Caislin Boyle looks at James Milner’s time at Liverpool Football Club since he moved to Merseyside for free in 2015.
‘Free’ isn’t a term readily associated with football, particularly in this era of exorbitant wealth in the English game. Yet the Bosman transfer remains as a timely reminder that frugality can exist in such a moneyed game.
Free transfers are generally celebrated as the ultimate risk-free option, with the financial investment limited to wages and signing-on fees. These outlays are no small change, but they’re assuaged by the fact that no money is paid to the previous club.
With this considered, Liverpool have secured quite a few transfers in this way since 1995. Some have been unmitigated disasters, other unbridled successes – and I contend that James Milner has been the most successful of them all.
I compared Milner against a small sample size of players I deem amongst our best free transfers, choosing a player from each area of the pitch (excluding goalkeeper) to avoid a skewed assessment.
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I believe the defining feature of a free transfer is how far the player exceeds the low expectations that are associated with a signing who arrives for nothing. That gives the player a unique base from which to write themselves into folklore, for the narrative will always read that they added so much more than could’ve ever been expected.
Free transfers are never considered the answer, the corrective piece of the jigsaw – they’re bolt-ons at best.
One thing that such signings are meant to offer is experience. Of the players I chose, one common thread emerges – they were all in their latter years. Value lies in what the player has experienced, as opposed to their long-term prospects. Robbie Fowler, Craig Bellamy, Kolo Touré and Gary McAllister all arrived after the age of 30 and their respective experiences added something undeniable to Liverpool.
Experience is often sought out at times of distress, and it is no coincidence that some of these players came in when the club was most in need. McAllister arrived in 2000 whilst we were suffering a 15-year absence from the Champions League.
Craig Bellamy was brought in hurriedly as the club realised the grievous error of signing Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing. Robbie Fowler came in when our front three read Peter Crouch, Dijbril Cisse and Fernando Morientes. Yet James Milner was signed to help fight the greatest fire of all – Steven Gerrard’s departure. That alone marks him apart in terms of free transfers, but that is not the only barometer by which to measure success.
Age, experience and club circumstances aside, let’s look at how these players performed in their time at Anfield. In terms of goal returns the strikers naturally lead the way, with Fowler scoring 8 in his 30 appearances and Bellamy scoring 6 in 24.
For Fowler that return did not yield silverware, with Robbie failing to make the matchday squad for the 2007 Champions League Final. Bellamy was in the team that won Liverpool’s most recent trophy, coming on after 58 minutes in the final against Cardiff.
In terms of scoring crucial goals, you can only look at Gary Mac – the winner in the Merseyside Derby in 2001 lingers long in the memory. His 44-yard free kick secured Champions League football after that 15-year absence and harnessed the momentum that helped complete the infamous treble. Despite my love of Kolo Touré, applying the 6th goal in an Aston Villa rout doesn’t constitute quite as telling a contribution.
James Milner, for his part, has scored 12 goals in 93 appearances. He has replaced one aspect of Gerrard’s game – penalty prowess. Until Fraser Forster denied him in May 2017, Milner had not missed a penalty since 2009. This season we’ve seen the perils of not having a consummate penalty taker in the line-up, and this is one thing that Milner guarantees.
Let’s move onto impact outside of goals. Of the five players compared; only Robbie Fowler wasn’t crucial to the club’s pursuit of trophies. There was McAllister with the treble, Bellamy with the League/FA Cup, Touré with the 2014 title tilt and now Milner is sniffing Champions League glory.
Notwithstanding the undeniable influence of each player, Milner has been central to our progression this year. He equalled the record number of assists in the competition (8), providing an unexpected creative spark.
He led the team through that second-leg tie against Manchester City. He has been pivotal to the fortunes of a club returning to the Champions League after yet another unwelcomed absence. He is one of the only truly ‘old heads’ in this Liverpool team, assuming more pressure in the process. To be so stable in a largely youthful team is a testament to his abilities. The further fact that Milner’s stability was unaffected by a change in a position speaks volumes.
The only category in which Milner falls short is in respect of cult-hero status. Yet look at the competition – ‘God’, ‘The Enforcer’, golf-club wielding Bellamy and meme-worthy Kolo all have a special place in our hearts. Yet with Milner’s new-found love of social media, his rise to that echelon is inevitable.
James Milner came to Liverpool at a time where our greatest ever player had just left. He came in as a known dedicated professional who would work to the letter. He did not come in to set the world alight – that was never the expectation, and he hasn’t done that.
Yet despite this, I believe him to be our best ever free. Why? Because to ignite the team is not the role of a free transfer, it’s to offer enough so that the club can commend themselves on their financial prudency.
It’s to offer the experience that allows others to shine. Every player I have discussed has left an indelible mark on the fabric of Liverpool Football Club, yet none have helped us to a Champions League triumph – Milner might be the vice-captain that can.