Much has changed, inside and outside the world of football, since James Milner first featured in a senior match in November 2002.
The man himself has ticked off almost everything on a player’s career wish list.
There’s his three Premier League winner’s medals, two with Manchester City preceding the most recent as Liverpool vice-captain when the club’s three-decade wait for the title was emphatically ended last summer.
There’s the Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup triumphs with the Reds in 2019, which he added to a CV that already included FA Cup and League Cup honours, plus 61 England caps.
Beyond the trophies, there’s his reputation as a role model for, and demander of, elite standards – from himself and those around him.
‘He is Mr Professional,’ Jürgen Klopp once said.
And Milner’s ceaseless refusal to allow those to drop means his ambitions continue to burn as bright as ever, even after 19 successful years at the top level.
“I think it’s just will to win, I suppose, and the drive to be the best you can every day,” Milner told Liverpoolfc.com during a recent interview. “I think when you lose that you need to retire pretty quick.
“I’m very competitive in everything you do: training [or] if it’s games, you want to win. Proving people wrong still, it has always been a big driver for me.
“Every interview you do now your age is brought up. I still feel fine in myself, so why not push for as long as you can? You’re a long time retired, so I want to keep going and keep pushing myself.”
The midfielder, who turned 35 in January, added: “Obviously it’s very short term when you get to this age because anything can happen; we know that in football anyway, even when you’re younger.
“But so far I feel good, I still feel no different to what I did five, seven, eight, 10 years ago in terms of covering the distance in games and things like that. It’s no different. So, crack on.”
Liverpool is now the team Milner has served the longest as a senior pro, following his spells with Leeds United, Swindon Town (loan), Newcastle United, Aston Villa and City.
The No.7 has amassed 243 appearances and 26 goals over the course of what will soon be six completed seasons at Anfield.
He has found the environment in place at the club, and the expectations that come with wearing the badge, to be a challenging but perfect match to his own driven personality.
It’s a symbiotic relationship that sees Milner, who was appointed deputy to Jordan Henderson within weeks of joining on a free transfer in 2015, approach every aspect of his work with that same, unyielding mindset.
“Especially when you’re at a club like Liverpool and the demand is there every day to win, the players around you, the competition for places and the level they’re at every day, you have to be at your level otherwise you’re not going to be anywhere near it,” he said.
“The thing I’ve always said since I’ve been here is I just want to have an impact on the club and contribute on the field as much as I can. And sometimes that comes into when you’re not playing – how can you contribute with the team in terms of training and the other side of it?
“It’s the same reason why you’re driven every day to be at 100 per cent – because you want to be part of something successful. You’re a cog in a big machine that’s driving towards success.
“The standards at Liverpool are massive. Obviously being one of the senior players in the team as well, if I drop off my standards, how can I then demand any different from anyone else?
“How can I ask someone to work hard or encourage them if they look at me and say, ‘Well why am I going to do it? You’re not doing it’? That’s another big thing really.
“I think if you’re good players and a good team you can do well for a short period of time or have one good season; you need more than that to do it over a sustained period.
“I think the club has done a very good job at not only recruiting good players but recruiting good characters, and sometimes that’s more important than anything – to keep that squad harmony, to have the right attitude, people working hard and pushing to the next level.
“Then you see the guys coming through from the Academy as well, how they have been educated not only on the field but in terms of how to conduct themselves.
“And from that point then obviously the manager has to set the right tone within the squad and the standards he expects, then obviously it’s down to us as a dressing room. Hendo, the captain, does it fantastically well in terms of setting the right mindset in training and everything around the club. He sets the examples and the more we can take off the manager – he has got enough on his plate to be worrying about things in the dressing room – it’s down to the senior players in the squad.
“But everyone has that responsibility to make sure there are no problems in the dressing room, no ill-discipline, and no things creeping in and people maybe not doing their gym work and things like that. It’s down to us to nip that in the bud before it starts.”
Good to get some minutes in yesterday and get a look at the young lads...the future is in good hands 👊🔴 #YNWA… https://t.co/A6ztrgJiXU— JamesMilner (James Milner) 21st Mar 13:17
🎩 @BenWoodburn with a hat-trick! 🎥 All the goals from the Reds going head-to-head in the internal friendly... https://t.co/tvps9PlUYj— LFC (Liverpool FC) 25th Mar 12:35
From memory, the Yorkshireman feels sure this mentality was present in him since the very beginning, when he took fledgling steps into the game with boyhood club Leeds and at England youth level.
But it has been enhanced and chiselled, too, by the sweeping changes in the modern era that have fundamentally altered off-pitch preparations, from diet and nutrition to psychology and analysis.
“There wasn’t the detail that we have now,” Milner explained. “Obviously when you’ve got people like Mona [Nemmer, head of nutrition] at the club, the attention to detail is massive. That, no doubt, has helped the education improve.
“But in terms of the other things – I’ve never drunk, I’ve always gone in the gym. The gym programmes and things have developed. Earlier in my career you’d go in the gym after training and do some leg weights or upper body weights and stuff, but not so much before training – the pre-activation and stuff.
“That has developed going forward.”
Those leaps in sports science expertise have aided Milner’s remarkable, ongoing accumulation of Premier League games, a figure that totals 558 at the time of writing.
Only four players – Gareth Barry, Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard and David James – can claim more in the era.
Premier League appearances - top 10
Gareth Barry - 653
Ryan Giggs - 632
Frank Lampard - 609
David James - 572
James Milner - 558
Gary Speed - 535
Emile Heskey - 516
Mark Schwarzer - 514
Jamie Carragher - 508
Phil Neville - 505
So, does he fancy toppling the leader, his friend and former teammate Barry, whom he now trails by 95?
“He was an absolute machine, he just carried on and on and on,” began his response.
“Obviously there’s 38 games in a season – the tempo, the intensity and all these things, a lot can happen. So I’m not looking too far ahead really. Like I say, my concentration is on Liverpool and contributing as much as I can and [to] be at the club as long as possible.
“I still feel good and still feel when the manager asks me to do a job, I can do it well. Hopefully that can continue and I can keep contributing to the team.
“It’s not something you really set out on, saying at the start of your career, ‘I want to play this many games.’ It’s probably something at the end of your career you can be proud of.
“I’ve been very lucky to play for some amazing football clubs, some of the biggest in the country, and to play with Liverpool is a fantastic thing. You’re asked to live up to so much just to pull on that shirt but to be successful again, the pressure is always there to do that and that’s one of the things that you want in your career. You want to play for big clubs and you want to challenge for trophies.
“It’s nice that we’ve been able to add some silverware to the history of this great club. But it’s the next one. That’s the way football is: you drive to the next one and the next one. You don’t look back at these things until you finish really.”
Another Premier League ranking Milner continues to steadily climb regards assists.
He currently sits eighth on that particular list with 85 and is hunting down stellar company immediately above him in the form of Steven Gerrard, David Silva and Dennis Bergkamp.
Has he had enough credit for his creative ability over the years?
“I think the people that you want to notice [that] is your teammates and the manager. Or not notice but know that you’re contributing to the team, that’s what your job is,” he said.
“It’s something probably in my career maybe when I was playing a bit more attacking positions for the majority of my career I had a pretty good assist rate. I always felt like I could create. I think because I work quite hard and cover a lot of ground – and maybe don’t too many stepovers! – it can be lost, the assist numbers.
“But the numbers are there and that’s a nice thing, it’s always been something I feel I’ve been good at. But it’s not why you play, to get credit or whatever.
“The main thing for me is that Liverpool are winning trophies, so if you’re contributing assists and it’s helping the club win trophies then that’s the perfect combination.”
Liverpool will resume their campaign by journeying to Arsenal in the Premier League this Saturday, following a near-three-week hiatus in the schedule since back-to-back wins over RB Leipzig and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Klopp’s side are seventh in the table with nine fixtures left to play and have a mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid forthcoming.
As the Reds seek to conclude the season in positive fashion, Milner acknowledged how the difficulties experienced along the way have been sharply felt within the squad.
But, true to his nature, he is looking forward with intent.
“People don’t see that obviously at the training ground every day, they don’t see the dressing room after a game and things like that,” he said.
“The players are as disappointed, if not more so, as the fans. We know how many people want us to do well and the support we have around the world is incredible, so we’re desperate to do well for them. For ourselves as well obviously – and for the team and the club.
“But ultimately the fans have been around before we were players for the team and they’ll be around long after we’ve gone. They’re so important and the most important part of the football club really. And we’re desperate to do well for them.
“Every time you come off and you haven’t got a result it’s disappointing, you feel like you’ve let people down. But we’re working as hard as ever.
“You have these periods. When you look back at the last few years it shows you the level we’ve been at is pretty ridiculous really, in terms of the amount of wins we’ve had and the relentlessness. And nothing has dropped on our side but every sportsperson and team has those little dips; nothing ever goes up and up and up. It’s how you deal with that and we have to deal with this as fast as possible and come out of it strong and keep driving.
“And we’re doing that and it’ll come, there’s no doubt about that because the desire is still there, the work-rate and the ability. We just need those things to click, have that bit of luck and we’ll be on our way.”
Because there’s one thing Milner wants to keep on changing: the club’s roll of honour.
“You always want to finish your career strongly, you don’t want to just sort of melt off into the background,” he concluded. “It depends on the situation and obviously at Liverpool the demand is that we win trophies as well.
“I think when you’ve got a team as good as we have, and a manager as good as we have and a set-up, you have to really be in the hunt for winning trophies. That’s the demand and that’s what’s wanted.”