Liverpool's James Milner a model pro and enjoying his best season at Anfield
LIVERPOOL -- During the most recent international break, Liverpool under-23s midfielder Herbie Kane was sent up to Melwood for a week to join up with the handful of first-team players not on national team duty.
Upon his return to Liverpool's Kirkby Academy, Kane was pulled aside by senior academy staff and asked what he took from the experience of seven full days in the first-team environment.
Kane would immediately highlight the "phenomenal" levels of James Milner, particularly when there were only a maximum of eight players taking part in the training sessions.
"You're talking about a player who is 30-something, has Premier League winners medals," U23s boss Neil Critchley recalled to reporters. "You think maybe he might take it easy, take his foot off the gas, but no. Every single day he's putting it in."
It is that application which is helping Milner, at 32, enjoy his best season in a Liverpool shirt. In Liverpool's second-leg win at Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals, Milner ran nearly two kilometres more than anybody on the pitch.
"When you look at him he's sort of the professional everybody should look up to," Stephen Warnock, a former Aston Villa teammate of his, told ESPN FC. "He's the first in the gym, he sets the tone everyday in training as to how hard you have to work.
"I think he's just the all-round professional and he's getting the rewards that he deserves."
After spending last season as an unorthodox left-back, Milner is thriving this term in his preferred central midfield role. He needs one more assist in the Champions League this season to set a new record for the most during a single campaign -- a statistic which has taken some by surprise.
"He goes under the radar for his ability. He's one of the best technical players I've played with," Warnock continued. "He's so good at everything -- left foot, right foot. That's what makes him such an important figure for Liverpool and for any team that he's in.
"He makes things happen on a football pitch as well. It's no fluke that when City were at their best when he was there, he was in the team all the time. Now, when Liverpool are at their best it's no coincidence that he's in the team as well.
"I think people do overlook [his ability] and just think he's a workhorse and things like that. You often find that it's the professionals that appreciate him because they know what he's about.
"He's one of them players where you go into a dressing room and think: 'God, he's the fittest player in the team'. But when you actually train with him for two or three weeks, you find out there's so much more to his game."
Behind Ragnar Klavan, Milner is the second oldest player in the Liverpool squad. This is his 16th season in the Premier League and, as the experienced figure, he has been quick to point out where Liverpool need to improve if they are to become serial winners. Indeed, Milner can boast two Premier League winners' medals, an FA Cup and a League Cup -- all won when he was at Manchester City.
After Liverpool surrendered a 2-0 lead at Arsenal in December to draw 3-3, vice-captain Milner, speaking just minutes after the final whistle, bemoaned Liverpool's lack of game management.
"He's a key player who is a winner," Gary McAllister, who was first-team coach at Liverpool when Milner arrived at Anfield in 2015, told ESPN FC. "Some players go around saying they're winners, but James is a winner. He's a proven winner.
"The thing for me watching James Milner is how his teammates look to him. He's a natural leader and he leads by example."
The former England international is a popular, invaluable figure in this Liverpool side in more ways than one. He is known to be one of the biggest jokers when the time is appropriate.
While Andrew Robertson chatted to reporters deep in the bowels of the Etihad Stadium last week, Milner mimicked the sound of snoring as he walked past his teammate en route to the Liverpool team bus.
Those outside the confinement of Melwood and Anfield are now beginning to see this side of him following his first few weeks on social media.
"He's far from boring, he's just got a dry sense of humour," Warnock added. "He's Mr. Serious when it comes to football and I think that's what people see of him.
"When he's interviewed after a game and things like that he's very serious. But if he came out laughing and joking, people would question that.
"The way he's on social media at the moment, he's almost mocking himself. That's his personality."
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.