What next for James Milner? Liverpool’s generational No. 7 at a crossroads

As it stands, James Milner will depart Liverpool as a free agent at the end of the season, with Adam Beattie looking back on the legacy of a generational player.

Gary McAllister, Markus Babbel, Joel Matip, Fabio Aurelio. In the modern era, Liverpool’s record of accumulating top first-team players free of charge has been a relatively positive one.

Naturally, there have been some not so good ones, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one more influential than James Milner, both on and off the pitch.

Since joining in the summer of 2015, the Leeds-born midfielder has become Liverpool’s longest-serving wearer of the famous No. 7 shirt in the Premier League era, and has gone on to make more appearances for the Reds than any other team in his career.

He currently sits fourth in the all-time Premier League appearances list, and just behind Jordan Henderson and Divock Origi in a list of Liverpool’s longest-serving current players at senior level, all of this in a squad whose achievements have transcended its generation.

So what will James Milner’s legacy look like when he waves goodbye to Anfield, at what is likely to be the end of the season?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, September 15, 2021: Liverpool's James Milner fouls AC Milan's Brahim Diaz during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 1 game between Liverpool FC and AC Milan at Anfield. (Pic by Paul Currie/Propaganda)

Have all of the bleep test videos, positional versatility and running stats overshadowed what is undoubtedly a legendary Liverpool career in its own right?

Take a look at what Manuel Pellegrini had to say about the Yorkshireman in an interview with the Mail towards the end of his spell at Man City:

“It would be very difficult to find a more complete player than Milner.

“There are players who are better technically. There are quicker players. There are players who head the ball better.

“But show me a player who does all the things that Milner does well, and there isn’t one.”

It feels like staunch praise and a backhanded compliment in equal measure.

Milner is undoubtedly highly thought of by peers and supporters alike, but it is a reputation based predominantly on professionalism and work ethic, highlighted by the astounding levels of physical fitness he has demonstrated even during the twilight years of his career.

Let’s take Wayne Rooney, less than 10 weeks his senior.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 22, 2020: Liverpool’s James Milner kisses the trophy after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

While Rooney was taking his first steps in management with Derby County and the English Soccer Aid side, Milner continued competing at the highest echelons of the game, collecting Premier League, Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup medals across an unparalleled 14-month period.

While that might seem like a shameless dig at the former England captain (it is), there is perhaps no better illustration of Milner’s prodigious longevity than that comparison.

Milner’s popularity among his contemporaries was further exemplified when a door at the new AXA Training Centre was affectionately named the ‘James Milner Door’ in the midfielder’s honour.

It seems unjust that his competence and willingness to play in a number of different positions – particularly given that his initial motive for making the move to Liverpool was to spend more time in the middle of the park – might be held against him when it comes to assessing his raw technical ability.

In more recent years as his playing minutes have dwindled, Milly has taken on something of a cult status for his actions away from the field.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, June 2, 2019: Liverpool’s James Milner, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and captain Jordan Henderson during an open-top bus parade through the city after winning the UEFA Champions League Final. Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur. 2-0 in Madrid. To claim their sixth European Cup. (Pic by Paul Greenwood/Propaganda)

In 2018, he delighted fans by joining social media and immediately playing up to the character depicted by the @boringmilner Twitter account, which had accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers in his absence.

Aside from everything else, Milner has shown himself to be a human being who embodies everything that is great about this football club and this city.

The European Cup winning vice-captain ensured that the parade bus made a stop at the home of Andrew Devine on the route back to Melwood so that he could show Andrew and his family the sixth European Cup that had been won in Madrid 24 hours prior.

Devine, who became the 97th fatality of the Hillsborough disaster upon his sad passing in July, will be honoured outside Anfield this week.

Gestures such as this, and the impeccable work that he does with the James Milner Foundation, encapsulate everything you could wish for from a senior professional.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 18, 2021: Liverpool's James Milner during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 3-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

His passion for this football club, even during a period when he’s no longer a member of Klopp’s first-choice XI, was perfectly exhibited when he opted to watch Liverpool’s youngsters in the FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury while the first team were effectively given the week off and a rare opportunity for a mid-season holiday in 2020.

Earlier this season, he was present as the under-19s beat Atletico Madrid 2-0 in the UEFA Youth League, while he sat alongside the coaching staff during a recent injury layoff.

It looks for all the world that this summer will represent the end of a wonderful chapter in both Milner and Liverpool’s story, littered with success and memories that will last a lifetime.

He’s a truly generational great both as a player and as a person, and one who you’ll miss when he’s gone.

I’ve no doubt we’ll all be toasting a glass of Ribena come the end of the season.

* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield by Adam Beattie. Follow Adam on Twitter, @beatts94.