On November 10, 2002 a player hailed as the next teenage sensation made his debut when Leeds United offered then 16-year-old academy product James Milner his first taste of Premier League action, replacing Jason Wilcox as a substitute for the final seven minutes of an encounter with West Ham United.
Sixteen years later, on a journey that has seen Milner feature for six clubs and make over 650 professional appearances, not only is the Liverpool number seven showing no signs of slowing down in what might otherwise be considered the twilight of his career, the now vastly experienced 32-year-old is arguably going from strength to strength.
Four games into the 2018-19 campaign and already Milner has shown just how important he is for Jurgen Klopp, locking down his place in a midfield trio, ensuring that for those who weigh up the odds and write Premiership match previews, he seems a safe bet to feature regularly in the Liverpool starting eleven this season.
Milner has also more than justified the faith and certainty of his selections by Klopp, scoring once and laying on two assists during those opening four appearances. Not bad for a player who some suggested might be facing a bit-part role this season, particularly after Liverpool splashed out on the likes of Naby Keïta and Fabinho during the summer, along with Xerdan Shaqiri.
Amidst much stronger competition for starts in midfield, Milner has produced the highest match ratings on the right side of Klopp’s most frequently used trio, alongside Keïta and Georginio Wijnaldum in a flexible and dynamic system. Certainly, impressive statistics given he's featured almost as many times as a left-back under the German coach, as he has in central midfield roles.
Advancing age, new signings and additional competition for starts appear to be no obstacle. Indeed, as far as former Reds defender Stephen Warnock is concerned, Milner commands the utmost respect for what he’s achieved, what’s still to come, and should justifiably be considered a “world-class” player.
“He looks fitter, he looks stronger and his game looks like it’s improving all the time,” Warnock enthused during an interview with the Liverpool Echo. “He’ll just keep on raising his game more and more. You don’t play at the level he’s played at for so long and for the clubs he’s played at, without being an elite player,” the former defender insisted, regarding the qualities of Milner.
It’s a sentiment that the Liverpool boss also seems to share. “James Milner made big steps in the last three years, that’s the truth. I don’t want to judge his career, but it feels like it’s the best moment of his career,” Klopp recently suggested of arguably his most reliable lieutenant on the pitch. Understandably delighted, Klopp is “excited” by what Milner still has to offer his team.
Hopefully, the exceptional and enduring qualities Milner can offer will continue for years to come, but perhaps most importantly, his wealth of experience matched by an unrivalled work ethic, could well be the fulcrum towards Liverpool’s bid to win the Premier League this season. A title medal would be the most fitting of rewards for his tireless efforts.