James Milner’s workmanlike image disguises a true Liverpool legend

Emerson Royal is a £25m Brazil international and a specialist right-back. James Milner is a 35-year-old odd-job man who was playing Premier League football before Emma Raducanu and Harvey Elliott were born. On successive Saturdays, each was subjected to trial by Wilfried Zaha. Only one passed and it wasn’t the man bought from Barcelona last month.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge the Tottenham newcomer on the basis of a debut in which he was parachuted into a makeshift defence. And yet Milner was a late call-up for a new-look Liverpool back four on Saturday, charged with flanking the debutant Ibrahima Konaté. His immediate opponent was Zaha and the previous time that was the case, Milner was a youngster of 33 and he was sent off for fouling the speediest of wingers. When Zaha hit the post after a minute after he eluded Milner, this threatened to be a case of cruelty to the elderly.

Ninety minutes later, Liverpool had beaten Crystal Palace 3-0 and Jürgen Klopp, a manager who appreciates illogically fine feats, selfless running and self-sacrificial players, was naming Milner his man of the match. Perhaps it was a triumph of old-fashioned character and timeless fitness. It was Liverpool’s first league game since 2018 without either Andrew Robertson or Trent Alexander-Arnold and Palace thought they had pinpointed a potential weakness: as Klopp noted, part of their gameplan was “chipped balls in behind our full-backs – we had to run a lot”. But rewind a couple of months and Milner posted the times of an 8.5km pre-season run he had done in 34 minutes.

On Saturday, the old workhorse duly put in a shift when it mattered: 19 sprints as he covered 10.93km in a performance encompassing four tackles, four clearances, three interceptions, 13 crosses and 117 touches (and, Palace may note, five fouls and no bookings). “I am pretty sure Millie enjoyed that,” Klopp reflected. Which, as Milner relishes a challenge, he almost certainly did.

While Gareth Southgate had used a Liverpool right-back, Alexander-Arnold, in midfield, this was a midfielder masquerading as a right-back. Alexander-Arnold had reported ill on Saturday morning, Milner jokingly diagnosing “a bit of Zaha-itis” and adding: “Trent’s definitely going to get some ribbing for that.” As Milner’s starts have become rarer, with only 21 in Liverpool’s previous 86 league games, he still seems the invaluable understudy, ready for such emergencies. Klopp is a manager of many midfields, but fewer of them contain Milner. He may be wearily, uncomplainingly familiar with the spot on the bench but part of Milner’s appeal has long been his status as the man for all positions. In 2014, as Manchester City’s forwards were sidelined, Milner faced Palace as an auxiliary striker, running many a mile to free up space for others.

However, he has also been the Yorkshireman for all seasons: 20 of them in the Premier League now. On Saturday, he became the first footballer to take on both Patrick Vieira the player and the manager. Sunday was David Seaman’s 58th birthday: of those who played against him in the Premier League, only Milner and Cristiano Ronaldo are plying their trade in it now.

Like Ronaldo, Milner is a Champions League record holder; it remains remarkable that he has more assists in a single campaign than anyone else in the competition’s history, with nine in Liverpool’s surge to the 2018 final. It can feel incongruous but his skill has been concealed by a cloak of dullness. The Champions League’s most creative force turned into one of its staunchest defenders in April when he spoke out bluntly against the proposed Super League. Where Milner led, others followed and a voice of common sense sounded like football’s conscience.

He can appear a throwback to earlier times, but there is a question of how much longer the Milner era can last. He was not among the glut of Liverpool players to receive new contracts this summer. His deal expires next year. He is already the second oldest outfielder to represent Liverpool in the Premier League, behind only Gary McAllister. Gareth Barry has made the most Premier League appearances of all time but Milner is 87 games away from supplanting his friend as the most glamorous league’s least glamorous record holder. A bit-part role at Anfield may make it harder to claim that, but performances like Saturday’s suggest he will retain the formidable fitness to stand a chance. Milner’s ability to keep on running may yet make him the Premier League’s milestone man.

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