Leeds United have impressed critics and fans alike with their fantastic performances on the pitch this season. Bielsa’s men have entertained with their high tempo pressing football and sit 6th in the table after six matches played. The ease with which the Whites have transitioned to life in the Premier League is commendable, and it makes one feel as if they were ever-present in the English topflight. But the harsh reality is that they have made a comeback to Premier League football after sixteen years. And things have changed drastically from the time of their exit to the time of their rebirth.
Leeds’ last Premier League game before the start of the 2020-21 season was on 15th May 2004. To put things into context, the game took place less than two months after this writer was born. There are only two survivors from that infamous occasion. Only two men are still involved in Premier League football today. One is referee Mike Dean, who refereed the Whites’ match against Chelsea on that Saturday afternoon. The other one is none other than James Philip Milner.
James Milner has been playing professional football from the age of sixteen. In the 2002-03 season, Milner broke various records by recording his first professional appearance as a Leeds player at the age of 16 years and 309 days. If that wasn’t enough, Milner scored his first goal just forty-seven days later, making him the youngest ever Premier League goalscorer at the time. After his impressive debut season, the boy from Leeds has been determined to reach dizzying heights as a footballer and hasn’t looked back since.
Maintaining a reputation as a regular Premier League starter for a couple of seasons is a massive achievement. Maintaining that reputation for five seasons is impressive. But to do it for sixteen years? Now that’s impossible. But then again, it’s James Milner we’re talking about here. He can make the impossible a possibility and make the process look effortless.
One of world football’s model professionals, Milner has been maintaining himself with an almost military-like precision. He treats his body like a temple and ensures that it remains at the pinnacle of physicality. He doesn’t drink or smoke, has a tremendous work ethic, and loves a pint of Ribena. If you want proof of his fitness levels, look no further than the results of Liverpool’s lactate tests. Sure enough, the 34-year-old is the last man standing amongst a group of footballers nearly ten years younger than him.
In a Liverpool team where the likes of Salah, Mané, van Dijk and Trent are the face of Jürgen Klopp’s machine, James Milner’s influence is extremely underappreciated. Despite not being the one who appears in the back pages of the morning newspaper after scoring a hattrick, Milner probably epitomizes what Liverpool under Klopp stands for – loyalty and intensity. The man is always in contention for a starting berth in midfield and often earns his spot when Klopp tends to opt for a more balanced setup. Even when he’s not starting, Milner is always there when his team needs him.
Before Kostas Tsimikas’s arrival at Anfield, Milner was the backup left back to close friend Andy Robertson. The way in which he filled in at times for the Scot last season was truly admirable. Despite lacking the pace and agility of Robertson, he brought in a certain degree of calmness and solidity to the side.
He started the memorable Champions league game against Barcelona and was phenomenal throughout the game. On a night where Gini Wijnaldum and Divock Origi stole the headlines, few must have noticed that it was indeed Milner who consumed the last few seconds on the clock. It was a small incident in the grand scheme of things, but the image of Milner taking the ball to the corner flag and holding up three Barcelona players has left an impregnable impact in my memories. Because that’s who James Milner is – he’s someone who will do anything to earn the victory. If you doubt that, you can speak to his two Premier League titles and his Champions League winners medal.
Versatile. Dynamic. Skilful. Physical. Inevitable – there aren’t enough adjectives to describe how important James Milner is to the current Liverpool side, and in a broader sense, to the world of football. Milner has been there and achieved everything there is to achieve in association football. Yet he still wants to do it all over again. Milner is not just a footballer. Milner is football, and everything good that it stands for.
Written by Hrishikesh Chaudhuri | (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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