John Gibbons: James Milner’s shown that he’s more than just a grafter

When will James Milner get the credit he deserves for being a good footballer and not just a workhorse? John Gibbons looks at an unsung hero....

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James Milner’s successful penalty against Paris St Germain last month saw him move into the top ten Liverpool penalty scorers of all time. Which is quite remarkable considering he has only played for the club for a relatively short time and a Premier League referee hasn’t given us a penalty kick at home in since October 2017.

It is made all the more impressive considering so many of his teammates are so desperate to take them. Every now and then one of Firmino, Salah, Mane and Sturridge shoves themselves forward as the rightful best finisher at the club, only for it to inevitably go back to Milner when it really matters. Mr Reliable as ever, as cold as ice. Or Yorkshire at least.

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But recent games have shown it’s not just penalties he can convert. He’s scored two big away goals in the last month or so from open play, firstly opening the scoring against Arsenal and secondly equalising against Burnley this week, setting Liverpool on the way to a massive win. It was a second half Liverpool performance very much in James Milner’s image. Determination, composure at key times, being fitter and more willing than the opponent and an element of sheer bloody mindedness to see it over the line.

But too often when we list James Milner’s attributes we make him sound like a great race horse and not a great footballer. Yes he’ll dig deep for you, yes he has great endurance, and yes he’s a trainers dream. But he’s also currently seventh for all time Premier League assists, level with David Beckham and just behind Steven Gerrard. If you add this to his tactical acumen, shown by his ability to play several positions to a high standard (he must be the only midfielder in the world to have played spells as left back and false nine) and much underrated technique, he should really be talked about as one of the Premier League’s best ever midfielders.

So why isn’t he? Well there has always been a level of unfashionableness about James Milner. At Leeds he managed to become the Premier League youngest ever goalscorer and still look like a bit of an old man. At Manchester City he won two league titles, one FA Cup, a place in the PFA team of the year and lots of praise for his performances, but he always suspected he would be left out the side for bigger names at crunch times, no matter how well he was playing.

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Becoming fed up of that, he signed for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, who apparently promised him a central midfield role, only to see him replaced a few months later by Jurgen Klopp, who apparently fancied him as a left back. Which must have made him laugh, but Milner being Milner just got on with it. Maybe this has hurt him as much as helped in terms of his reputation. Maybe if he had a team of people promoting him as a brand and blaming the manager for not getting the best out of him he’d be held in high esteem

But that’s not very Yorkshire and not very James Milner. Plus you sense he likes proving people wrong, and as long as it is fair fight, will back himself to do so. He might have had to win over Jurgen Klopp as a midfielder, but he has. In the summer, after Liverpool spent big on Naby Keita and Fabhino, not many would have included James Milner in their first choice elevens for Liverpool. Yet he has started 15 games so far this season. If anything he is getting more important to this Liverpool side.

Maybe a Premier League title with a second club will lead to James Milner getting more of the recognition for his abilities than he deserves. Graeme Souness, his manager at the time at Newcastle, once famously said at the time that they would “never win anything with a team of James Milners.” Well maybe not. But Liverpool are currently doing very very well with the one they’ve got.

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