The youngest team in the history of Liverpool Football Club qualified for the fifth round of the F.A. Cup with a 1-0 victory over Shrewsbury at Anfield last night.
While youngsters such as Harvey Elliott, Neco Williams and Curtis Jones — who, at 19 years old, became the youngest captain in the club’s history — received much of the plaudits for their on field contributions, the first team squads elder statesman had a role to play in the victory, too.
In his post match press conference, Neil Critchley — nominally the club’s U23 manager — confirmed that James Milner, forgoing his winter break, joined in the training session on the day before the game and dispensed advice in the dressing room in the build up to the game.
“James Milner trained with us yesterday and asked if he could come along. He gave words of advice to the players in the dressing room before the game and I can’t thank him enough,” he said.
If anyone epitomises the club’s “intensity is our identity” credo, it is the former Leeds United midfielder.
While not possessing the physicality of a Virgil van Dijk, the almost balletic balance of a Naby Keita or the top end pace of a Sadio Mane or a Mohamed Salah, Milner is, nevertheless, a beacon of professionalism and dedication and the ideal role model for any player club at the club; particularly young players.
The aforementioned Jones and Elliott, who are both blessed with innate technical ability, should look no further than Milner, who made his Premier League debut at 16 years old, as an example of a player who maximised his talent to nth degree.
Talent is clearly a prerequisite for any player hoping to forge themselves a career at the European Champions, but without being underpinned by the kind of wholehearted approach that Milner is famed for it is next to useless; see, for example, Mario Balotelli.
The Englishman, despite being 34 years old, is in the good graces of manager Jurgen Klopp to the extent that the German had no hesitation in extending Milner’s contract through to 2022.
Without damning the number 7 with faint praise — because a Premier League winner with Manchester City, as well as a regular for clubs of the ilk of Newcastle United and Aston Villa, is definitely a player who has ability in spades — Klopp’s decision would have hinged not only on Milner’s on field ability but also the many off field intangibles he brings to the table.
After his sides recent 2-0 defeat at Anfield, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder was effusive in his praise of the Reds. Wilder put extra emphasis on the humility of the European Champions, which, he felt, informed their insatiable appetite for hard work.
“They won every first ball, every second ball, ran forward and back. They had the humility to do that as world champions,” he enthused.
The embodiment of this approach is Milner, whose commitment to his craft has wrongly seen him labelled as boring.
The old sporting cliche goes “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” and, in the case of Liverpool, the Premier League table toppers have talent that works hard.
At the forefront of this culture of humble, hard working commitment to the cause — leading by example — is Milner.
While the midfielder/auxiliary left back won’t appear in many combined XI’s — which are annoyingly a staple of modern footballing discourse — or talked about in the same breath of many of his contemporaries, his role in what appears to be the beginning of an era of success for Liverpool should not be underestimated.
Along with Klopp, Milner is the architect of the current winning culture that is manifesting itself in the regular collection of trophies.
The standards set by the likes of Milner will not only contribute to present day success, but — in the eventuality that Williams, Ki-Jana Hoever, Elliott and Jones fulfil their rich potential — they will reverberate throughout the future and ensure Liverpool maintain their status as competitors at the zenith of English and European Football for many years to come.