Thursday 27 June 2019

Stephen Hunt: 'James Milner's work ethic and selflessness vital to Liverpool's title push'

Liverpool's James Milner battles with Bournemouth's Junior Stanislas during their Premier League clash at Vitality Stadkium. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Liverpool's James Milner battles with Bournemouth's Junior Stanislas during their Premier League clash at Vitality Stadkium. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Stephen Hunt

If the rumours are true, James Milner won't even spread butter on his toast. It might not be the usual way to prove his professionalism and discipline to his younger team-mates at Liverpool, but I bet it works.

As he becomes only the 13th player to make 500 appearances in the Premier League, Milner's stock in the Liverpool squad has never been higher. And with so many young English players in his squad, manager Jurgen Klopp knows he sets the perfect example. And if that means not having butter on your toast, so be it.

Even at the age of 32, Milner returned to pre-season in the summer determined to prove he is the fittest at the club. It is probably the only thing we had in common.

Although the first pre-season sessions have changed from simply being the winner in the 400 metres sprint, becoming much more scientific and technical, the concept of being the leader in the squad still exists. And for the bleep tests, the sprints and the endurance runs, Milner still leads the way. Milner puts a stamp down early in the summer to say, 'I am a professional footballer, this is how I am going to do my job and this is how I am going to conduct myself from the first day of pre-season to the last day of the full season'.

I had the same attitude - I always wanted to give myself the best chance of being 100 per cent fit for the start of the season by flying into the pre-season sessions - but I would also want to throw down a little marker to my team-mates, and the manager, by leading from the front.

Milner is one of the best players the Premier League has ever seen. Name me another player who is as willing to do his job, sacrifice himself to help out his team-mates and push them forward into the limelight. You don't realise how vital a player like James Milner is to your team until you have sat next to one in the dressing room.

He does an excellent job for his capabilities, and one of his greatest strengths is recognising what those capabilities are, rather than trying to be something he is not. He has got better and better by playing to his strengths.

Jurgen Klopp trusts his mentality and knows he will never let his standards drop. I am sure he sees a very German mentality in Milner, which is why, when he makes changes to the side as he did at Burnley the other night, Milner invariably stays in the team.

Very few players nowadays are PR perfect, but Milner comes close. He has even embraced the whole 'boring James Milner' thing, and the mock account on Twitter.

Milner is happy with his place in the Liverpool side and he does not need to go chasing the limelight, which players like Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and, to a lesser extent, Roberto Firmino crave. Milner just gets on with his job and is valuable in different ways.

Liverpool are hell-bent on staying in the title race. Milner's goal at Burnley on Wednesday night typified the influence he can have on a team which has never lost a Premier League game when he scores.

Pep Guardiola's side are pretty awesome at the moment and it is hard to see Liverpool being able to topple them in May, despite their extraordinary season so far. It must be hard for Liverpool fans to stomach. Not before or since the infamous Steven Gerrard slip have Liverpool had a squad capable of really challenging for the Premier League.

I expect Liverpool to beat Napoli by the necessary two goals to reach the knock-out stages of the Champions League but I get the feeling that the real focus at Anfield is the domestic league. They will be happy to let City have a run in the Champions League and encounter all the end-of-season difficulties and hurdles they had to overcome in the last campaign.

Anfield is a special place and Klopp is a special manager. Of course, with this squad and this manager, this is the best chance Liverpool have had to end that 29-year wait for the title. The longer they stay in it, the better chance they will have.

But will it be enough?

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