was about getting that balance right.
“If you treated everybody in the same way now you’d lose them and not get them back. There are things you’d like to go a bit more old-school on that you can’t. When you see certain videos on Instagram… You have to put an arm around some players, give them encouragement and gain their trust. You’ve got to think about it a bit more. If you ruined certain lads it would be that’s it, gone. We try and get the same standards across, the same principles, but in an easier way.”
His first season at Newcastle was tinged with chaos. Sir Bobby was sacked four games in. “The disappointment is that I didn’t get to work with him longer,” James says. “It’s amazing how much I remember about him because we only had a couple of months together. That just shows what a great manager, great guy and legend he was.”
The following April, carnage: Steven Taylor sent off against Aston Villa for handball (and then the worst dive this side of stuntman college), followed by Kieron and Lee Bowyer scrapping on the pitch. “I was about to come on as a sub when they had that fight and so I didn’t come on,” James says and we’re both giggling now. “They pressure they took off Tayls was incredible – he’d have been annihilated for what he did, going down like he’d been shot.
“Remember that drink we had for after training? It was the stickiest stuff ever. You’d come into the dressing room with your water bottle and slammed it down and these drinks have gone all over and I’m sat there soaked. And then you’ve screamed, ‘Get these two c**** in front of the press now’, and Souey was just there… he didn’t know what to say. I’ve never seen anything like that.
“I’d come from Leeds as well. There were court cases going on, relegation, financial crisis, there were players coming in for pre-season whose arses were too big for their shorts — they had to send someone to the club shop for bigger sizes — so I’ve come from one form of madness to get to Newcastle and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh’. I had to learn pretty quickly because there was so much going on.”
His story about standing up to Craig is telling. I always thought of myself as a proper pro, but I never saw harm in letting off steam and Sundays were often pub days. Millie got an invite like everyone else and for him it was, ‘No, it’s not for me’. He’s never drunk alcohol. I admired the single-minded attitude, because it would have been easier to say yes. He’s never been afraid to make his own decisions.
He did his growing up in public; plenty of other players have gone off the rails. “Being so young at Leeds helped because even if I’d wanted to go clubbing everybody knew how old I was so I couldn’t,” he says. “And Wayne Rooney coming through at the same time helped, too, because he was instantly a global superstar so he took a lot of the limelight. I’ve always been lucky with my family and the people around me, the senior pros I’ve had.”
James was quiet back then but he wasn’t shy and he always had that dry sense of humour. Even so, it’s funny to think of that skinny little 18-year-old now doing the shouting and dishing out of fines at Liverpool…
“Me and Hendo are probably opposite ends of the spectrum,” he says. “Off the field, I’m probably harsher on the boys — ‘You’re late’ and stuff like that — and he’s probably the softer touch and then we get on the field and I’m trying to get on the referee’s good side and he’s barking at him from a yard away! Really, it’s just about maintaining standards, making sure training is good, that people aren’t late, no phones at meal times so people actually speak to each other.
“We have fun with the fines. They go into a pot and we’ll use them for a team do or families or in pre-season, when we were away for a long stint in Austria, we gave it to the staff to thank them for their work. Sometimes it goes to charity. It’s good fun but it’s also important because the little things matter. ‘Oh, sorry I’m a bit late’ — well, hang on a minute, your team-mates are waiting for you, so it’s a respect thing.
“But the dressing room is incredible. The group of guys we have, there’s not one dodgy character in there. Not one. And you always say that in interviews but here you don’t have to lie! It’s ridiculous. And that’s credit to recruitment but everyone in the dressing room gets on really well. The guys coming in feel part of something straight away.”
Winning helps, too, although I’m not sure it quite explains Liverpool’s energy levels. “It starts in pre-season,” James says. “It’s just relentless; double session, game, double, triple, on and on and if you look at this season it’s been perfect preparation because the games come every three days, two days, three. As time has gone on, the manager has learned he can trust his players to have a day off, but wow, the intensity is crazy.”
The other mad thing: James continues to lead from the front. In football terms, he’s geriatric, but his stats tell you something else. He’s still the same kid who was always way out in front when it came to running and I was near the back, blowing for England.
“I did cross country when I was younger so the fitness came from there,” he says. “But I think it’s the mental side of not wanting to lose. I want to be the best player in training, I want to beat everyone if it’s a running test. If it’s a strength test I want to win. It’s about the competition, trying to be the best you can be and to stay there.
“When you get older and have a bad game it’s: ‘He’s past it’. If you have a good game, it’s: ‘Oh my god, he’s 36!’. There’s no middle ground. You’ve got to want to do it and have the drive, hunger and desire. But it’s nice to be running around and having the young guys trying to hold on to your tail. You want to prove a point.”
That fire still burns in him. James has started eight league matches this season and, over time, has had to adapt to less time on grass. “Yes, it’s been tough,” he says. “And I still don’t (like it). The day it doesn’t annoy me and that I don’t get a bit angry and frustrated is the day I need to retire. Even though I can accept it and I know the reasons why, if I don’t think, ‘You know what, I could do a job today’, I reckon that’s time to knock it on the head.”
Does Klopp explain those decisions? “Occasionally,” James says. “The Champions League final stands out. I’d played every game and then I didn’t start in the final and he didn’t say anything to me beforehand. I think I dealt with it pretty well. He spoke to me afterwards and said, ‘I needed you on the pitch at the end of the game’. Every manager is different. It’s his way of doing things.”
And you can’t knock it, can you? Jurgen has been sensational for Liverpool and it can only be terrific news for them and the Premier League that he has signed a new contract. “He’s a good guy first of all,” James says. “He’s genuine. What you see is what you get, which is important, I think, because some people have one face for the camera and one for behind closed doors.
“He’s very good at anticipating things before they happen, looking at situations around a game. So it’ll be, ‘This could be a banana skin because we’ve played two days ago’, or, ‘People are saying this’, or, ‘We’ve had all these games’, but he’ll pick up on those things before they get into people’s heads, before they become doubts. There’s social media and 24/7 coverage, but he nips it in the bud. He’ll say, ‘That’s not the reality. The reality is that we’ll do well’. It’s a big strength.”
Klopp has said that he wants James, whose contract is nearly up, to stay at Anfield for another season. I’ve kept this subject until last because, typical Millie, he doesn’t want anything to distract from Liverpool’s run-in. I know for myself these situations can be difficult. Liverpool are brilliant and are winning trophies and James has a beautiful history with them. Is his dilemma between that and playing more?
“Yeah, when I come to make that decision it will be incredibly hard,” he says. “Liverpool is an incredible place to play football and we have a great bunch of guys, but that is the point isn’t it, to play football? I just want to contribute. If I feel like I’m not contributing enough and I’m a passenger for the guys then it’s not really worth it.
“But I haven’t got into it, to be honest. It sounds like I’m batting you off, but there are so many games and it’s such a big thing to think about I just couldn’t do it now and still be doing my bit for the team, in training and in the dressing room. You’ve got to be fully here in the moment. The club have been great. We’ve said we’ll talk at the end of the season and work it out.”
One thing we can discount. “You’re a long time retired,” James says. “The Newcastle game showed I can definitely still do it even if I hadn’t played for a while. I want to play as long as possible. Why wouldn’t you?
“It’s not one of them where I want to be struggling right to the end but I feel like I can still do a pretty good job playing in the Premier League. I’ve worked hard in my career to do everything right, to be fit and available and to play longer, so it would seem a shame not to do that. So, yeah. You go back to what Jurgen said. He’s one of the very best managers in the world and if he wants me here for another year, it would be silly not to play, wouldn’t it?”
That’s James. Still running, after all these years.
(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)