James Milner leaves Liverpool with pride at having played a major role in a golden era in the club's history.
Milner made his 332nd and final appearance for the Reds during last Sunday’s season-ending 4-4 draw at Southampton.
After joining in the summer of 2015, the former England international served as the club’s vice-captain with distinction and departs having won six major trophies during his time on Merseyside.
Prior to last weekend’s match at St Mary’s Stadium, Milner sat down with Liverpoolfc.com at the AXA Training Centre to reflect on his hugely successful Anfield career.
Read on for a summary...
Millie, what was it like driving out of Anfield after your final game and the farewells following the Aston Villa match?
I think the attitude I’ve had through it all is to try to enjoy it. It is business as usual, that’s the mindset I’ve always tried to have, and you try to take it on board and enjoy it and things like that but I think if you overthink it too much that’s probably when you get quite emotional and stuff. So yeah, I just tried to enjoy the occasion. Obviously it would have been nice to win, that was the biggest disappointment. But I just feel content in the journey I’ve had here and proud and happy to have been part of it. So, I think there’s not a lot of sadness, it’s just happiness that I’ve been at the club, that I’ve played at Anfield for that long and the moments we shared there – it’s just sort of a happy feeling.
How good are you at reflecting? Does that come when you get that time to sit down over the summer, when certain moments or memories come back to you?
Yeah, I think so. I think the nature of the beast is that it’s every three days – go again, go again, forget – and you don’t enjoy the good moments. I think we’ve said this in interviews before, you don’t get chance to enjoy those and the bad ones seem to stick with you. But it’s probably at a crossroads, like when you move club or when you’re finished, that’s when you have time. Or there are times you flick through your phone or something pops up on your phone – I was looking for a photo the other day actually and I was scrolling through and I got to the Champions League ones and things like that. Those memories, it is those moments and it takes you back or a song comes on the radio and you think, ‘Oh, I remember celebrating when we won that game to that song and everyone was bouncing around the dressing room or Formby Hall’ or things like that. There’s certain things that trigger the memories and I’m fortunate that there’s quite a few triggers and memories that are happy.
You’ve played in the Premier League for more than 20 years and have won every medal available. Is there a particular game you would go back to if you could?
It has to be Barcelona I think. The whole thing around it, the build-up to it in terms of the first-leg result, beating Newcastle, losing players, what happened the night before with Vincent Kompany… the reaction to do that against a world-class team full of experienced players, with players missing, I think it was just a great night for the team and the club, but showed all of the hard work in terms of the whole squad. We had players missing, players who got us there, and the players who came in were ready to play, well coached, knew what their job was, up against it, didn’t panic. You look at that, winning the first trophy as a group is always really important and doing it together.
You can win things as individuals elsewhere but that first one does set you off and is the catalyst. I think if you look at that, if we’d have got that many points in the league, lost the Champions League final the year before, don’t turn that around, you worry what happens at that point. We might go again but it’s very hard to recover from something like that. So at the end of that game, it was more of a relief feeling for me, that this team deserve more and we managed to do that. I think that night was massive, in front of the Kop singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, it was a special moment as well, but it was well deserved. You know, not many teams got 97 points and don’t win the league! So to get something that year was massive.
What was the appetite like from this group to write their own history at this club, where so many iconic generations have gone before you?
Yeah, I think that was the biggest thing. When I first came into the club there was still a bit of hangover really from a few years before, just missing out on the league, and so many times people would say, ‘The year we nearly won the league.’ I was fortunate enough to be on the other side of that and pip Liverpool to the title but also coming to Anfield and seeing how much it meant and how much people wanted Liverpool to win it because it had been that long, the neutrals as well. So we knew how big it was and that was so important, obviously, to do that – to start our own history. But you come into a club like this and you see the history, you see the legends, the pictures on the walls, and that is so important to embrace but also when the club’s gone through a drier spell, which it had at that point really, sometimes it can weigh heavy. That was a big thing of the manager, that’s something we had to change quickly: ‘Use that history, use it as good pressure to drive us on.’
Like I said, that first trophy we got as a team started our history then, that allows you to go on and that pressure is no longer there. It needs to be embraced – every time you step out on that field and you’re playing for Liverpool you are expected to win, every trophy you go in for you want to win it. That’s what this club is used to, you look at the honours board every day when you come in and that’s there and I think once you’ve won something at the club and have done what we have, you’re part of it [and] you’ve earned the right to be part of it. It’s difficult enough to come to play for a club like Liverpool and be part of that but you have to earn your stripes if you like and try to match the achievements of the legends who have gone before you. That’s obviously the tough bit but once you’ve done it, it gives you that confidence to push on and go for more.
How important has it been for you to enjoy the successes? The trophy parades, for example, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along…
Exactly – and you’re lucky to have one at all in your career. That’s the biggest thing I think, the night we won the league I was stood at the back of the room watching the boys watch the game and just taking it in really. It’s lucky that I’d been there before and done it, but I knew I just wanted to watch everyone else enjoy it [after] all the hard work and the joy on people’s faces. That was special, really, to watch that. And the parades… absolutely ridiculous! They’re the days and you have to enjoy it. Last year, being so close to winning everything and the disappointment it could have been, but the amount of people on the streets of Liverpool and the boys were obviously going to be a bit flat. But I think Hendo said it was one of the best days of his life – take family out of that because I don’t want to get him in trouble with that comment! That says everything and they are so special: that’s what Liverpool is about, it’s the fans’ club. We are lucky enough to rent a shirt for a few years and do what we can in that shirt, but it’s their club and everything we do is for them.
So when we go around the city and you see people hanging off scaffolding and ladders and you make eye contact with someone… those are the special moments and the special moments we work so hard for to earn and it’s amazing to share because the following they have given the team over the years... I can only comment on my time [here] but all around the world, the amount of money they must have spent – we played every single game possible last year, the following we have all the time, when you need them they are there. It is mind-blowing really.
After the manager came in, is there a moment you remember thinking, ‘I am going to be part of something really special here’?
I don’t think at a club like Liverpool and under a manager like the gaffer I don’t think you can ever be comfortable that you’re going to part of something. I think when he came in, he’s got his own opinions – you were signed by another manager so you’ve got to prove yourself there, we obviously got to two finals and didn’t get over the line. The next year he asked me to play left-back so I had a decision to make personally, whether I want to do that, and obviously I did. Then the next year I went back into midfield but started the season on the bench and it’s one of those, ‘Have I had my moment here?’ So you constantly have to prove yourself, I have to push and say, ‘No, I want to be part of this team, I am good enough to be part of this team.’ You know the club is special, that’s why you sign, but I think there is never a point – and this shouldn’t be the case – when you think, ‘I’m here for the ride and I’m going to be part of something special.’ Every single day you have to earn the right to be here and be part of this group, this team, and to be part of the manager’s plans.
You will have learned so much off the more experienced players in your earlier days, do you feel like you have provided the same to the younger players in this squad, like Trent Alexander-Arnold?
Yeah, it’s funny you should say that actually because I came in about 15 minutes later than I normally do today and Trent was in before me and said, ‘Have I beat you in?!’ For him to comment and actually be in that early – I know he hasn’t done the school run or anything – it’s great. They’re the special things, you see the younger guys and Trent, I’ve seen him grow up and you see the pictures when he first came into the team and he is a boy. And you see what a player he is now and the man he is becoming, hopefully we have helped him learn a few positive things on the way and the things he needs to do to look after himself. It’s easier when you’re young, you never feel stiff, you never feel tired, you can do what you want, and obviously as he goes by hopefully he’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s why that old man Millie used to do that in the gym before training!’
You see the young boys coming in now, Fabio [Carvalho] – unbelievable, unbelievable attitude. Harvey [Elliott], Curtis [Jones] doing so well in the team at the moment, that’s special because you’ve seen them from so young and that’s something, you want to help them as much as you can. But it’s something when you leave the club or even when you’re retired, you watch these guys go on and you want to be available for them. Then if they ever want to call you, you want to help them because you feel like, everyone says it’s a family that dressing room, and even people who have left the club are still part of the family and you want to see them do as well as possible.
Finally, will you look back at this team and think they are going to be alright? That they will be resurgent next season?
I mean, it’s a dressing room full of unbelievable players, fantastic characters, unbelievable attitudes [so] of course they will, yeah. They are led by a special manager, so yeah, no doubts at all. Obviously it has been a tough season this year, you think how close we came to winning everything last year… this year the amount of injuries we have had has been ridiculous, I don’t think I’ve ever known a season like it. We tried to do the best we can and you see the run that we’ve finished the season on strong, a lot of teams would have just sailed through to the end of the season but we fought as hard as we could to get back up that table and secured European football again, which is important for this club. The future’s definitely bright. Hendo is obviously an incredible leader, he has shown that all the way through since he’s been here – the ups and downs he has been through, he’s one of the most successful Liverpool captains ever in terms of trophies. He’s unbelievable and he’ll keep doing that and obviously now Virg and Robbo and people like that, they’ll be absolutely fine and very successful.