You know what they say: never work with children, animals or pies. But, in the latest edition of the surreal adventures of FourFourTwo, we are in the kitchen at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, trying to figure out which of the six pies in front of us is the most appropriate to throw at James Milner.
It’s a more difficult undertaking than we anticipated. Some don’t look quite right; others start to crumble between our fingers, completely unwilling to cooperate. When the former England international himself arrives, we find him a whole lot easier to work with than the pies – even allowing for the surprised look on his face when we inform him what we’ve got planned.
He has always been happy to play along with the ‘Boring Milner’ persona bestowed on him in recent years, but in truth it’s largely an act. “Being called boring is win-win for me,” he tells FFT. “People expect me to be boring when they meet me, so if I am, then it’s fine. If I’m the slightest bit interesting, I’ve exceeded expectations!”
Indeed, Milner is an engaging and candid interviewee. As the only member of the Merseysiders’ 2018 Champions League Final squad to have earned a Premier League winner’s medal, the 32-year-old’s aim this term is to bring silverware back to Anfield. And if he succeeds, he knows exactly how he’ll celebrate…
What separated you from your team-mates at youth level for you to make your Leeds debut aged only 16?
I don’t know – it was a long time ago! It’s hard to say what the coaches saw for Terry Venables to put such a young player in the first team, but I remember going away with the under-19 side to Scotland during pre-season and them sending me home early.
I wondered if I’d done something wrong, but they said, “You’re going to be playing a lot of football this year.” I went into the reserves, then quickly into training with the first team, then I got chucked in for my debut. It was all so fast, from doing my GCSEs over the summer to making my first-team debut by November.
When you netted against Sunderland at the age of 16 years and 346 days, did you know right away that you had become the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history?
I didn’t. I knew that Wayne Rooney had broken the record against Arsenal just beforehand, and I’d been involved in the matchday squad when he scored another great goal at Elland Road soon after. I hadn’t quite made my debut then, and I still remember the fitness coach turning to me and saying, “You are desperate to play here, aren’t you?”
But I wasn’t thinking about the record during the Sunderland match – just about getting on the pitch. Then Alan Smith got injured, I came on, Jason Wilcox put the ball across and I scored. That was December 26, then on the 28th I scored again against Chelsea. After that, it blew up – and then the fun started. People would come to my local cricket club, asking for me and asking where my parents lived. Everyone at the cricket club would pretend they’d never heard of me!
It’s hard to put into words what that first Leeds goal meant, as a Leeds fan, a ball boy, a season ticket holder. My family and friends, the people I’d gone to school with – they’d be there watching me when I played for Leeds at Elland Road. You don’t really think about it at the time, but they are nice memories. It was disappointing that I didn’t get to play for Leeds for longer, but to do it at all was pretty special.
- 2002-04 Leeds
- 2003 Swindon (loan)
- 2004-08 Newcastle
- 2005-06 Aston Villa (loan)
- 2008-10 Aston Villa
- 2010-15 Manchester City
- 2015- Liverpool
How gutted were you to be sold when Leeds went down? There were all sorts of stories about the club’s cash problems – did you ever have to feed Peter Ridsdale’s tropical goldfish?
No, nothing like that. It was very tough to get relegated and there were a lot of financial things going on – things in the papers, off-field problems… you had to grow up quickly, by watching the senior players and how they were dealing with everything. As hard as it was, I learned a lot very quickly.
Within two years I’d had numerous managers and highs and lows. By the start of my second season, Peter Reid had come in and I was sent on loan to Swindon – a fantastic club. I did quite well there, went back to Leeds and started playing in every game. But then in 2004 I turned up on the first day of pre-season thinking we were going to discuss a new contract, and someone said, “You’re going up to Newcastle for your medical tomorrow.” I was like: “Am I?”
That was tough. But what little money the club owed me, I gave up to help them, and they got a transfer fee. So it was portrayed to me that it was in the best interests of the club due to all of the financial difficulties. I thought I was doing the right thing by the club.
What’s your favourite memory from your time playing for Newcastle?
The 2005 FA Cup semi-final in Cardiff – we lost 4-1 to Manchester United, but the drive in was incredible. It took us ages to get to the ground – the streets were black and white everywhere; there were fans on lampposts.
The next time I saw something like that was coming into Anfield on the European run with Liverpool. I saw both sides of things at Newcastle, but when things were going well it was an amazing place to go and play football, with great fans.
At Newcastle, Graeme Souness – your boss – said, “I don’t see myself being here for a long time buying a team of James Milners.” Did that hurt?
I think it was more like: “You don’t win anything with a team of James Milners.” Yeah, it did, reading it as a young lad. But he apologised, said he’d got misquoted and that he didn’t mean it.
Newcastle was tough – the manager who’d signed me, Bobby Robson, got sacked three games into the season, so a new manager arrived and I ended up going on loan again, to Aston Villa. I think the first time I finished a season with the same manager who started it was Martin O’Neill at Villa, probably five seasons into my career.
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. But I get on with Graeme – there’s no beef. When I won the Premier League title at Manchester City, he was covering the game and he came over to congratulate me.
Did you hear the story that Newcastle only sold you in 2008 because they thought they could bring in Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich?
I heard something like that, yeah. I’d have sold me as well! A couple of years earlier, I’d been on loan at Villa for a season and gone back to Newcastle. Then Villa agreed a transfer fee for me on deadline day that summer , so I drove down from Newcastle. I got into Martin O’Neill’s office and he said, “Haven’t you heard? They’ve pulled the plug.”
I started laughing, thinking he was joking, but he wasn’t. They’d tried to sign some other players and those deals had fallen through, so they called me back. It’s not great being at a club when they’ve accepted a bid and said they’ll sell you. To make matters worse, the following Saturday I wasn’t even in the squad for the game. It was probably one of the lowest moments I’ve had in my whole career.
But again, it was about proving people wrong. I got into the team, played most of the games, then signed for Villa two years later. I had a pretty good couple of years at Newcastle, so unfortunately for Villa I think it [the delay] put a few extra million on the price…
On one day in 2010, you scored the winner for Villa against Birmingham, then won the PFA Young Player of the Year that evening. Not a bad day…?
Yeah, that was nice. I scored in the last 10 minutes of the derby – a pressure penalty, and Harty [Joe Hart] was in net, too. I’d taken so many penalties against him in England Under-21s training, so he knew me well. But I scored and he shouted a few expletives at me!
Then I went down to London and won the PFA award, which was really special – a massive honour. When you look at the names on the trophy before and after me, it’s nice to have won that. That was the same day my wife did the London Marathon, then wore heels to the awards. Great effort from her!
After signing for them in 2010, what are your memories of playing for Manchester City as they began their new era of winning trophies?
Amazing times – I loved every minute of it. They are a brilliant club and it was special to go there and be part of the start of it, having not won anything for such a long time. To win two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Community Shield was fantastic; I haven’t got a bad word to say about my time there.
The only disappointing thing is some of the things afterwards – comments that some people believe I have made about the club. After I joined Liverpool, I was asked in an interview who were the better team, and I answered it just in the sense of a team – because we didn’t have players as good as City’s. So I said Liverpool were a better team, as in being together. After that, people would say, “You won two titles here – how can they be a better team?”
But many City supporters say some nice things to me as well. They were amazing with me when I played there, and it’s been great to see the club still doing really well. I would love them to finish second to Liverpool every single year while I’m here!
Were you disappointed not to play in the FA Cup final against Stoke, nor the famous title-clincher against QPR?
Yes – you always want to play in every game, and at the time you don’t see the bigger picture. But over the whole season, winning a Premier League is so difficult. It’s a big effort from everyone to finally get over the line, and to play as many games as I did, assisting goals, scoring goals… you want to play in the endgame, but you have to look at the 38-game season
You’re not going to get too many better ways of winning the league than how we did it against QPR. I see it on television now and the hairs on the back of my neck still go up. I don’t think that will ever go away.
Just how mad was Mario Balotelli?
He was an interesting character… the best way I can describe him is that he was like a teenager, wanting to be the centre of attention. I was there for the darts incident. At Carrington there was a leisure area upstairs with a dartboard and a window overlooking the gym, and as people were walking past the gym down below, he was firing darts at them! That’s up there with the most stupid things he did.
The most stupid was probably upsetting Micah Richards in training. Micah wanted to rip his head off! Micah’s a pretty strong man, and if he loses it, you need to be somewhere else. He was striding towards Mario and I dived in front of Micah to stop him and then hold him for long enough for a few other lads to jump in.
I never had a problem with Balotelli, though. Sometimes he wouldn’t track back, I’d give him a bit of a bollocking and he might have a snap back, but he would apologise afterwards. There was respect between us.
How did you first react to the ‘Boring James Milner’ Twitter account?
It was pre-season with City when that started, and one of the lads showed it to me. There was a Boring Gareth Barry account at the same time, so we felt it had to be one of the lads. There wasn’t anyone with enough banter, though, so I was also thinking that maybe it could be a few of the staff!
What prompted you to finally join social media yourself, after years of leaving it to the parody account?
I’ve never been bothered about the whole ‘boring’ thing in the slightest – I like it, because it probably means that people don’t know too much about me, so I’ve done a good job and given them as much as I want to give them.
Since I started playing, things have changed a lot, with more interviews and more exposure. Fans feel like they have the right to know every single thing about you, and it shouldn’t really be like that. Everyone has their own life – their own ups and downs going on away from the pitch – and people forget footballers are just people as well. But I thought it was maybe time for people to get to know me a bit more, and have a bit of banter.
Starting the account with the picture of me ironing was all my idea. It’s good fun, and now I can show things about myself here and there – most of them boring, probably, but maybe the odd bit of interesting stuff, too!
Is it true that your dad banned you from wearing red as a kid?
It’s true, yes. Obviously Leeds fans are brought up to dislike Manchester United, as rivals, so red wasn’t allowed. I didn’t have any red shirts or anything, and the first time I ever wore it was probably for England. He did joke when I signed for Liverpool that it was the first time he’d be happy to see me regularly in red…
What is Jurgen Klopp like to play for?
He’s a very good manager. You can see that by looking at what he’s done with this team; how we play together and work for each other. He’s got the fiery side but also the ‘Klopp hug’, as I think it’s known.
A few times, he has lost his head when we haven’t played well, but he’ll surprise you: there are times when things aren’t going badly and he still loses it, and times when you think he’s going to, but he doesn’t. He’s the judge of that and he normally gets it spot on. He loves the game and wants to win.
Did you enjoy your year at left-back? Personally I felt you did well!
No, I didn’t enjoy it, to be honest – but you do whatever’s asked of you for the team. The manager asked me to do it and I did it to the best of my ability. It’s not my best position, and hopefully I’ve shown that playing in midfield before and after, but if the manager asks you to play somewhere, you just do it. I told him that I didn’t particularly want to do it, but the team comes first.
I think the first time I had to play at left-back was at Manchester United in the Europa League – Alberto Moreno was injured and the manager gave me a choice: did I want to play at left-back or right-back? My answer was, “That’s like asking which one of these guys do you want to spend a night with your missus?!” His English wasn’t that good then, so I think it went over his head!
You’ve said that the only position you haven’t played is goalkeeper. Would you do it in an emergency?
A million per cent, I’m there. It’s the only one to tick off; I’ve done every outfield position! I’d definitely put my hand up – you’ve got to be a little bit crazy, haven’t you? The only problem would be my height – other than that, I’d stick my head in where it hurts!
Do you think Loris Karius will bounce back after his mistakes in this year’s Champions League final?
Everyone makes mistakes in football, and unfortunately as a goalkeeper it’s part of your life: if you make a mistake, it ends up in the net. It’s something he’ll learn from. He’s a strong character… He will bounce back, and he’s shown that already in his career – he was at Man City and it didn’t work out, but he went away, worked really hard and now he’s playing for Liverpool, one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It shows what he’s all about and I’m sure he’ll do that once again.
To lose a Champions League final was tough. Getting that far and that close is not really something you will ever forget. People ask me, “Are you over it yet?” and I don’t think it ever does leave you, being that close to something that big and not achieving it.
After reaching the Champions League final, can this be Liverpool’s year to win the league?
Cup competitions are different to Premier League football, but over the last two seasons I think we’ve become more consistent. We’ve shown that we can beat all types of teams now – the teams at the top; the so-called lesser teams; the teams who come and park the bus.
The tools are there for us to do it – it’s just about doing it over 38 games. That’s why it’s so difficult, because you have to do it every single week. We’ve shown that we can do it, but talk is cheap – it’s all about going and doing it.
You famously like Ribena, but if Liverpool won the Premier League, would you push the boat out and have a Vimto or a sparkling water?
Maybe… I’d have to come up with a fizzy drink for that occasion if it happened!
Are you sad that you retired from England duty before the upturn in fortunes at the 2018 World Cup or had you become disillusioned?
- 2009-16 England (61 caps, 1 goal)
I’m not sad about it – I’m delighted that the team did well. When I retired I said I didn’t want to just be a number to travel, standing in the way of young players who would benefit more. And look what’s happened since. To me, that justifies the decision I made when I moved aside; I hope that’s helped the team to achieve what they did in Russia.
For several years, I wasn’t playing and if someone else came into the squad, they went into the team and I stayed on the substitutes’ bench. In 2015/16 I had a very good season with Liverpool – we got to the Europa League final and I had some of the best assist stats in Europe at that point – but I didn’t play at Euro 2016.
I loved playing for England: I did it 46 times for the under-21s, which goes to show how much I’d never turn down a cap, as well as the 61 times I played for the senior team. But looking at the big picture, retiring was the right thing to do.
That Nivea advert you appeared in was a bit weird. What’s it like to be crushed by a dinosaur?
Yeah, interesting… I’m just happy that it wasn’t my car!
Do you want to become a manager when you retire, or would you prefer being a pundit?
It’s difficult to know when you are still playing. There are times when I fancy being a manager, times when I fancy being a pundit and times when I fancy not being anywhere near football when I finish.
Managers don’t get much time at all these days, and it also takes such a long time to get your coaching badges – it takes a number of years and it’s a big commitment – that you have to be sure you want to do it before you go through that. I’m not sure at the moment.
I think it would be a shame not to use some of the experience I’ve built up over the 16 years that I’ve been playing. I hope I can use that now with the younger players here at Liverpool, helping them as much as possible.