At 34 years of age, Liverpool’s James Milner shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Now in the twilight of his career, his renaissance at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp is a subject that has been much discussed.
Operating from the base of midfield and even at left-back, the often-repeated ‘jack of all trades master of none’ adage is used in reference to Milner with such frequency one could forgive him for taking offence to it, but if anything, it’s testament to his consistency as a footballer.
It was at Newcastle and under the guidance of Sir Bobby Robson, that the ‘curse’ of versatility was first apparent. He had already impressed for his boyhood club, Leeds, but that was predominantly as a gifted, energetic winger.
In 2002, and at the age of 16 years and 356 days, he became the youngest ever premier league goalscorer, and as such, when he was signed for the Magpies there was excitement on Tyneside as his name was being compared to the likes of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen – who themselves burst onto the scene as precocious teenagers.
His first appearance for Newcastle was in 2004 against Middlesbrough where he was deployed as an extreme right sided winger as opposed to the more accustomed left side he was used to at Leeds.
When asked about the position shift after the game, the typically humble Milner remarked "I can play on the left as well but I would play anywhere as long as I am in the team. It doesn't bother me.” It would be this mark of selflessness and determination that would underpin his glittering career.
Graeme Souness would eventually replace Sir Bobby Robson and with the change saw a reduction in game time for the young Milner. The scot would go on to send the young Englishman on loan to Aston Villa, commenting that his side ‘would never win anything with a team of James Milners’.
Whilst somewhat misquoted, Milner used the words as determination to become the better player. When reflecting on that passage of his career, he says - “When someone has an opinion, even if it ends up misquoted, people jump on it. But as a player you love the chance to shut people up…. any time that you’re criticised, it drives you on and you try to prove people wrong. That’s what I did in that part of my career.
Milner would eventually come back to St James Park and become more of a regular under new head coach, Glenn Roeder. It was here he would cement himself in the first team, supplying the crosses to Obafemi Martins, Michael Owen and Mark Viduka.
Eventually Newcastle owner, Mike Ashley saw a £12 million bid from Aston Villa too good to turn down and would sell to the midlands club. Whilst many of his performances during his four years on Tyneside were still at times raw, they were nevertheless full of promise.
Newcastle fans have had to endure many a sale, especially under Mike Ashley’s ownership – but to many, the feeling surrounding Milner’s sale was that he left them too soon.
It was during his time at Aston Villa under Martin O’Neill, that James Milner would again shift his position. From left-wing, to right-wing – the Yorkshireman now found himself in the centre of the park.
With the burden of creative responsibility shared between himself, Ashley Young, Gareth Barry and Gabriel Agbonlahor, Milner now started to produce some of the most productive and consistent football of his career. He was voted PFA Young Player of the Year in 2009/10 and helped Aston Villa record back to back 6th placed finishes and a runners up medal in the 2010 League Cup Final.
Milner looks back at his time with Aston Villa fondly, “We came close to winning a trophy but we didn’t quite do it, and the top four as well, we were so close. I had an amazing time at Villa. We had an exciting team at the time, I think we were one of the most exciting to watch.”
A lot of the success that Aston Villa endured under Martin O’Neill can be attributed to the hard work and selflessness of Milner’s performances. In three seasons at the lions, he was able to double his goal and assist tally to 22 and 25 respectively - clearly reaping the rewards of pulling the strings from central midfield.
Had Milner cemented his position as a central midfielder for a further couple of seasons at Villa, who’d have known how his career would have unfurled, but with two premier league winners medals and on the cusp of winning a third – one guesses he doesn’t lose too much sleep.