If Fenway Sports Group were paying attention to Liverpool’s win over Newcastle, then James Milner can surely expect a phone call.
Age ain’t nothing but a number, and the 36-year-old proved as much at St James’ Park on Saturday, delivering a timeless performance as Jurgen Klopp’s side kept up the pressure on Manchester City at the top of the Premier League.
“Outstanding,” was Klopp’s verdict. There’s a reason he wants his vice-captain to stick around for at least another season, and this was it. In the Tyneside heat, Milner did what he always does. He led by example, he got his head down and he produced the goods.
It was his tackle, firm but fair on Fabian Schar, which led to the winning goal, scored in superb fashion by Naby Keita. It was his pass, clipped perfectly over the top of the Newcastle defence, which should have led to another for Diogo Jota in the second half.
And when Jonjo Shelvey lined up a dangerous-looking free-kick, 25 yards out, it was his head which deflected the ball to safety. He spent a few seconds on the floor after that, but was soon back on his feet, chasing and challenging, recycling possession and making sure his team-mates didn’t dare switch off.
Liverpool aren’t short of leaders, by any means, but Milner’s standards are the highest of them all. Impress him, and you’re doing something right. Fall short, and you’ll know about it.
It is coming up to 20 years since he made his debut as a professional, and his appetite for the game is as strong now as it was when emerging as a teenager with boyhood club Leeds United.
That’s why he - and Liverpool - have a decision to make this summer. Do they stick or twist? One more year or a thanks-for-the-memories?
Milner’s contract expires in June, and while there have been initial talks between the club and his representative, Matthew Buck, it is fair to say that there are doubts on both sides at present.
FSG appreciate the superb service he has given the club since joining on a free transfer from Manchester City in 2015. He has made close to 300 appearances, in a range of different positions, and never has he let anybody down. His fingerprints are all over some of Liverpool’s greatest nights, and all of Klopp’s biggest triumphs. “Nothing we achieved over the last few years would have happened without him,” the manager himself suggested at St James’ Park.
But time waits for nobody. Milner may be as fit as ever - no player, on either side, recorded a higher average speed during Saturday’s game - but he will be 37 in January and knows he is, at best, Klopp’s fifth-choice midfield option. With the likes of Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and the soon-to-arrive Fabio Carvalho all developing rapidly, opportunities could be even further limited next season.
Saturday was his 35th appearance of the season - he made 36 last term and 37 in 2019-20 - but only his eighth Premier League start, and his first since January 2. He may understand when he’s left out - and Liverpool’s form hardly helps him argue otherwise - but that doesn’t mean he’s happy with it, or that he’s willing to accept it. It is that, rather than salary or length of contract, which will play the biggest part in his decision.
Klopp, certainly, would like him to stay and has made that point both to Milner and to Julian Ward, the incoming sporting director. Ward and Milner go way back, having worked together at Manchester City, and the smart money is on an agreement being reached over a one-year extension.
It is interesting to compare and contrast Milner’s situation with that of Fernandinho, another veteran midfielder who is out of contract in the summer. The Manchester City captain appeared to catch his manager, Pep Guardiola, by surprise when announcing in a recent Champions League press conference his intention to return to Brazil. “I didn’t know,” Guardiola responded, adding that “I understand players want to play…I would love to be with him [longer].”
Like Milner at Liverpool, Fernandinho is a key figure at City, a standard-bearer in training and a vocal presence in the dressing room. Like Milner, he has deputised in various positions, stepping in and stepping up, and like Milner, he will be hard to replace, if and when he eventually leaves.
Liverpool have found in recent years with the likes of Dejan Lovren, Gini Wijnaldum and, in particular, Adam Lallana, that often it is the person, the character, who is missed as much as the player. Milner most definitely falls into that category. Not many players, after all, have a door named after them at the training ground.
“He sets the standard, in a way not many people can set standards,” said Klopp on Saturday. “He’s a role model, and incredibly important for us.”
Newcastle served only to underline that fact. And if the manager gets his wish, Milner’s influence at Anfield will continue for a little while longer.
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