The Times has a long interview with James Milner. Here it is:
NICK POTTS/PA WIRE
James Milner is talking deeply about his character, expounding on his stubborn streak when he casually mentions that he speaks to his children only in Spanish. What?! Many parents struggle to get through in English. Milner was determined to learn Spanish, wants his kids to follow suit and, when he sets his mind to something, nothing stops him. “I’m a pretty stubborn bastard!” Milner laughs.
Stubbornness is a key trait in Milner’s successful career but he’s so much more than that. Sitting on a hotel terrace in Marbella, Liverpool’s pre-Kiev retreat, the 32-year-old makes insightful company and is now a social media icon with a series of deliciously self-mocking posts about ironing, measuring mini-eggs and Ribena. The world has finally realised what a genuinely funny, interesting character “Milly” is, anything but boring. “They probably thought I was a knob before,” he laughs again.
It has taken 16 years, two titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup, 657 appearances for Leeds United, Swindon Town, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Liverpool, 61 England caps and some real treats of tweets for Milner to become an overnight sensation. Learning Spanish gives a glimpse of his character. “It was when I signed at City, to speak to David Silva and Zaba [Pablo Zabaleta] and I’ve carried it on,” he says. “I’ve a place over here and I was so impressed with people who could flick between the two languages. Since my two children were born I’ve just spoken to them in Spanish. My missus speaks to them in English. They understand pretty much everything I say. It’s a very good gift you can give your children.
“My missus will tell you that’s what I’m like, if I set my mind to something, I do it. I’m stubborn and I always want to be right. I hate losing. We have some great debates here. We always joke I could be a lawyer. If someone’s being fined for something, and they are arguing the case, I’ll be saying why they should be fined. That’s the standards of Leeds United’s academy, old school standards.
“Coming through at 16 I had to grow up very quickly, there was a lot of turmoil at Leeds. I was doing my GCSEs and, four months later, I’m playing in the Premier League. It’s pretty ridiculous when you look back.
“I had very good senior players who looked after me, Dom Matteo, Mark Viduka, and learnt a lot from them, like always being careful with the media, learning from other people’s mistakes and scandal, and learning that words can be spun in an interview out of a perfectly innocent comment, so that’s why I have always been defensive.”
So does he deflect praise because he loves the quiet life? “Probably yes. That’s why I prefer an assist to a goal! You don’t get the headlines but you’ve still contributed,” he says.
On social media, people love the way Milner gently mocks his old image as boring. “People are surprised that I joke a lot but that’s me, although my missus did say a couple of times that even she was surprised with some of the [joking things] I put on Instagram.” His self-portrait was surreal.
“Maybe people thought I actually was boring and didn’t have a personality. Now they know more about me, and see I’m comfortable to make a joke about Ribena. Maybe that has coincided with having an OK season.”
He’s so popular he hardly gets trolled. “Touch wood, things have been going all right since I’ve been on it. Ask me again in a year!” It’s all his own work. “It’s all me! I have help from a friend in editing certain images, because I don’t have the ability.”
Milner used social media to post tributes to Ray Wilkins, who coached him with England Under-21, and his old Villa team-mate Jlloyd Samuel, whose deaths place football in perspective. “Yes it does. It shook me. I was lucky enough to work with both of them, two of the nicest guys you could meet. With Jlloyd . . . ”
Milner’s voice momentarily tails off. “It’s a bubble, we’re in the Champions League, and then when something like that happens, it gives you a reality check. How important is football in the scheme of things? We are lucky to do what we do. Football changes so many people’s lives, and we love it and get so much out of it, but there’s always the bigger picture. The pressure is that high when you put the shirt on. My missus will tell you I was horrible to be around for two days if we’d lost. I’ve probably changed, watch less football now than I used to and I spend time with the kids. That horrible feeling every time you come off that field and you’ve lost, you go home . . . I’m better now because the kids are ‘Daddy!’ Wow! That’s better.
“People see us as footballers, great career, amazingly lucky to do it, and they’re absolutely right, but the down side is being away from your family. I find it difficult. I have two young children and people don’t realise how often you are away from them.”
Milner thinks of his own childhood and when he decided to be teetotal. “I tried my old man’s cider, his Strongbow, when I was younger, but when I was 16 I made a decision not to drink,” he says. “Matthew Kilgallon and some of the younger Leeds lads were out in the city centre and the manager of the [night] club came up to him, and said, ‘James Milner has never been in here’. Even if I’d wanted to, it would have been very difficult for me to drink. The whole city knew how old I was. I just made a decision that, if it helps me, then don’t do it. I’m not like super against drinking, at the right time for the boys, it’s great for them to have a drink.” Even at his wedding, Milner didn’t touch a drop. “No. It’s a decision and I’ve stuck to it.”
That determined streak again. “I’m in the gym a lot, treatment with the physios, massages. I’m always carrying certain injuries, and you have a daily thing in the gym to manage that, prevention and treatment, deal with it and stay on that field.” His athletics prowess as a schoolboy, cross-country and 100m champion, has proved useful. “With the way we play, and the Premier League is very fast-paced, so having that background definitely helps.”
It wasn’t just athletics and football. “I was under-11s for Yorkshire — wicketkeeper-batsman,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have played for England. I played one game for the year above and Tim Bresnan was playing. He’s done all right! I always enjoyed wicketkeeping to the fast bowlers, spinners weren’t that much fun, getting it in the teeth, wearing a helmet, quite warm. Tim was good because he was quick so I stood 20 yards behind the wicket and it was flying through. Good fun.”
He smiles at the mention that a career taking in Leeds, City and Liverpool seems almost designed to wind up Manchester United fans. “That was the idea really! Growing up a Leeds fan, I was never allowed to wear a red T-shirt, my old man never allowed it. Seriously. ‘We can’t wear red. We’re Leeds.’ It was strange when I signed for Liverpool, actually wearing red. My dad made a joke about it, saying, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen you in red.’ I still follow Leeds and want them to do well and still have that same feeling towards Manchester United.”
But what about old Leeds and Newcastle mates such as Alan Smith who signed for Manchester United. “Went down in my estimation slightly! He’s a top man, amazing guy. I’ve always spent a lot of time with Wayne Rooney with England, great lad, enjoyed his company. Michael Carrick too. Gary Neville! That is probably the most surprised I’ve been at meeting somebody. When you see Gaz on the pitch he seemed such a horrible person but I was in one England squad with him, and then [experienced his] coaching, and he’s a really funny guy, and I like him.
“It’s never a personal thing. It’s the club. I have friends who are United fans — not many — so it’s not that personal but as soon as I step on that field . . . As much as I dislike Manchester United, I have huge respect for them, one of the best clubs in the world, with the trophies they’ve won, but their domination has unfortunately [been] in my lifetime.”
He loves playing there. “I’ve always loved hostile atmospheres. Olympiacos away with Newcastle [in 2005] stands out for me. I went to cross a ball, slid into the advertising boards, and was taking my time to get up, which was a big mistake. I felt wet and thought, ‘What’s going on, has it started raining?’ I was getting spat on. Raining down on me. I got up a bit quicker then. I love those atmospheres. I want to prove them wrong, shut them up, and there’s nothing better than that silence when that away goal goes in.”
He loves the atmosphere generated by his own teams’ fans. “At Newcastle, we played in the FA Cup semi-final against United in Cardiff [in 2005] and the streets were lined with Newcastle fans. Graeme Souness said, ‘If that doesn’t inspire you, then nothing will’.
“It was special coming in [on the coach] for the Roma game [at Anfield in April], so I thought I’d film it and give people a feeling. It can’t help but lift you seeing it going into the ground, and then the atmosphere in the ground. When we came in against [Borussia] Dortmund [in 2016], the fans did something similar in the Europa, and that was amazing. It must be great for the fans doing it, feeling that togetherness.
“One of the beautiful things at Liverpool is the togetherness and you can see that with the way we play. We hang out together. No one’s sneaking off early. The way the manager has us playing, if you’re not together, and don’t want to go the extra yard for each other, it won’t work.
“You take Phil Coutinho — or any very good player — out of most teams in January and they’d struggle but we could deal with it because of our togetherness and we have a lot of very good players. The way we play together, the way we press, and when we have injuries and key players out, to carry on doing well shows the strength of togetherness.”
The way Liverpool press looks exhausting. “Look, the schedule in England is incredibly tough when you’re doing well in competitions, Christmas is always a tough time, so you’re going to get injuries, that’s what pre-season is for,” he says. “You prepare your body to go through that. Maybe the first season the manager came, there is a fair argument for that — [getting] a few injuries because we weren’t used to playing at that tempo. After that, we knew what was expected of us. Your body adapts.”
He loves winning the ball and unleashing Liverpool’s front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. “There are times in a defensive situation when we’ve managed to nick it, play a pass into one of the three, then you’re just running up behind them, watching the three of them do, like, three one-twos and stick it in the top bin, and I think, ‘Nice!’,” he says.
“Mo’s ridiculous! In the dressing room the other day, by his spot there were seven trophies on the floor, all his player of the months from someone. I’m stepping over them in my flip-flops. ‘Mo, will you move this! I can’t get to my spot. Do us a favour, will you?!’ ”
Roma seemed to forget that Salah cuts in from the right, working the ball on to his left. “It’s easy to say that, but actually stopping it . . . You can say that about [Lionel] Messi for 15 years that, ‘His right foot is not as great as his left’. There’s a great example of me when I went to press him [Messi at the Nou Camp in 2015], got him by the touchline, he nicks it through my legs and he’s gone, incredible. The best players find a way.
“Mo has come in and done unbelievably well, with the goals he’s scored, and Bobby’s getting more credit than before.” The selfless Firmino is like a Milner up front? “He’s incredible, so probably not. I’m not sure I’d ever score a goal without looking!” Roma away [the own goal]? “True. I got the face in the way. I might go into boxing, staying on my feet after that one.
“Bobby’s unbelievable, his workrate, he loses it and then gets it back. The strength, the ability, times his runs. He can be marked by too many people, does a trick to get out of it. Bobby doesn’t say a lot. You speak to him, and he’s nodding and smiling, and most of the time I think he understands but maybe he struggles with my accent. I speak Spanglish to him. Him and Alberto [Moreno] are thick as thieves.
“And so much credit to Sadio too. This season started with a bit of an injury and with Mo coming in, stealing his thunder. There was one point with people saying he hasn’t scored as many goals as he should and then he kicked on.”
With a top manager in Jürgen Klopp. “His set-up is so good. It’s taken time, the pressing side, that mental reaction to being a natural thing of, we’ve lost the ball, boom, straight away we’re there in numbers. The manager wants us to play in the right way. We don’t get many reds or yellows. We never get any penalties for us. People who watch us are there to be entertained.” His man-management is inspired. “There have been times at half-time, we thought he’d come in and go absolutely mental and he hasn’t and it was the right call. Other times, you weren’t expecting a rocket and you get one. The best managers know when to give a rocket and when to put the arm round someone.
“I love his passion and that he’s there for you every kick. There are times when he might say something because it’s the emotion, but there might be times that he might not agree with you and he goes away, thinks about it and then meets you halfway. That’s a high quality needed of the best managers, taking opinions.”
Milner was surprised by talk of him coming out of international retirement having made Gareth Southgate very aware of the irreversible nature of his decision some time ago. He will be watching England from afar and wishing them well. “This is probably the freshest squad for a long time, new faces, no old baggage,” he says. “There is a good chance of England doing well.”
That freshness is embodied by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s surprise call-up. “I wasn’t surprised,” Milner says. “I can’t talk highly enough of his quality on the ball, how good he is defensively, and how he stood up to the test of the City game in particular when they were raining diagonals on him, whether because [Leroy] Sané was on fire, and Trent’s a young player and, ‘We’ll test him out’.
“With that free kick he scored early in the Champions League campaign [against Hoffenheim], it’s one thing to say, ‘Look I’m taking it’ and another thing to do it. He listens and learns, does everything right, good attitude, very respectful, quite quiet but he doesn’t just sit there in the corner, he’ll have jokes with the lads. I talk to him but I don’t want to over-influence him, because he’s his own player. I don’t want to mould him into a James Milner because he’s way better than I am.” That self-deprecating streak remains.