Being ‘Great’ isn’t always about being ‘The Best’
An interesting article on BBC sport here caught my eye last week. James Milner is one step away from his 600th Premier League appearance; if he plays this weekend (as he well might), he will join an illustrious list of just three players to have reached that milestone – Frank Lampard (609), Ryan Giggs (632) and Gareth Barry (653).
Why I am writing an article about James Milner? Well, I’m not a Liverpool or Manchester City supporter (or indeed Villa, Newcastle or Leeds), but I do have the utmost respect for him. Despite winning 61 caps for England, no-one would pick him for an all-time XI, he doesn’t feature in an England team of the 21st century, and I’m not sure he’d even make a team picked from the last 10 years. And yet I do think he is a ‘Great’.
Firstly, there is his character. Everyone who has worked with him has commented upon his ‘great character’, ‘incredible mindset’ and how he has contributed to the culture in their club. He is a player who has, as the article says, “always looked to squeeze everything he could out of his career”. His willingness to learn, live a good lifestyle, and work hard to continue to improve has clearly paid off. He is adaptable and has become famous for being able to play pretty much any position (I’m not sure that he’s played striker, but probably at some point!); he spent the entire 2016-17 season playing at left-back, which he stated that he didn’t enjoy, but said “It’s about whatever’s best for the team, and ultimately I just want to be out there playing games, contributing and helping this football club”.
Secondly, it is clear that he likes to challenge himself and doesn’t take easy options. In 2015, Manchester City had recently won two titles and the good times were rolling. However, his involvement was waning as City brought in more and more expensive superstars and at the end of his contract he decided to move to Liverpool where it is clear that he has been a key part of their recent rejuvenation - the result of which has earned the club both the League Winner and Champions League medals (the latter of the two Manchester City is yet to win!). James Milner could have happily ridden out the rest of his career at Manchester City as a bit-part player, but that just isn’t in his makeup. He clearly does much outside football too. Despite not needing to, mid-way into his career Milner learnt to speak Spanish fluently, partly to be able to better communicate with his teammates. He clearly works hard for charity too and was given an MBE in Her late Majesty’s last Birthday Honours in 2022.
Finally, I love that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His commitment and clean-living lifestyle led to some sniping about him being ‘boring’, and a parody Twitter account was set up to mock him. Did he let this affect him? Of course not. He set up his own Twitter account and his first post was of him doing his ironing; in lockdown, he memorably took videos of him sorting his tea bags and one of him cutting his grass with a pair of scissors! He has made his point and I think it is fair to say that people now laugh with him, rather than at him.
On Wednesday, I was lucky enough to coach the 1st XI as they won the Rory McDonagh tournament at Farleigh; I was proud to see them show some of the things that James Milner would have approved of: character, desire, commitment. We didn’t win because we had better players than the other schools, we won because we were a better team.
This weekend, I will be hoping for more of the same from the boys in their last fixture of the season against Papplewick. I will also, though, be keeping one eye on what happens at Anfield, as Liverpool plays Southampton. I hope that James Milner makes that 600th performance and joins that exclusive club; he deserves it.