Pre-season number 20 of James Milner's career is being attacked with typical gusto.
Liverpool’s vice-captain is preparing for the 2021-22 campaign as part of a 34-man squad that has travelled to a base in the Salzburg region of Austria.
- Watch Liverpool's pre-season fixtures in Austria live and exclusive on LFCTV GO – plus training access, interviews and all the latest news. Get the first month FREE with code 2122GOFREE. Find out more at www.liverpoolfc.com/watch. T&Cs apply.
And, as usual, he is approaching the process with a steadfast commitment to driving standards from his role as the senior-most member of Jürgen Klopp’s group.
“Not too bad to be fair, I feel pretty good,” Milner said with a smile, after sitting down with Liverpoolfc.com at the team hotel and being asked to assess the opening stages of his 20th pre-season.
“It’s good to be back with the guys. Obviously the amount of time we spend together, the relationships you build and the things you go through, [the] ups and downs as a unit; when you’re not together you’re enjoying your holidays but when you get back together you realise how much you miss people and it’s good to be back together.
“The sessions have been great, [there’s been] a bit of everything in there. A lot of hard work obviously as well, but just working on things we maybe want to improve on going into next season and a high emphasis on those things.”
Topics also discussed with the No.7 included the returns of Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk, new signing Ibrahima Konate, and his post as something of a mentor to the Academy hopefuls who have joined the senior stars at the camp.
Read on for the rest of our in-depth chat with Milner…
To be heading into a 20th season at the highest level is nothing short of remarkable really – is that something you’ve allowed yourself to reflect on, or is it just business as usual for you?
Not yet, I think they’re probably things that you think about when you’re finished. I think at this moment in time I just want to get through it and keep pushing really, but I’ve worked hard to try to stay fit and in the off-season it’s about getting the balance right of getting the right amount of rest but I think at my age if you stop too long you probably won’t get going again! So it’s important to keep going and keep pushing and enjoying it. That’s the thing, you want to still be able to push yourself and have the mindset that you want to do it and you’re enjoying it and you feel part of something, and that’s how I feel.
You’ve got a bit of a legendary reputation when it comes to the lactate tests – how did that go this year? It was a hot day here on Monday too, wasn’t it…
Yeah, it was! [It was the] first day back, but it was submaximal this year so it wasn’t too bad. We all dropped out at the same level so it was comfortable I would say. It was a nice starting [point] really, a bit of a blow but nothing too excessive really. So it was a nice thing to come into.
Great to be back with the boys, preparation starts here 🥵☀️⏱ #preseasonmode #YNWA https://t.co/aUN4lgbWuM— JamesMilner (James Milner) 12th Jul 19:28
We’re several days into the camp here in Austria. Are you properly in the rhythm of pre-season now and already feeling the benefits in terms of your fitness and sharpness?
Yeah, I think obviously like I said you work in the off-season yourself, but there’s nothing that prepares you for the session-on-session, day-on-day [routine]. It is a long camp, I’m not looking too far ahead and counting off the days if you like, I’m counting off the sessions. We have a lot of doubles [sessions] and things like that, so get through the morning session, refuel and go again. It’s pretty short-term thinking but each session is very important and the coaches are obviously great working on everything they need to: mixing it up [and] keeping it interesting, but with a high emphasis on the things that we want to improve and take into this year. So that’s obviously important that we’re getting that message and doing the work now so it becomes second-nature to us and it’s not something that needs to be asked for or something that we’re consciously thinking about once it comes to game day, you automatically just do it.
We’ve seen Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk involved in team sessions too – how much of a lift has it been to have them back in training?
Yeah, amazing. Like I say, it’s great to be back among the boys but great to have the guys who we missed so much last year back as well. They’re obviously big parts of the squad on the field but also off the field as well: big characters, great people to have in the squad and just as people and knowing what great guys they are, it’s great to have them back playing and being happy. Obviously every footballer just wants to play football, so we’re lucky, or unlucky enough shall we say, to watch them go through that from behind the scenes and see the hours that they’ve put in, and the hard work, and the weight sessions, and the long days. You know, everybody has up days and down days but you feel proud to see them come back on the field and just happy for them because you know how tough it’s been but how much hard work they’ve done. They look in great nick all of them and ready to go.
You’ve just mentioned how important they are off the pitch as well as on it. Is it almost as good just to have them back among the group and around the hotel here as it is to have them in training again?
Yeah, both. I think it’s important for them to be back in amongst the group and feel part of it because obviously that’s an aim when people are injured: you try to keep them feeling part of it but it’s not easy, they don’t feel part of it no matter what you do and things like that. So this camp is perfect for that, getting back into the rhythm of training but [also] being in and amongst the squad and it’s great for us in the squad to have those personalities in amongst it as well, so it works both ways. They’re big parts of what we’ve achieved in recent years and what we will do going forward.
It’s Ibrahima Konate’s first week as a Liverpool player too. How has he settled in?
Very good. He certainly looks like a central defender! He’s obviously very strong, he’s good on the ball, a very good defender positionally. I’ve not seen much of him in training but a couple of things he has done have stood out. It’s a strange situation: you obviously go from last season not having too many centre-halves and now we’ve got top-class centre-halves all over the place! It’s fantastic. Nat [Phillips] is obviously here and Davo [Ben Davies], Rhysy [Williams] obviously and all the guys in there – it’s a great standard of centre-half that we’ve got with everyone pushing each other and that’s exactly what you need.
Pep Lijnders is doing a diary for Liverpoolfc.com during the training camp and his advice to Konate was, ‘Just listen to James Milner and everything will be fine!’ What do you make of that?!
Well, the first challenge is probably understanding me – I know I’m probably not one of the easiest English speakers to understand so if he can understand me, that’s a start! I think obviously for us, like I said before, the characters that we have in the squad are so important. We have so many people with such great attitudes and the team spirit, I think that’s one thing that we’ve done very well in the past, everybody helping the new signings settle in, and the sooner they feel comfortable and know what they’re doing the sooner they will play their best football. We’ve seen it with Virg, when he came in in the middle of the season and how quickly he hit the ground running and that was credit to obviously the manager and the coaches, but also the boys in the dressing room making him feel comfortable straight away. That’s what these trips are perfect for, you know. Obviously we’re away a long time but when you’re here for a month it’s probably the equivalent of being back at the AXA, coming in and out every day, six months really, with the amount of time that you spend together. So that’s what these camps are perfect for as well, and he’s a good player. He’s a very good player and he’s still young as well so he’ll get better and better with obviously the help from the manager and the coaches but also the players around him.
We spoke to Owen Beck a few days ago and he name-checked you as someone who helps the young lads with words of advice in training. Do you see that as an important part of your role as a senior player, to help the youngsters who are here because it’s a very mixed squad in terms of ages and experience isn’t it?
Yeah it is and I think it’s a great time for the young guys. We’re obviously waiting for the senior guys to come back and it’s a great chance for them to be here and learn what they can but [also] put a marker down. They’re here to be in the shop window for the manager if you like and say, ‘We’re ready for this step up and [to] be a big part of this squad’. So it’s a great opportunity for them. They’re fantastic players, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be here and we’ve trained with all of them through the last year anyway, but like I say, it’s their chance to put that stamp down and say they want to be with us all year. Obviously I came through very young and I know what it’s like and all the older guys have been there so they know what helped when they were younger, and it’s about helping them make that step up and feel comfortable and make them feel involved, but letting them know what the standards are and help them not make mistakes that I’ve made or other players have. That’s the key: we all make mistakes, but it’s [about] making sure you only make that mistake once and learn from it. So if they can learn from my mistakes before they make them and that helps them, hopefully they’ll just keep improving and keep getting better and better because [about] the attitude and the ability – there’s no question with the young guys.
Finally, you finished last season so strongly to get into the top four and as we’ve discussed there are several important players coming back towards fitness, so do you feel that the basis is hopefully there to make next season another special one?
I think at this moment in time it’s important to just get the base. Like I said, in training we know where we want to improve and where we can get better so I think it’s about the process at this moment in time and not looking too far ahead. We know what we want to achieve in the season, we know what’s expected, we want to win trophies – that’s obviously always the aim. But I think this period is important. Getting through it with no injuries, making sure people are fit and building that team and that feeling again and that rhythm that obviously you lose when you are in the off-season and obviously with the changes we had all last season with the injuries and ups and downs. That’s all part of it but I’m pretty sure we’ll have learned more last season than we will have done in the two or three seasons before it and that’s a positive. A big positive is how we finished the season and how we finished up and hopefully we can take that momentum from last year. But at the moment it’s just about getting our rhythm and hitting the ground running.