It really is a delicious pleasure watching Liverpool play right now. They have so many joy-bringers to lift the spirits, so much slippery talent and wonderful organisation with which to thrill.
And they also have James Milner.
As much as the others are great, I would pay the money merely to watch the man perhaps remarkably nicknamed ‘Millie’.
He’s brilliant is Millie. Well, OK, he’s not. But it’s a delight to watch him ploughing a furrow up and down the left. He seems to be quite literally incapable of getting tired: a Yorkshire Energiser Bunny. In the 90th minute he’s still going up and down at the same sweaty pace he did an hour and a half earlier. And he hardly ever seems to be injured. If you add in internationals, he’s already racked up 650 appearances for club and country and he’s still only 30. He’s got over 60 caps for England, and was once the youngest Premier League player to score a goal – you forget he had four years at Newcastle, two at Villa and five at City after leaving Leeds. It feels like he’s been around forever, and yet, here and now, he seems to be playing the best, most effective football of his career. It’s magnificent to see.
Born in Leeds in Yorkshire, he’s the very embodiment of that county’s unglamorous, undemonstrative, nuthin’ fancy, dependable and emotionally repressed charms. Not an ounce of concession to pretty, he’s all manly, sharp cheekbones and square jaw, looking like he was hewed out of the ground, a fully-formed football Terminator made from millstone grit. What my dad would have called “proper”, by which he meant: a male of the species without long hair, who didn’t like poetry, display any emotion apart from passive-aggressive indignation, and never, ever cried.
Somehow, it’s just perfect that his parents are called Peter and Lesley. Down-to-earth, no-nonsense names and I’d wager down-to-earth, no-nonsense people who like roast dinners, a good pair of gloves and the local news. The sort of people for whom tea is holy and a preference for a plain biscuit is a sign of moral purity.
There’s a timeless quality to him which means he could have belonged to any era. While so many modern footballers couldn’t have survived the icy mud and violence of the past, you just know Jimmy M could. You can see him coming up out of the pit to play a game in the 1890s wearing massive shorts and hob nail boots, or post-war on pitches of mud and sand, his huge calves and thighs pounding. Or in 1970s, the game all blood and snot, there he is staring Chopper Harris down. Bloody cockneys, sod off back down south and take your weak beer wi’ ye. Don Revie would have loved him for his stony-faced, never-fazed quality. He’d have been perfect for his early 70s title-winning side; like Paul Madeley, he’s capable of playing pretty much anywhere on the pitch.
And now, in the 21st century, full of new multicultural ways and faddish tactics, that’s no problem to him either. Any position you want to play me in, boss. I’m not fussed, me. I’ll do a job for you anywhere you like. No strops thrown. No ego. No dancing. No being self-regardingly precious. Just Millie being Millie.
In his career, he’s played up front, as a winger on the left and right, as a central midfielder, as a right-back and now, perhaps most incredibly, as a left-back and superb penalty taker. And it’s in this position for Jurgen Klopp that he seems to have found a permanent home. Having played further up the pitch, going forward doesn’t give him a nosebleed, but his industry and sheer doggedness means he’ll go up and down all day long, tackling, harrying and sweating. I’ll leave others to look up his stats, but I’d wager he’s top of the sweating numbers. Lord knows, he must be dehydrated at the end of every game. It comes as no surprise to read that he was his school’s cross country champion for three consecutive years, whilst also being a district 100m sprint champion.
He’s a high achiever, but one that isn’t especially stellar at anything other than keeping on keeping on. In fact, he’s made steady, predictable industry into an artform. While he may never give you a 9 or 10, he’ll never give you a 3 or 4. He’s a solid 7 or 8 week in, week out. No scorpion kicks, and he can take a pretty awful corner, but every great team needs one of these rocks of dependency on which to build their success. It’s easy to admire players who are brilliant at football, but those like Milner, whose talent doesn’t seem like a weird blessing from a higher power, are more easily empathised with.
As we watch him, he looks like a man who is working for his money. A man who seems morally, physically and spiritually incapable of not giving every game every ounce of effort. That cheers the heart, the same way watching a mongrel with one floppy ear, chasing a ball in a park does. In a soulless era of blacked-out windows, VIP rooms, caviar and champagne, Millie is a lovely warm, buttery, reassuring slice of toast and a mug of tea strong enough to stand a spoon up in.