Unsung James Milner, a rare player who could have thrived in any era for Liverpool
Mohamed Salah leads a long list of Liverpool players who have caught the eye this season. The prolific Egyptian has clearly been the standout performer and has probably lost count of the amount of individual awards he's won in his first campaign at Anfield.
Beyond him there have been other success stories. Roberto Firmino, Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Trent Alexander-Arnold have all had their share of praise and recognition this year, and rightly so, but James Milner's brilliant season seems to have almost flown under the radar somewhat. It's nothing new, it's been the same throughout his entire career.
Milner does his job while others get the glory. It's always been that way and it's probably just how he likes it. Some players want champagne, Milner is happy with Ribena.
Everybody knows he's a good player but most do not know just how good. Milner is so much more than his reputation of steady, reliable, boring James Milner. His performances this season have been as good as any central midfielder in the land (with the obvious exception of Kevin De Bruyne) but you wouldn't know that if you were basing it on his press cuttings.
It's not that Milner doesn't receive praise, it's just that it often comes in the form of backhanded compliments, albeit unintentional ones. A lot of things written about Milner are intended to be flattering but are often a little disrespectful. I know because I'm guilty of it myself, usually in ESPN player ratings.
The thing is, it's difficult to write about Milner without referencing his tenacious tackling or the incredible distances he covers during games. He contributes so much more than that but those are the things we tend to focus on because he's head and shoulders above everybody else in both categories.
In the second leg of the Reds' Champions League quarterfinal against Manchester City, Milner ran two kilometres more than anybody else on the field. That's astonishing when you actually think about it, not least because he's 32 years old.
He probably ran just as much in the first leg too, after which the club's official website published a video compilation just of his tackles and blocks. It's only natural that the focus is often on these things because what he does is mightily impressive, but the danger is that the other things he's doing get overlooked.
We always hear about his ultra-professional attitude and willingness to put the team first too. He's a great pro, the kind of player who does his job quietly and efficiently in order to let the headline makers do their thing. Again, this is all true, but it doesn't do justice to what an intelligent and talented footballer he is.
Nobody ever seems to talk about Milner's technical ability, but we really should. Just because he isn't flashy does not mean he isn't technically excellent. He couldn't have played for the teams and managers he has done if he wasn't an exceptional, intelligent footballer.
His touch is vastly underrated, he can beat people in tight spaces and his delivery from out wide is outstanding. His passing is good too but it's his vision and intelligence to see things that is probably his most underappreciated skill.
Here's the best thing about Milner though. He is one of an increasingly rare breed of footballer who could have played in any era. His mentality, versatility and talent are such that he could have handled any style of football and played in any team, in any formation and not looked out of place. And not only could he play in any era, his personality is such that he'd fit into any dressing room culture in any time period.
"Boring James Milner"? Hardly. His dry sense of humour and willingness to laugh at himself has made him a popular figure at every club he's been at. Supporters haven't always been able to see that side of him, but that all changed recently when Milner, having eschewed social media for virtually his entire career, suddenly appeared on Twitter (and Instagram) and within about three posts was already rivalling Peter Crouch as the "King of Twitter".
If time travel were possible and Milner was transported back into any period in Liverpool's history and asked to play in any of their great sides, he could do it without any problems on or off the pitch. He'd be accepted and embraced by the players in those sides because he's old school. That isn't something you can say about many modern day players.
Had Milner been around in the 1950s he would surely have hit it off in a big way with Billy Liddell. I can just picture it now. Jimmy Milner on one wing, Billy Liddell on the other. What a combination.
He'd have fit right into the Bill Shankly sides of the 1960s and early 70s too. Jim Milner, no-nonsense wing half. He and Ian Callaghan would probably have been best mates. Callaghan is a good comparison for Milner actually. Both started out as wingers before moving into the middle of midfield and they share many personality traits too, as well as the famous Liverpool number seven shirt of course.
Milner could even have held his own in the great Bob Paisley sides that conquered Europe and he wouldn't have been out of place in Kenny Dalglish's great side of the late 1980s either.
That isn't to say he's better than the players who were in those sides, just that he could have played in any of those teams without weakening them. There are not many players you can say that about, but then Milner is not just any player. He's unique. An old school player thriving in the modern game.
His performances in Europe this season have been pivotal to Liverpool's run to the final and if the Reds go on to win the final next week, perhaps then Milner will finally be held in the high esteem he deserves to be.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.