James Milner: ‘Someone said to me, a few years back, that I’m going to have to rein it in in training, and look after myself a bit. I didn’t agree.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Before we explore the unglamorous roots of this story, James Milner captures the pain and glory of losing and winning a Champions League final and sails through the ebbs and flows of a Premier League career that has lasted 17 years so far. He voices his contempt for VAR and celebrates his insistence on talking in Spanish to his children. Milner also reveals that he and Andy Robertson, his Liverpool teammate, have used a sleep-talking app – which proves that Milner speaks in Spanish while asleep.
These topics are addressed in an entertaining book called Ask a Footballer. The footballer in question is Milner, who has made the sixth-most appearances in Premier League history while subverting his image from being parodied as the most boring man in football to becoming one of the most interesting players in the game. Milner answers a series of open-ended questions put to him, mostly by fans, and uses the concept to expand on his distinctive career.
His early years were very different to the path followed by pampered young footballers today. He was 16 when he made his Premier League debut for Leeds in 2002 and the character of Milner was sealed in those gritty days. “Hundred percent,” he says. “I was playing in the Premier League and still cleaning the under-18s captain’s boots. I was scoring goals in the Premier League but, after the game, I’m picking up the kit, taking the dirty slips to the bus with the kitman. I had to make tea on the bus. After 20 games in the Premier League, with a few goals, the kitman said: ‘Go on, get on the bus.’ That made me feel so good. But it gave me such hunger and you knew your place.
“It definitely helped me and they’re good values that I wish were still in the game. It would help young players. They’re now looked after amazingly well but there’s more scrutiny on social media. In some ways they probably have it harder than we did as kids.”
Milner sounds pragmatic rather than wistful when pointing out that dressing rooms are now much quieter and more sanitised. But his remorseless professionalism has not cost him his wit or honesty. He still speaks in unvarnished detail when, like here, he is relaxed during an hour-long interview and I ask him about VAR: “I’m not a fan at all.”
Milner grins when I remind him that, in his book, he says he hates VAR. “Yeah. It’s in writing. So we’ll go with that. It might just be the old school part of me but I think there’s still too much debate around VAR. Goal-line technology is incredible. Instant decision. Black and white. But it’s very hard to use VAR when you’ve still got opinions on the decisions and the atmosphere is being ruined. You score, there’s an explosion of noise and then it’s VAR. You wait. Is it a goal?
“I had the experience of a penalty the other week [when Milner scored a much-delayed last-minute spot-kick to win the game against Leicester]. That was a new experience as they’re debating if it’s going to be a penalty. I think there’s use for it – if we can improve it. But football is a game of human error on the field and in officiating as well. They have a very tough job and I’m all for making their lives easier – but not at the expense of the flow of the game. If the VAR took away controversy I’d back it 100%. But we’re still having discussions about VAR. I don’t think many footballers feel differently.”
Milner sounds almost nostalgic for the lunacy of Phil Dowd’s high-jinks as a referee when he was playing for Aston Villa. “I was being pulled back by the referee and I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I think it was at Villa Park and I was running into the box. Me and Phil Dowd were close to each other, and he pulled my shirt. I look around, and I’m thinking: ‘Ref!’ But, hang on a moment, it is the ref! Afterwards you think: ‘Did that really happen?’”
Did Dowd say much to him? “Yeah. We were joking about it. Strange. But it happened.”
Milner also confirms that Jürgen Klopp really did wear CR7 boxer shorts when making his final team talk before Liverpool faced Ronaldo and Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final. “He thinks deeply about what he’s going to say before a game – and the CR7 thing broke the ice. This was just before we went to the ground for the final and we had our usual 15-minute meeting. He just lifted his top and had Cristiano’s boxer shorts on. Everyone started laughing – as you would before a Champions League final against one of the best players in the world and your manager’s wearing his boxer shorts. He just relaxed everyone. That’s why he’s such a good manager.”
Did Klopp say much to Milner before this year’s Champions League final? Milner had started virtually every Champions League game – but he was on the bench in the final. “He didn’t say anything. He only explained his thinking to me after the game. He said he wanted me on the field at the end. If it got nervy he wanted me playing – especially if it went to extra time or penalties. I was obviously disappointed but you win things as a squad. After a day you think: ‘What can I do to help us win this trophy?’ Anyway I came on after an hour and we won. When you get over the line it’s amazing and you remember all the games you’ve played – like beating Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield. Winning it was incredible.”
The league now matters most to Liverpool, after a 30-year wait, and Milner acknowledges that the yearning of the fans can be intense. “They started getting quite nervous early in the title race last season. It was the first time I had sensed that atmosphere at Anfield. But nothing really changes in the dressing room. The lads are always calm and confident and hopefully winning the Champions League settles people down. I hope they can just enjoy it. As much as people want the trophy, it’s the journey that you enjoy most.
“It’s so difficult to win the league. I’ve been fortunate to win it a couple of times [with Manchester City] and last year we were so close. We were flying. We were winning every week and felt we should be 10 points clear. And you’re still second. Last year, if you’d have said: ‘You’ll only lose one [league] game all season,’ I’d have snapped your hand off. But it wasn’t good enough.
“This season we have a team that can do it. I think there’s a calm around the club, both inside and outside, and people are confident we can get it done. But City are so good they’re capable of winning every game. The gap is not that big so we have to just keep pushing, and not worry too much about the title.”
A six-point lead seems a comfortable margin for Liverpool after 10 games, with nine wins and draw, but next weekend they face City. “A couple of bad games can happen,” Milner admits, “and with the amount of games we’re playing there might be a couple of injuries. It could be a couple of poor performances and the lead’s gone. That’s why it’s so special to win the league. It’s so difficult and the best team always wins the league, no matter what. Hopefully winning that first trophy, the European Cup, as a squad will give us the experience to win the league.”
Milner played against United at Old Trafford – in the only game that Liverpool have dropped points so far. “They defended well and we only played our best for the last 15 minutes. It’s never easy after an international break. That’s no excuse but it might explain the lack of rhythm. The fight was there to the end and we got a point. You see that character in the squad time and time again. If someone’s not in the gym you say: ‘Where were you today?’ That’s the sort of dressing room we have. It’s massive.”
High standards also prevail in the Milner household. He nods when I ask if he is still talking to his small children in Spanish. “I’ll repeat things in English after I’ve spoken to them in Spanish. But, yeah, always Spanish first. My daughter understands everything. My son repeats more, and doesn’t understand as much. But a child’s mind is incredible really. They pick up things so fast so it’s the best time to do it. I got the idea because Gaël Clichy [his former City teammate] said his daughter spoke three or four different languages. When I started to talk to the kids in Spanish my wife probably thought it would last a couple of weeks. But then again she knows me. Maybe she knew I’d do it all the time.”
Milner did not reveal the extent of his Spanish to Lionel Messi after he had fouled him in the first leg at Barcelona last season. Messi reminded Milner of how he nutmegged him while calling him a “burro” – without realising the Yorkshireman understood it meant donkey in English. “I just smiled and went back to the dressing room. We weren’t in the best position then. But Messi’s incredible. I’m lucky to have played against him and Ronaldo because the numbers they put up every year are ridiculous.”
Yet Milner says that Wilfried Zaha is the player against whom he has had the most difficulty. “I’ve been sent off for tackles on him twice. He’s a talent. Unpredictable. You see how difficult it is to deal with him when you’re watching him. And when you play against Zaha he’s tricky and very tough to face.”
Last week Patrice Evra said the same about Milner when naming him as the player against whom he struggled most. “I suppose it’s a compliment,” Milner says. “He thought I was a nuisance.”
Milner had far more critics at the start of his career – and he could have been ruined by comments attributed to Graeme Souness, his manager at Newcastle, who apparently said you can never win anything with a team of 11 James Milners. “I was 18 so I wanted to show him he was wrong. Since then, he said he was misquoted. That was fuel for me, whether he said it or not. Ironically he was covering the game when we won the Premier League the first time at City. He didn’t have to come over but he did. He was very nice and I have no problems with him. I think he’s a legend.”
Milner was tested at City. There were occasions when he would drive home from training in tears because, no matter how well he played, he was left out of the team. “It’s frustrating when you feel like you can’t do any more. But that’s where you need that character and strength to bounce back. I always had good people around me which helped. The biggest thing in football, and life, is that you make mistakes. The best players might make a mistake once, twice maximum. But they learn from it and never do it again.”
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