In the garden of the hotel on the Costa del Sol where Liverpool are preparing for Saturday’s Champions League final against Spurs, James Milner sits in the shade of a tall tree. He prefers it to bright sunlight just as he prefers providing assists to scoring goals, just as he prefers small print to headlines and just as he prefers team to self.
It is part of the reason why he has aged well in the public mind. In this football era of Instagram and ego and rootlessness and young men who have more fashion ranges than England caps, Milner is the antidote to all that. People admire his down-to-earth doggedness. They see that his success is hard-earned. He is all about what he does on the pitch. For him, image is nothing.
He tells a story about that. When he was transferred to Newcastle as a teenager, he moved into a sparsely furnished flat on Tyneside. There were no mirrors in the apartment and it was a year before he got around to buying one. That Christmas, his wife-to-be’s mother bought him a present. It was a pair of cufflinks with a tiny mirror on each one and an inscription. “You’re so vain,” it said.
So Milner is not vain and it has been established by now that he is not boring, either. The older he has got, the more respected he has become. What defines him is his determination. If somebody doubts him, he burns with the desire to prove them wrong, even if the doubter is Lionel Messi.
At half-time of the first leg of Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, the man Milner considers the world’s greatest player called him a donkey. Milner respects Messi too much to have got angry about it. He found it funny. But it stuck with him. And in the second leg at Anfield, he did something about it.
When he is in, he is all in, however improbable the goal. Never give up. Work and work and work. That applies equally to overcoming a three-goal deficit to Barcelona and to his determination to learn Spanish. That does not stop at becoming fluent himself. It extends to his family. Milner, 33, and his wife, Amy, are parents to a four-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son and, when they are at home, the midfielder insists on speaking to them in Spanish.
He mentioned it for the first time a year ago and some may have thought it was a fad but Milner does not do fads. When they were babies, he spoke to them in Spanish while he was changing their nappies. The experiment in educational engineering is in its third year now. He smiles when he talks about it. He knows it is eccentric. Or maybe just Yorkshire-stubborn. He likes to bend events to his will, even events that may seem beyond the control of others.
When his children get out of bed in the morning, they are greeted with: ‘Buenos dias’. When they come into the kitchen looking for food, it is: ‘Que quieres para desayunar?’ (What do you want for breakfast?) or ‘Elige un cereal’ (Choose a cereal). He knew it was working when he got out of the shower one day and told his daughter, who was 13 months old: ‘Traeme una toalla.’ She went off and came back with his towel.
In this football era of Instagram and ego and rootlessness and young men who have more fashion ranges than England caps, Milner is the antidote to all that. “I always wanted to speak another language. It seemed impressive when I heard people speaking different languages and flitting between conversations.”
His iron will has worn down critics, too. They now recognise his quality as well as his industry. ‘People talk about how much he runs and grafts,’ says former Newcastle team-mate Kieron Dyer. “But you don’t get to play for this Liverpool team just because you work hard.”
Now Milner is aiming all his focus at Saturday’s game against Tottenham in Madrid. Some fear that Liverpool’s energy will have been sapped by their titanic losing battle with Manchester City for the Premier League title but Milner says that and the memory of last year’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid are driving Jurgen Klopp’s team forward.
“Losing the title can work for us,” says Milner. “If we’d won the title, then the Champions League final might have felt like a bonus. The danger was that we ended up with nothing — and we still might — but the memory of losing out to City drives us on. Since I’ve been at the club, I’ve been desperate to win something for Liverpool. That’s what the club demands and expects. You walk into the training ground every day and you see the numbers under each trophy. I’ve been desperate to get someone in to change those.”
Milner’s commitment to the cause resonates. After the last Liverpool home game of the season, the Kop sang his name as loudly as anyones. For many, he has become the symbol of this side and its willingness to subjugate the egos of the individual to the good of the collective. It is part of the competitive urge that is never stilled. His dad recognised it in him when he was devoting his time to driving his son back and forth across the Pennines, watching him playing for the Leeds United youth teams at Blackpool, Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool.
“He knew how to get in my head and push me,” says Milner. “He used to say: ‘There’s no chance of you making it as a player — you don’t work hard enough’. He knew I’d want to show him he was wrong. He wouldn’t do it in a nasty way but he knew it would drive me. It’s still big when he says I had a good game.”
There is no reason why Messi or any of his Barcelona team-mates should have been acquainted with any of this before their semi-final, of course. The mild eccentricities and primal competitiveness of the Liverpool midfielder may not have registered quite as prominently with them as the time Messi sat Milner down with a nutmeg at the Nou Camp in 2015 when Milner was playing for City.
The moment, inevitably, became a YouTube sensation, played and replayed as an example of what Messi can do to an opponent. It was not quite as spectacular as his bamboozling of Jerome Boateng a month later but it was not bad. High in the stands, Pep Guardiola, then the Bayern Munich manager, covered his face with his hands in happy disbelief.
Milner took it all on the chin. But when he went back to Catalonia with Liverpool at the start of this month, he was determined that it would not be in homage. “He is an incredible player,” he says of Messi, but he refused to stand back in awe. His studied iconoclasm set Liverpool’s tone.
It was towards the end of the first half when Messi set off on a run down the Liverpool left and was tackled near the half-way line by Andy Robertson. A split second later, with Messi slightly off balance, Milner shoulder-barged him into touch and sent him tumbling to the turf. Messi was furious. He waved an imaginary yellow card at the referee.
“He wasn’t happy,” says Milner. “He was giving me plenty in Spanish going down the tunnel at half-time as well. He was calling me ‘burro’. It translates as donkey but I think it’s also used in Spanish football as a general term for someone who goes around kicking people.”
I asked him if he was all right, but he wasn’t having it. I don’t think he realised I understood his Spanish. He said: “That foul you did, that’s because I nutmegged you.” I left him to it at that point and went into the changing room. Look, I’ve only got admiration for him. He has earned the right to say what he wants.
“The stuff he did in that game, stuff he has done his whole career, it makes him tough to play against. If you try and stop him, you can’t be scared of being made to look foolish. I’ve done it. I’ve been nutmegged by him and it has been viewed a million times. I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last. He’s an incredible player.”
“But with players like that, you have to let them know you’re there and not let them have everything their own way. You just need to try to disrupt their rhythm. You don’t want to hurt him but it’s a physical game and, if he’s running the game, you try and knock him out of his stride. It’s part of the game, the mental side.”
Messi scored twice in the second half and left Liverpool with a seemingly insurmountable task at Anfield but Milner and his team refused to accept their fate. Early in the second leg, Robertson ruffled Messi’s hair as he sat on the turf. It was another gesture of defiance, a signal that, while Liverpool’s players might admire Messi, they would not be awed by him.
A couple of times, what Messi had said in Barcelona flickered across Milner’s mind during the second leg. ‘Burro’. It stirred up some old memories of past criticisms, those times when he felt he had to prove himself, times when he felt surrounded by doubters and beset by criticism. “I don’t see myself being here for a long time buying a team of James Milners,” Graeme Souness said when he took over at Newcastle. Milner used it as a rich source of motivation.
It is not that he felt bitter about the ‘burro’ jibe. Or angry. He has too much respect for Messi for that. But he likes proving people wrong. Like the rest of his Liverpool team-mates, he played like a superhuman in that 4-0 win.
“I want to be the best at everything I do,” says Milner. “I hate losing. It drives you on wanting to prove people wrong. There’s always that in football. You are always going to have critics, whether it’s media, managers, players, someone who’s kicking you. People have opinions and not everyone’s going to like you and there have been a few times in my career when I have not been appreciated, let’s say. That’s sometimes what sparks that drive to prove your worth and prove people wrong.”
When the final whistle went at Anfield, it was fitting that it was Milner who was on the ball, shielding it as if his life depended on it by the corner flag. In the mayhem of the aftermath, he broke down. For those who have become accustomed to his stoicism, it was almost as big a shock as the result.
“It was a lot of fatigue,” he says. “There was a six-day period where we had lost 3-0 in Barcelona, had a tough game in Newcastle and then realised there was a chance that, after everything we had done in the season, we were going to end up with nothing. That was driving us on. Then there’s my age and the question of, ‘how many more nights do you have like that?
“There are a few games in your career you talk about and the hairs go up on the back of your neck. When we won the title against QPR with City was another. They don’t come around very often those nights. We need to make sure we finish the job this time. And there was also the fact that it would have been so easy for something to go wrong. We had given everything and it meant we still had a chance to win something. It was being part of the occasion and part of that team performance. We did it without Mo [Salah] and Bobby [Firmino].”
“Messi’s an amazing player and the special thing about the night was to turn it round against a team like that with the best player in the world in there and Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique, too. There are not many teams in the world that could turn around a deficit like that with two of your star players gone. It was such a team effort.”
Milner has a reputation in the Liverpool side as the team’s enforcer. He takes down the opposition’s tallest poppy. He did it with a crunching tackle on Neymar when PSG visited Anfield this season. So have any of his team-mates teased him about his tears?
“No one’s said owt, to be honest,” he says deadpan. “Because if they did, they would probably get a right hook.”