James Milner is drawing near the end of his contract at Liverpool, and there are small signs that the veteran midfielder could be preparing to become a coach.
The summer ahead will bring the end of an era for the Reds, with sporting director Michael Edwards stepping down and his assistant, Julian Ward, taking over.
It has been a long and fruitful spell on Merseyside for Edwards, who has presided over some of the biggest and best deals in the club’s history.
Before he goes, there are still plenty of tasks in his and Ward’s in-tray, most prominently the conclusion of talks over a new long-term contract for Mohamed Salah.
Tying down the world’s best player to an extended deal would be a nice parting gift from Liverpool’s long-serving transfer figurehead, giving Jurgen Klopp the stability to continue his evolution.
But there is another pressing issue ahead of that day on June 1, with Milner currently set to depart the club on the same day as the sporting director.
The No. 7 last agreed new terms with the Reds in 2019, when he penned a two-and-a-half-year contract to take him to the summer of 2022, by which point he will be 36.
Only six players to make an appearance in this season’s Premier League are older than Milner, those being Ashley Young, Fernandinho, Lukasz Fabianski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thiago Silva and Ben Foster.
Milner is already fifth in the all-time appearances list for the English top flight, and before the campaign is up, he will have leapfrogged David James into fourth.
His story is one of remarkable longevity and almost unparalleled commitment to his career, but as the months go by, a decision will need to be made over his future.
It’s possible that one has already been made, as under the cloud of Salah’s dwindling contract, the next step of a 35-year-old squad player is unlikely to garner as many headlines.
So while less will be written and spoken about Milner, there may already have been hints dropped at Anfield, Kirkby and stadiums around Europe that he is due to transition into a new role.
That would be, of course, as Milner the coach.
It is a testament to his commitment and professionalism that, as his age begins to take its toll on his body in the form of more frequent injuries, the Reds’ vice-captain remains a constant presence at the training ground and on matchdays.
Even when sidelined, Milner remains a vocal presence in the dressing room and in the stands, taking his place alongside those on the fringes of the squad to bellow encouragement to his team-mates on the pitch.
More recently, it is notable that he has often sat among Liverpool’s extended staff – those not next to Klopp in the dugout; the technical staff, analysts and fitness coaches.
He was also watching on as the under-19s played out a 2-0 victory over Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Youth League, hours before the Champions League clash at Anfield.
Coincidence or not, one of the youngsters to shine that day, James Balagizi, made a rare appearance in first-team training days later.
? Fernando Torres returned to Liverpool today as coach of Atletico Madrid U19s, who played Liverpool U19s
Liverpool were 2-0 winners in front of a watching James Milner ? pic.twitter.com/sqwFewWnSg
— DAZN Canada (@DAZN_CA) November 3, 2021
His presence at Kirkby that afternoon showed not only a passion for the club, but also that he is clearly not a player who will just fade away when his playing career is over.
“You can still hear him from the stands, he’s almost like another coach,” Rhys Williams reflected, during his run in the side towards the end of last season.
Williams isn’t the only youngster to point out Milner’s influence, either, with Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Harvey Davies among those to credit the midfielder as a role model.
According to the Times‘ Paul Joyce, Milner has even taken a closer interest in Jones’ development, noting specific areas for the 20-year-old to improve.
And while the first team were on their winter break at the start of 2020, the vice-captain sacrificed his time off to join the academy side tasked to play Shrewsbury in the FA Cup fourth round.
“He was getting right behind the players, he was vocal in the dressing room, he was animated behind me, I could hear him,” Neil Critchley, himself standing in for Klopp, revealed after that 1-0 win.
“And he was genuinely delighted with how the boys performed, and I can’t thank him enough for being here tonight.”
Milner has been working, on and off, on qualifying for his coaching badges for over decade, and as he ages, these appear to be coming into play.
Whether formally or not, it is obvious that even those within Klopp’s staff see Milner almost as one of them.
“My title is assistant manager, but I think you can give that title to James Milner as well,” assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders recently said.
“He is the connection between this playing group [and us] together with Hendo.
“He’s very vocal, very lively and sets the standard. He needs to keep doing that, but he knows that and always does that well.”
Klopp himself is never shy of praising his long-serving midfielder, telling reporters in October that he is “an important player on and off the pitch.”
“I don’t know often I say it, I could say it a lot more times: Milly is incredibly important for this group, incredibly important,” the manager said.
“As a person, as a character, but as a player as well. Not only in the dressing room, but as well in the dressing room.”
That is not to say that Milner has accepted a position within Klopp’s staff or even within the academy for the end of his contract in 2022, but no doubt there will have been talks along those lines.
He wouldn’t be the first player to transition into a coaching role in the twilight of his career, with countless examples across the English football pyramid, including at Arsenal and Chelsea.
On the south coast, Brighton have even trialled a new scheme wherein which former players take up player-coach roles within their under-23s setup, first with Andrew Crofts and currently with Gary Dicker.
Recently, ex-Man United academy Paul McShane returned to the club, 15 years after leaving for West Brom, to take up a similar duty.
It would be disrespectful to suggest that is where Milner is headed in just over seven months’ time, as he is still a reliable option at the top level of English and European football – as seven starts already this season proves.
But a sense of realism is required from both player and club, both of whom would be foolish not to consider extending their association even when his body finally gives in.
“I think it would be a waste to move out of football with how lucky I’ve been, the knowledge I’ve gained it’d be nice to share it and help other players,” Milner told the Mail in 2020.
“I am at a great football club and work with some people, and you know the opportunities the football club gives so so we will see what happens at the end.
“But hopefully I have a few more years to go yet.”
That says it all, and all being well, those within Liverpool’s hierarchy should be in agreement: keep Milner the player beyond his current deal, and start sowing the seeds for Milner the coach.
Who knows, that may well already be in motion.