James Milner exclusive: There from the start at Liverpool

“To see one of the young lads throwing up on the side of the training field in one of his first training sessions, that sets the tone, you know what you’re in for.”

James Milner has been there from the start. One of only three players from Jurgen Klopp’s first Liverpool starting XI – against Spurs in October 2015 – who remains at the club today, Milner has become an indispensable force during his time at the club. The intensity of those early training sessions remains a vivid memory.

“We had to adapt to that, there were a lot of injuries early on,” he tells Soccer Saturday, ahead of Liverpool’s match against one of his former clubs, Aston Villa, live on Sky Sports. “People were saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ You could, you just had to get used to it. Straight away you saw the tempo and the intensity in that first game at Spurs.

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“It was ridiculous really, it wasn’t like we had played at a slow tempo under Brendan [Rodgers]. That journey started then with the manager’s methods and how he wanted us to play. You saw it come in bit by bit. One week the quality would be there and the next week we would be miles off it. That was a process again; the consistency started to come in and, eventually, learning how to win ugly and become a more rounded team.”

Milner acknowledges he has played his part in enough training sessions over his long career that some might have been repetitive, but that has never been an issue under Klopp, who seems to thrive on seeing his players mentally tested and stimulated at all times.


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“All his training sessions are based around how we play,” Milner continues. “You’re reacting to the next situation, always being switched on. If you are doing a shooting drill there might be three balls coming in at once. You might be passing one and a millisecond later there’s another one coming at you to shoot.

“It’s a bit different to anything I’ve done before, it’s based around needing to be switched on at all times in a game. Defensively, as well, it’s not training man-for-man or two blocks of four, it is doing two or three jobs at once.”

Milner has had to show patience and versatility himself during his time at Liverpool. He played the entire 2016/17 season at left-back. It was not an enjoyable role at the time, but he looks back on it pragmatically.

“It was what the manager needed at the time. There’s always going to be positions you prefer but you do what’s needed for the team. I suppose at that point I could have turned around and said, ‘No I don’t want to do that, I want to leave.’

“He came to ask me to do it in pre-season and my mindset was, ‘OK, how can I be the best I can be in that position?’ and I started to learn the role. A few of the boys were a bit surprised when we set up at pre-season training the next day and I was at left-back, but that was part of the fun.”

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Part of Klopp’s persuasive powers too?

“Yeah I think so, you can see how he is around the team, but it’s also wanting to be part of that. Do you want to walk away from Liverpool and a manager of his calibre and not be part of something? I did the job as best I could and the year after that I don’t know what was in his mind. Maybe he thought, ‘Left-back, that’s him done,’ so it was a challenge to force my way back into the reckoning in midfield and I managed to do that.”

Milner brings more than versatility and dependability. There is a cheerful edge to the way he goes about the darker arts of the game, too. Sometimes it appears Klopp sends him on to mete out a few reducers high up the pitch. Tackles to leave a mark.

And there was the way he wasted time at the corner flag in that epic Champions’ League semi-final second leg against Barcelona last season, as frustrated tacklers tried to take a chunk or two out of his own legs. Milner assumes the role the team needs at just the right time.

“There are times in a game where situations are different and you have to adapt to that, maybe take the sting out of the game if you’re ahead,” Milner admits. “Maybe put a tackle in to get the crowd up, to set the press and get the tempo up.

“I would never, ever go into a tackle to hurt somebody, that’s not something I would ever do, but you can go in and let them know you’re there. You can win the ball and be fair and put in a decent tackle, that’s still allowed, that’s part of the game.

“It’s changed a bit since I first came through as a winger, when the first tackle was free. The ball would come into my feet and I’d get launched in the first few minutes and there would be nothing more than a quick chat. The game has changed but getting in a big tackle or putting a press on, they’re important moments in a game and there’s a few in the team who can do that.”

The togetherness of the squad has been one of its key characteristics. Last week the players gathered on the terrace of the Formby Hall Hotel, a few miles north of the city, to watch what proved to be the decisive act in the title race, as Chelsea beat Manchester City.

“It was great to be all together, that was special,” Milner explains. “Watching that game and getting over the line together with everything that has gone on. It’s taken a lot of effort, patience and mental strength. Coming back from the disappoint of the year before and everything you go through in a league season.

“It’s always special and I knew how big it would be for the club when I first signed if we could win the league here. We know how long they’ve waited, the amazing support we’ve been given at every single game, whether it’s been around the world or at home. You can see what it means to everybody.”

It is tempting to ask what is left for Milner to achieve in the game. Now aged 34, it is hard to look too far ahead. With another two years remaining on his contract at Liverpool, everything points to Milner seeing out his playing days at Anfield. But with Leeds United making progress at the top of the Championship, could he ever envisage a swansong at the club he made his Premier League debut with almost 18 years ago?

In 2016, ahead of an EFL Cup tie against Leeds United, Klopp wrote in his programme notes, “Leeds are one of the ‘great teams’ of England. Big history, big support. I know this because James Milner always tells me, again and again and again. Millie has told me all of the great things about this club and this city – even when I do not ask him.”

“You never know in football, what’s around the corner, but I just want to contribute and win as many trophies as I can for Liverpool and add to the great history here,” Milner says. “I’m biased, but I think the Premier League will be a better place for Leeds in it, and it will be weird to play against them next season.

“It seems a long time ago since I pulled on that shirt, you look back at photos and see how big the shirts were back then. Plenty has changed since then, unfortunately I was part of the team that got relegated and they haven’t come back and recovered just yet. It would be great to see them back next season and their fans are incredible as well.”

It is hard to imagine Milner ever leaving the game behind when he does decide the time is right to stop playing, such has been his contribution to the Premier League since those days of baggy shirts back in 2002.

“There are opportunities outside football when you’ve finished, sometimes you look at coaching or management and think that would be good. Then you see managers being sacked after eight games and think, ‘Nah, that’s not for me.’

“My thoughts change day by day, but I think it would be a shame to move out of football when I’ve been so fortunate to work with the managers and players that I have done. With the experience and knowledge I’ve gained from those amazing people, it would be a shame to leave the game and not give that back to people coming through.”

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