In the immediate aftermath of their sixth European Cup triumph, the reactions of two of Liverpool‘s most influential protagonists could hardly have been more different.
Gleaming with sweat and with his voice hoarse, James Milner, having been brought on with 28 minutes left to ensure Liverpool sealed victory, told BT Sport he would celebrate by drinking “summat fizzy and go a bit exotic – I don’t know, lime and lemonade or summat”. Milner is renowned for being teetotal throughout his career; a European Cup wasn’t going to change that.
Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, giddily vibrating with energy and excitement, checked his watch and told the same broadcaster: “It’s 20 minutes after the game and I’m already half pissed.”
In later interviews, Andy Robertson revealed the only thought on his mind – “beer, beer, beer, beer, beer” – before turning to Milner, who spoke sensibly of Liverpool’s need to go on to win even more trophies. His manager offered a different perspective, breaking into an adaptation of Salt’N’Pepa’s hit ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’.
On the face of things, at least in the public perception both seem more than happy to help perpetuate, Klopp and Milner could hardly seem more different in character.
Klopp, the larger-than-life German who grins and laughs as big as the trophy Liverpool lifted in Madrid but is also prone to explode with passion and emotion on the touchline, has been the mastermind behind a stunning transformation at Anfield.
Milner, on the other hand, is the dour, self-deprecating Yorkshireman who relishes the opportunity to live up to his ‘Boring James Milner’ moniker and has had the same haircut all his life. Amid more illustrious names and more obvious star players, the midfielder is often cast as one of Klopp’s foot soldiers whose sacrifice allows the heavy artillery of Mo Salah and co. to win the war.
Yet there is a reason Klopp celebrated Liverpool’s thrilling semi-final comeback against Barcelona by running to a tearful Milner to lift him into the air with one of his trademark bear hugs.
James Milner is in tears, Klopp runs over and gives him a hug!
This is incredible 🙌 pic.twitter.com/5yAqQsnxM6
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 7, 2019
Underneath the public exaggeration of their respective personalities, they share the same intense desire to get the best out of everything at their disposal, and the two of them have dovetailed superbly ever since Klopp replaced Brendan Rodgers as Reds boss in October 2015.
While still an England international at the time, Milner’s career had begun to drift. He was always a valued member of Manchester City’s squad, but that’s what he became: a squad player. His free transfer to Liverpool was supposed to freshen him up but got off to an inauspicious start in those stagnant end days of Rodgers.
Klopp’s arrival has prompted a remarkable change in atmosphere around the club over the past four years, and he made his feelings clear about the Yorkshire Figo following his very first game in charge of the Merseysiders.
“James Milner? The complete football player,” he said after a 0-0 draw against Tottenham. “The perfect professional. A machine.”
But it hasn’t always been easy for Milner under Klopp. After joining Liverpool, he hoped to re-establish himself as one of the leading central midfielders in the Premier League, yet in the former Borussia Dortmund boss’ first full season in charge he found himself converted into a left-back.
“Alberto Moreno was injured and the manager gave me a choice: did I want to play at left-back or right-back?” Milner told FourFourTwo in 2018.
“My answer was, ‘That’s like asking which one of these guys do you want to spend a night with your missus!’ His English wasn’t that good then, so I think it went over his head!”
It’s to both Milner and Klopp’s credit that he was able to perform so comfortably in the role, but the signing of Andy Robertson from Hull City allowed him to return to his more natural midfield position in 2017-18, only to face competition for a place from Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho.
Again, Milner eventually made himself indispensable to Klopp’s starting XI, breaking the record for the most assists in a Champions League campaign before Liverpool fell short in the final against Real Madrid.
Again, he had to watch on as Klopp again decided to strengthen in his area of the pitch with the signings of Naby Keita and Fabinho.
While Milner has been rotated throughout the season, he has remained one of Klopp’s most trusted lieutenants, with the manager immediately turning to him as Tottenham started to threaten in the second half of the Champions League final.
Jurgen Klopp ❤️ James Milner
A special moment between the Liverpool boss and his player… pic.twitter.com/8PHJL9zlD5
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) June 1, 2019
And after victory was secured, Klopp was unequivocal in his admiration for his captain and vice-captain.
“I’m happy for the boys. You know what people said about a couple of players of this team.
“Jordan Henderson is captain of the Champions League winner 2019 – that’s satisfying actually. And that Millie did it at the age of 33.
“They are all very important. Without Millie’s dressing-room talks before the game – with a non-native manager – I think it would not be possible. It’s so important.
“All the things they did during the weeks, how they lifted when we had little downs, it’s just incredible. It is really emotional, that’s my main feeling, it’s overwhelming.”
Judging by the sight of Klopp, beer in hand, almost falling from the bus on Liverpool’s victory parade, you imagine once the celebrations finally come to an end he will be feeling very different to Milner.
But they will both be waking up as European Cup winners and, ultimately, that’s all that either will care about.
By Rob Conlon