James Milner’s a jack of no trades and a master of about five

Date published: Friday 1st May 2020 1:37 - Matthew Stead


James Milner will buttock you off the ball and look brilliant doing it. He is the jack of no trades and master of most.


Who’s this then?
James Philip Milner is a teetotal, 34-year-old, Leeds-born legend who is enjoying his finest years in the autumn of his career at Liverpool. A 5′ 9″ multi-purpose player who excels in several different positions, he has played everywhere on the pitch apart from goalkeeper and centre-half, is built like a brick sh*thouse, is hard as nails and quite possibly the fittest footballer playing today.

Legendarily indefatigable since an early age, he has been excelling at pretty much everything he’s ever done. A total of 11 GCSEs mark him out as anything but the archetypal intellectually uninterested footballer. A special school award for PE was an early marker for his quite extraordinary physical prowess.

He played for his school at football, cricket and long-distance running, amateur football for Rawdon and Horsforth and was on Leeds United’s books from the age of ten. Making his first-team debut at 16, his first goal for the club made him Premier League’s youngest scorer – a record he held for two and a half years.

He has made a total of 735 appearances for Leeds, Swindon, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Manchester City and now Liverpool, with a further 61 caps for his country from 2009 to 2016, having made a record 46 appearances for the under-21s. That makes 842 games in total and he’s still going. There is absolutely no sign of him retiring and no-one would bet against him playing in the top flight aged 40.

For many years during his England career we called him ‘Useful, like a colander’, or similar, in tribute to his plain, unflashy, workman-like performances. Given his ability to laugh at himself, he’d probably appreciate such a moniker. If you picture him, you picture him sweating profusely and just running and running and running and running. He’s probably running right this minute. The man is surely a cyborg, not from Leeds but instead the future.


Why the love?
Not so much good-looking as handsome, his head looks chiseled out of granite with a huge jaw that looks more like a limestone geographical feature you’d find around Malham Cove. He’s got incredible high cheekbones that any model would die for, so sharp you could slice cheese on them. Combined with lovely, almost shy and amused blue eyes and a ripped body, he’d be a perfect candidate for one of those monochrome posters of a muscular but tender man cradling a baby.

It is rare for a player to be a fan favourite at every club he plays for unless he is a big goalscorer. A grafter rarely gets the same limelight. This is surely in part because at the end of every game, he has always looked like he’d run every last calorie out of his body. He stands there, dripping with sweat, pink of face, having given everything once again. And what’s more, he’s prepared to do it all over again right here, right now if needs be. At the end of it all, that’s pretty much all any of us can ask of a player.

There is a simple joy in watching someone who is tremendously fit and strong and unafraid to use his physicality. Sadly, this is what football is outlawing, of course. Being hard is frowned upon by too many and vaunted by not enough. So many of today’s middle-distance athlete footballers look like they’re made out of meringues and couldn’t be hard even if you put them in armour. Mr Milner, however, is proper old-school, made of pig iron, hard. He can do this to you.

This is hard in the best way, meaning resolute, tough, strong and determined. Not dirty. OK, a little bit dirty. But only a tad.

His way of dispossessing an opponent by basically inserting his arse and massive thighs between the player and ball and basically buttocking him off it, but without giving away a foul, is simply brilliant.

Of course he rather upset Lionel Messi, who didn’t appreciate Milly’s refusal to let him do what he wanted when he came on as a substitute in the 4-0 game at Anfield. Our hero gave him some Proper Yorkshire right up his tax-dodging bracket. In the tunnel, he called Milly a burro. In the tunnel. Yeah, well, that donkey kicked your arse all the way back to Barcelona, son. Messi’s claim that this was his revenge for being nutmegged in the first game was to misunderstand the situation completely. This is just how he plays against everyone, Leo. He’s not made you a special case and maybe that’s what was so annoying.

Jimmy M’s isn’t a career of high after high. He’s had a lot of ups and downs at Leeds and then Newcastle. He became a bit of a run-of-the-mill squad player at Manchester City but at Liverpool, after a slow start, he’s become indispensable. His ability to play in about nine positions and be really good in all of them is a manager’s dream. At one point he turned himself into a bloody good full-back, his running and physicality perfect for putting a stick in the spokes of many a winger or striker. Or, as he would call it, ‘disrupting their rhythm’.

On top of all this, self-deprecation is a very endearing quality and James has it in spades. So much so that in a very modern meta way, he interacts with his own Boring James Milner parody account. In an era of incredibly over-rewarded self-regard and brittle precious ego, he’s just a very dedicated professional, but doesn’t take any of it too seriously. Or maybe he is just an advocate of the philosophy that says to take anything seriously, you need to be able to laugh about it. It’s a great attitude to have.

Certainly seems to be having the time of his life playing up to his image as being dull and enjoying his time in one of the best teams we’ve seen in the modern era. And let’s face it, his collection of medals must be almost uniquely stellar in this country, having picked up two Premier League titles, a Champions League winner’s medal, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, as well as an FA Cup, League Cup and even an Intertoto Cup. He’s only missing a Europa League medal, though he does have a runners-up one.

When the rest of the first team were having holidays off as the club fielded reserves against Shrewsbury in the cup, under Neil Critchley, our man remained at home to help out the club’s young players ahead of the game at Anfield. After training with the team the day before the game, he was then in the dressing room to offer advice and encouragement to the squad. He even asked for Critchley’s permission before doing so. It’s this decency that we all love. In a league that was created to honour and vaunt greed and avarice, simple generosity of time is to be much admired.

And as if that isn’t enough reason to love him, in 2011, he established his own foundation with the aim of promoting ‘healthy recreation for the benefit of young people in the United Kingdom by the development, improvement and provision of opportunities in sports’, while also raising money for national charities such as Bloodwise, MNDA, NSPCC and Help for Heroes. It’s so far raised over a million pounds.

Milly is basically just better than us.


What the people love
A bulging post bag this week for this genuine everyman. When someone sets such a good example and in doing so is both inspiring and cheering, it’s no surprise people wanted to celebrate him.

‘Great professional first and foremost. Plays anywhere, never lets you down and is always ready to help his team. Consistent, a good leader – I can’t ever recall commentating on him and seeing him when he’s had a bad game. Having spent time interviewing him last week there’s a lot more to him than people realise. Funny, self deprecating, honest and very good at analysing games and situations. As you used to say – a proper football man!’ – Darren Fletcher, commentator.

‘Just a model footballer. Doesn’t drink, can self deprecate and never stops running or trying. Runs his own charity ball which makes a LOT of cash for good causes every year. Should be an OBE when he retires. Even captained England that one time. Legend.’

‘As a Villa fan he ranks extremely highly among the midfielders I’ve seen play for the club. It’s a well-worn cliche but he really is the consummate professional. He’s famously never tasted beer. Very underrated player. Swiss Army knife. We all dream of a team of James Milners.’

‘King of the tactical foul, taking a yellow for the team comes easy to him. Yet commentators never criticise or highlight this as his reputation is that of the boy next door.’

‘Loved seeing him cry last season after beating Barcelona. Showed how much it meant to him.’

‘Listened to the 5 live interview with him yesterday and it confirmed my view there is nothing not to like about Milner. A decent human being, a straight down the line guy and a very underrated player.’

‘When he was first at Newcastle I thought’d he’d eventually end up a centre-forward in the Shearer mould, had all the attributes. Particularly loved his proper twisty 1970s stepovers. Should never have let him go, Keegan’s autobiography is scathing about this.’

‘Looks like he’d be as much as home in the trenches of WWI as on a Premier League pitch. Popular at every club he graced. A model professional. Certainly an archetype.’

‘Never stops running. He’s like a train except he’s on time.’

‘If there’s a loveable meter for footballers, Milner has definitely smashed it to bits, and the game is in need of another one.’

‘Every journo in the country probably has a shortcut on their keyboard that just adds the phrase “(of course, not James Milner)” for when they’re writing hatchet pieces about the way these ‘flash’ footballers carry themselves in the modern era.’

‘All of his previous clubs would have him back which speaks volumes. One of the best professionals in the league and one of the most consistent whichever position he is playing in. Manager’s dream I would imagine.’

‘Would love to see him back at The Mighty Whites to finish his career.’

‘Quite possibly the nicest man in football? Has embraced the ‘boring James Milner’ persona with good humour.’

‘He’s just an absolute machine, non stop and doesn’t give up. Fantastic player and seems like a really likeable bloke. As a free transfer he’s probably been as important to this team as Gary McAllister.’

‘He has never been in trouble, has he? Old-school pro going about his job, with a great sense of morality. His walking-stick penalty celebration was extra humorous as he was only 33 when he scored it.’

‘A model professional.’

‘He’ll probably go down as the most consistent, versatile English player of his generation and yet his name will become the most frustratingly tip-of-the-tongue answer in every pub quiz for the rest of time.’

‘I also imagine he knows everything about everyone at the training ground. You could definitely see him asking the canteen workers how their kids are doing in school or chatting to the groundskeepers about their new cars or holiday plans.’

‘A proper old-fashioned professional who represents the game superbly. Underrated and not always appreciated by fans. A player who I wish had played for my club and should have been a England regular and for me would have been a ideal captain. Hope he goes on to become a top coach.’

‘He makes Benjamin Button look like a fraud!’

‘Please acknowledge that in the last two seasons, his job off the bench is to kick anything that moves. Some absolutely ridiculous fouls in that time.’

‘I love how he interacts with the Twitter caricature of him. The fact that the parody account exists is kind of proof that everyone loves him because he’s just a solid guy who happens to be a deceptively good footballer.’

‘Know someone who worked for an old chairman of Milner’s who mistrusted James because, I quote, ‘He had never touched alcohol’ ever. Mistrusted? Any young man who can show that level of willpower should be knighted, not mistrusted. Love the guy.’

‘Would be captain of a side made up of opposition players you can rely on to play well against your team, every single time. Annoyingly consistent and reliable. Total pro.’

‘Not every team but virtually all successful ones, I am a Spurs fan and always felt that if we had a Milner type character a few years back we would have won the league.’

‘He had to be the likeable lad at school that was super-fit and good at everything. Did every sport going, yet was always clean and well turned out for family occasions.’

‘Can never have enough Alf Tupper lookalikes in the world.’

‘I know practically nothing about his private life. This is a good thing!’

‘If he were given a lab and equipment, James Milner could knock up a decent Covid 19 vaccine by the end of May. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would do the job until 2023 when the scientists finally start shipping their one.’


Three great moments
His first goal for Leeds was a routine six-yard tap-in but the second was brilliant. A mere 16 years old, and he holds off no less than Marcel Desailly and puts it in the corner. And all while wearing a shirt three sizes too big for him.

High pressure penalty, you say? Nay lad, that’s not a problem.

It’s not all buttocking people off the ball and lashing in penalties. This goal-line clearance was typical of his never-give-up attitude


What now?
Personally, I hope that his last season as a professional, which given his amazing fitness levels will probably be when he’s 44, will be played back at Leeds. It would be to complete a perfect circle to return to his boyhood club.

I can’t imagine him as a manager, somehow, though he’d be a great fitness coach. When you think about it, he really is a poster boy for hard work, dedication and loyalty. Although he’s had five clubs, and one on loan, he usually stays four or five years. He’s in his fifth at Liverpool and will surely be kept on a rolling one-year contract until his batteries conk out, which might not be anytime soon. Every club needs a utility player, but they are traditionally a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. However, Milly is master of about five. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was good in net as well.

One of those players who, in two or three generations’ time, will be talked about by parent to child in hushed awe. ‘You saw James Milner play? What was he like?’ ‘What was he like? He was…sweaty…and useful, like a spoon.’

Long may he continue to ooze the sweat of three men.

John Nicholson


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