James Milner is playing the long game. In more ways than one, really, given he debuted in the Premier League at 16 and is still plying his trade there two decades later. He faced David Seaman in the top flight that season and the former England goalkeeper turns 59 this year. He lined up alongside Lucas Radebe in the FA Cup and the South African is now 53, while Milner became an FA Cup winner again last weekend.
When he traded Manchester City for Liverpool in 2015, he left a club who were champions a year earlier for one who had not claimed that accolade for a quarter of a century. A few weeks into his Anfield career, the manager who signed him, Brendan Rodgers, was sacked with Liverpool languishing in 10th.
Fast forward some six-and-a-half years, and Milner is in a third tight title race between City and Liverpool; the first in blue, the other two in red. He had intended to help restore Liverpool to past glories; do the quadruple, however, and they would outstrip anything even that has gone before. His has been a resolutely unglamorous part in their rise. His faith has been vindicated.
“That was the hope, part of the drive,” he said. “When I went to City they hadn’t won anything for a long time and it was great to be part of that, the start of their success, winning leagues and cups. Liverpool is an incredible club with incredible history, but it hadn’t been as successful [in the recent past], hadn’t won the Premier League, which was baffling. That was the aim, and if we could do that, win a Premier League here, that would be special. It’s a process, and the process has been incredible.”
Liverpool have not just won a Premier League. They have completed the set: they have won the Champions League, European Super Cup, the Club World Cup, the League Cup and now the FA Cup. Liverpool’s oldest player was already a winner in the oldest competition, as an unused substitute in 2011. But his clean sweep came at 36. The precocious Trent Alexander-Arnold emulated him at just 23.
“I said to Trent, ‘your cabinet is pretty full, but don’t get bored of it,’” Milner added. “What an incredible player he is, but he’s lucky that he’s come into a team that is so good. He deserves it because of how good a player he is, but you never know when things are going to change, so you have to enjoy it while it’s here.”
Milner has always been grounded but he also has reasons to know not to take anything for granted. He had played more than 350 games in his career before he first got his hands on silverware. He is out of contract in the summer and, keen as Jurgen Klopp is to keep him, nothing is certain.
It at least bodes well that his powers show few signs of waning. With rotation required after 120 minutes at Wembley, he is likely to start at Southampton on Tuesday. He was named man of the match when he last began a game, at Newcastle. He exerted an influence as a replacement against Chelsea, crossing when Andy Robertson hit the post, tucking in to release the overlapping Alexander-Arnold and, in characteristically matter-of-fact fashion, converting Liverpool’s first penalty in the shootout.
And yet, when Kostas Tsimikas scored the winning spot kick, Milner was not looking. Not because he could not, but because he chose not to. He had turned around to face the other end. “I wanted to watch our fans’ reaction,” he explained. “I had faith in Kostas, I know he’s got a wand of a left foot. Obviously you’re nervous, because you know there’s a good chance it could be over, but how many times do you get to play at Wembley and experience that? It was amazing. You see everyone experiencing what you’re feeling yourself; relief, joy, everything.”
Milner sought to soak it up again inside Wembley. “It’s a special group of players and a special group of people to share these things with in the dressing room after the game. I went in the dressing room afterwards and all the lads are straight on their phones. I was like ‘we’ve just won the FA Cup!’ You get 40-50 messages to deal with; it’s great to see the families, the kids with the medals round their necks. It’s very special.”
Famously teetotal, he joked he might celebrate Liverpool’s 2018 Champions League semi-final win over Roma with a Ribena. This time, he said, his drink of choice was a Coke – “full-fat, because Diet Coke is worse for you,” he rationalised – before going again. “With three games left, if you’re on one leg it’s worth going through,” he argued. Liverpool might be without Mohamed Salah and Fabinho, but Liverpool have a can-do attitude. “If you go back to Barcelona, that famous night [in 2019], look at the players who were missing then. That shows a great mentality within the squad,” he said.
It was needed against Chelsea. It will be again. “You’re very lucky to play in any final, you’re lucky to be a footballer in the first place, and to play in finals and win 10 medals,” he said. “If you said that at the start of my career, I’d have taken it.” But 10 could become 12 on successive weekends. Each seems to mean more. “Yeah, it does, because you don’t know how long is left, do you?” he asked. His career has long since entered extra time but Milner has won more in the last three years than the preceding 17. Perhaps there is still more to come.