No prizes for guessing who will step up first should the Champions League final go to a penalty shootout.
You’ll see James Milner position the ball, take eight steps back, place his hands on his hips, and then, as the Stade de France holds its breath, it’s him versus Thibaut Courtois.
As one of Jurgen Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’, Milner is Liverpool’s tone-setter. As he was in the Carabao Cup final, scoring to the left of Kepa Arrizabalaga. As he was in the FA Cup final earlier this month, beating Edouard Mendy to the right.
Ahead of Saturday’s European showdown in Paris, Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp visited Liverpool to meet the marathon man who is still going strong at 36.
They talked Real Madrid and revenge, Jurgen Klopp and his boxer shorts, being teetotal and being boring, but started where it could all end on Saturday — with penalties. Kieran Gill listened in…
James Milner spoke to Sportsmail’s Jamie Redknapp before the Champions League final
The 36-year-old will be keen to take the penalty if the game does to a shoot-out on Saturday
JAMES MILNER: The first final we reached was the League Cup against Manchester City in 2016. It was the manager’s first year and my first. I was listed as the fifth penalty taker but didn’t get to take one because we’d lost. From then on, I’ve said, ‘I want one’.
JAMIE REDKNAPP: Not only one. You want the first one and that’s gutsy. Have you practised much?
MILNER: Me, Mo (Salah), Fabinho and a few of the lads practise before every game. We’ve done it all season. With the change to the away-goals rule, we predicted there would be more shootouts, so we’ve practised more. The club brought in these neuro11 guys (a company in Germany that coach penalty-taking). You’ve got players who may never take a penalty apart from in a shootout. The ball doesn’t move. The goal doesn’t move. So it’s making them think about their process rather than it being, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re taking a penalty, off you go’.
REDKNAPP: In the FA Cup final two weeks ago, Kostas Tsimikas took the winning penalty, but I noticed you were facing the other way. Why weren’t you looking?
MILNER: I wanted to watch the Liverpool fans. You don’t know when it’ll be your last trip to Wembley, do you? I fancied Kostas — he’s got a great left foot — and I wanted to see the fans’ reaction.
Not taking a penalty in the 2016 Carabao Cup final is why he likes to take the first penalty
It was class. It was like when we won the Premier League in 2020. All the lads were watching the Chelsea game (against Manchester City which confirmed Liverpool as champions) and I went to the back of the room to watch the lads’ reaction.
REDKNAPP: I was at the Etihad for the Premier League season’s final day and had a front-row view of City’s comeback against Villa. How was it at Anfield?
MILNER: It was confusing. The cheers. The grumbles. We knew the odds were that City would win, but it felt worse looking at how the scoring went. Villa being 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go… that was worse than finding out they’d won 4-0. But that’s football. The Champions League final is not a bad game to bounce back with, is it?
REDKNAPP: Today’s Wednesday, your first day back at the training ground since Sunday. What’s the manager said to you all?
MILNER: We didn’t really talk about it and him not mentioning it is the mindset of everyone else here. It’s gone. It’s pointless to dwell on it. We knew it wasn’t in our hands so let’s control what we can control, like the Champions League.
Liverpool have not dwelled on missing out on the Premier League title to Manchester City
It’s overcast as we sit outside Liverpool’s AXA training centre and the midfielder is wearing a James Milner Foundation wristband and Whoop fitness watch.
He’s generous with his time, giving Sportsmail an hour in his company. Sadio Mane walks by and tries to distract Milner. Jordan Henderson stops to say hello. As does Virgil van Dijk.
The conversation turns to May 26, 2018, the day of the Champions League final against Real Madrid, and a little-known story about Klopp. There was nervousness in the air and the Liverpool boss spoke to his players at their hotel in Kyiv, as Milner explains.
REDKNAPP: Describe Klopp in three words.
MILNER: (pauses) Genuine. Energetic. Fun. When he does his team talks, it’s not joke, joke, joke, but he’ll always try to soften them. Like the 2018 Champions League final. He was doing his usual pre-match meeting — talking about the game, the tactics, what we’re going to do, what they’ll do. But he knew there would be tension.
Milner described Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to Redknapp as genuine, energetic and fun
He recalled the time Klopp wore Cristiano Ronaldo’s boxers before the 2018 final with Madrid
REDKNAPP: As there would be when you’re about to face a team including Cristiano Ronaldo in a final. What did he do?
MILNER: He had his Ronaldo boxers on.
REDKNAPP: (laughs) He whipped out his CR7-branded boxers?
MILNER: That was his way of trying to relax the boys. Around games, he’ll think, ‘What is the narrative?’ Like if something’s on the lads’ minds that they’ve seen on social media. He’s good at nipping things like that in the bud.
REDKNAPP: Obviously that 2018 final wasn’t your day, but I don’t think we can blame Klopp’s undies for that. There was that injury to Salah, and that wonder-goal by Bale. What do you recall?
MILNER: We went behind, then were level. We were flying around and our press was good. Then there’s this hopeful cross and (Gareth) Bale does what he does, out of nothing. He had no right. It was incredible and changed everything. Not enough gets said about that — it didn’t even get Champions League goal of the season.
REDKNAPP: Gutting. A few months after that 2018 final, we played in a charity match — a 3-3 thriller between Celtic and Liverpool. You should recall it — it was for the James Milner Foundation!
Liverpool hope to avoid a repeat of the 2018 final which saw Gareth Bale be the unlikely hero
Bale’s overhead kick was not even chosen as the best goal in the tournament that season
It was a great day, but what I remember most was Klopp coming into the dressing room to do our pre-match team talk. I couldn’t believe he rocked up.
MILNER: That’s why ‘genuine’ was the first word I used to describe him. It was the international break and he came all the way from Germany to Glasgow just for that charity game.
REDKNAPP: I was hanging on to his every word. We all see the fun side to him. But I bet there’s a side to Klopp that you wouldn’t want to meet.
MILNER: We haven’t really seen that side to him since the early days. We haven’t had to. Liverpool have great recruiters. They wouldn’t sign any k***heads, if you want to call them that. Sport is all mental. You can have all the ability in the world but it’s the attitude.
REDKNAPP: Speaking of attitude, you bounced back from that 2018 defeat by Madrid by winning the 2019 final against Tottenham Hotspur.
MILNER: We knew they would be nervous because we’d been there the year before. We got that feeling. We were comfortable.
When we got the second goal, it felt like there was no way we could lose. Had we lost that final, especially after not winning the Premier League with 97 points, it would have been hard to come back from that as a group.
Milner, who is out of contract this summer, is eyeing a second Champions League medal
Milner was only 16 years old and being paid £70 a week when he debuted for Leeds in November 2002. Of all those who played in that 4-3 Premier League win over West Ham at Upton Park, the rest have retired and he’s still going strong.
This debut was only Milner’s second-best achievement around the time, mind — the first being getting together with his now-wife Amy a month earlier.
They have two children, Holly and Zac, who were chasing confetti around the field after Liverpool won the 2019 Champions League final — one of Milner’s favourite memories from a trophy-laden career.
REDKNAPP: I wrote a column about you for Sportsmail in 2018 and I’ve got a copy here. ‘The guy has got muscles on top of muscles,’ I said. ‘He is a freak of nature — in the nicest way possible.’ You’re an absolute athlete. What’s the secret to your longevity?
MILNER: Luck. That, and I do everything I can to keep myself in the best nick.
REDKNAPP: Like how you’ve never drunk a drop of alcohol?
MILNER: I wasn’t old enough to go out anyway at Leeds. Everyone knew me. I was 16, the Premier League’s youngest-ever scorer, so even if I wanted to go out, I couldn’t!
REDKNAPP: Later in your career?
MILNER: I thought, ‘What’s best for my football?’ I don’t have anything against drinking. It’s just not something I do. About eight years ago I had a fitness coach tell me to tone down my training. The statistics said I was always covering the most ground and he said it would hit me and shorten my career.
I didn’t listen. I thought if I’m going to drop off, I’d rather fall from a higher height.
REDKNAPP: I feel like people have taken you for granted as a player. Need a midfielder? No problem. Need a right back? No problem, we’ve got Milner. Left back? Milner. A position to fill higher up the pitch? Milner. If I ever need anything fixing at my house, I might just give you a call, because you always do a proper job.
MILNER: My mate from Spain says I’m seen differently in other countries to here. But it doesn’t concern me. You get this thing around you. I’m boring, apparently. I’m from Yorkshire. I’ve got an accent. I don’t do step-overs.
REDKNAPP: Hey, I’ve seen you do a step-over!
MILNER: If I need to! But people get a perception of you. Maybe if my name was Juan Milnero, it would be different! But as long as my team-mates and manager are happy, that’s the main thing.
Milner sets the tone for Liverpool in training as one of Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’
REDKNAPP: Speaking of ‘boring’, the @BoringMilner parody account has almost 700,000 followers on Twitter. But you don’t let the mickey-taking bother you?
MILNER: You’ve got to be able to take the mickey out of yourself. If people think I’m boring, it’s because they don’t know me. I quite like that. My support system has been massive — my mum, my dad, my wife, my agent Matthew Buck, who’s looked after me since I was 18. I’m lucky.
Now my little lad has started playing. He’s six. He played in an Under 7s final and scored a hat-trick. I was nervous watching him do that, so I don’t know how my dad watched me in a Champions League final!
Liverpool’s No 7 wants to finish by talking about Liverpool’s No 7. The club are aiming to secure their seventh European Cup. But Milner, who speaks Spanish after teaching himself, knows all too well that 13-time winners Real Madrid won’t be beaten easily.
REDKNAPP: Luka Modric, 36. Toni Kroos, 32. Casemiro, 30. You, 36. Jordan Henderson, 31. Thiago, 31. Fabinho, 28. Naby Keita is the baby at 27! Do you know the starting line-up yet for Paris?
REDKNAPP: When will you?
MILNER: We’ll probably find out Thursday. We always do it in shape in training — a game of 11 v 11. One side will be the starting 11 and the other side will the opposition 11, set up as whoever we’re playing, so we’ll replicate how Madrid play.
REDKNAPP: So, what you’re telling me is you don’t want to come into this training ground tomorrow and be told your job is to pretend to be Modric, Casemiro or Kroos for the day?
Milner is out of contract this summer but Klopp will be keen to tie him down to a new deal
MILNER: No one wants to be on that opposition 11. Of course you’re disappointed. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be here. But it’s part of the preparation. We couldn’t have done what we’ve done this year, challenging on all fronts, without a full squad buying into it and playing hard on the training team. You’ve seen when the manager makes changes — those coming on are always ready.
REDKNAPP: Real Madrid went behind to Manchester City but won. Behind to Chelsea but won. Behind to Paris Saint-Germain but won. They never say die and love this competition.
MILNER: We know their history. Last time we faced them, we had won nothing as a group and that makes a big difference. But since then, we’ve won big trophies.
REDKNAPP: Those experiences help. Is there an element of revenge to this final?
MILNER: It’s not a revenge mission. We’ve trained at Real Madrid’s training ground a few times when we’ve gone to play Atletico Madrid. They’ve got all the European Cups as you drive in and it’s there — the one with ‘Kyiv’ underneath.
Though Milner is now 36-years-old, he still feels he can go for a number of seasons more
You see that and think, ‘We could have had that’. They won it. We want it now.
REDKNAPP: Your contract expires in a few weeks. You played in Klopp’s first game — a 0-0 draw with Tottenham in 2015 — and I don’t think I’m revealing state secrets here by saying the manager wants you to stay. Might this be your last game for Liverpool?
MILNER: (puffs cheeks) Who knows? Obviously I haven’t got a contract. I haven’t wanted to think about it until this season is over. Too many important games. Too much of an intense period.
REDKNAPP: You’ve still got some Premier League man-of-the-match performances left in you. Please say you’re not about to retire?
MILNER: I feel good. If I can do this training regime and play in this style of football then I’ve got a few years left in me yet.
REDKNAPP: Good. Thanks for talking, mate. I’ll let you get home. What’re you up to tonight?
MILNER: Twice a week, without fail.
REDKNAPP: You’re the professional of professionals, mate. All the best for Saturday. Bring it home.
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James Milner tells Jamie Redknapp why he’ll go first if Champions League final goes to penalties
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