Time waits for no-one.
In an industry as relentless and brutally competitive as professional football, reaching the top level is hard enough, let alone staying there for 20 years.
More than just talent, it takes a special mindset – a remarkable amount of focus, dedication and drive, especially with the increased demands of the modern era. Few are up to the challenge.
When James Milner came on for Liverpool against Southampton at Anfield on Saturday, it brought up his 600th Premier League appearance.
“It’s a big number isn’t it?” Milner told BBC Sport afterwards. “It’s unbelievable. It’s been a very long time.”
He joins an exclusive list. Just three others – Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Ryan Giggs – have reached that milestone.
“A lot of things must come together,” added Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “You must be a really good player, a top, top, top professional and what we put in we get.
“I am really proud to be around when he reached that milestone, an exceptional player, exceptional person, essential to everything we achieved in the last few years.
“Wow, massive, good career. He knows everything about the game, he can set the tone and he did that today.”
Steven Taylor first encountered Milner on international duty with the England Under-16s back in 2001. They rose through the age groups together and were also team-mates at Newcastle United, who the now 36-year-old joined from boyhood club Leeds in 2004.
“It’s amazing. He’s kind of the last one of my generation and to see what he’s doing is phenomenal. He deserves all the credit he gets because of the way he is as a character,” says the former centre-back, reflecting on Milner’s achievement.
“You know you’re going to get 100% from him. He can play anywhere and he’s a fighter. You want people like that out on the pitch. He never gets injured and you can always count on him. He’s a guaranteed eight out of 10 every game.”
Milner has always looked to squeeze everything he could out of his career. Teetotal and a fiercely committed trainer, even as a youngster he would gravitate towards the successful senior players in the dressing room.
“He’s around the right people and he’s always willing to learn. A lot of people, when they have one or two good seasons, they ease off. There’s a stage in a professional footballer’s career when they get that big contract and that bit of comfort. He’s hungry all the time,” says Taylor.
“He’s an absolute machine. At Newcastle he was always smashing everyone in the runs. Pre-season was like a doddle to him. It was how he prepared for games. How he looked after himself. He’s a manager’s dream.”
Following an earlier loan spell at Aston Villa, Milner joined them permanently in 2008. Previously a flying winger, by this stage he had evolved into an energetic and tactically astute central midfielder, who would readily fill in elsewhere when needed.
“He knew every single position inside out. He knew what the requirements and responsibilities were. He was a complete player. He had the dedication to come in every day and push himself, and everybody else, to get better results,” recalls club captain Stiliyan Petrov.
“I remember there was a meeting once and he actually questioned some of the players’ attitudes in training because he believed the competitive side of it and the work ethic had to be on a different level if we wanted to achieve what we were looking to achieve.
“He couldn’t accept average – it wasn’t in his vocabulary. He was excellent. He had to be first in the running and shooting competitions. When the team goes through a difficult period in a game, or a season, you look for players like that.”
Petrov was most impressed with Milner’s unwavering attitude. Where others were inclined to complain, shift blame or look for excuses when something went wrong, he held himself accountable and always prioritised the team.
Although Milner raised standards at Villa, he wasn’t satisfied with finishing sixth and felt that his dream of winning major trophies and playing in the Champions League could only be fulfilled by moving on.
“He left a huge gap in our team, but we couldn’t blame him because he deserved the opportunity. He was just built to go and make history, and that’s what he’s done. His destiny was to go and achieve more,” says Petrov.
Five seasons at Manchester City brought two Premier League titles, among other honours, but Milner was rarely as central to the club’s success as he’d hoped to be. In 2015, Liverpool offered a fresh challenge and increased responsibility.
“He played a huge part in changing the culture when Jurgen Klopp came in and helping the team strive towards being the mentality monsters that people refer to them as now,” says former Reds team-mate Adam Lallana.
“He still plays a pivotal role as vice-captain in setting an example for the younger lads, the next generation. He helps the management team in so many ways with the experience he’s built up. He knows what it takes to win. He knows what sacrifices need to be made.”
Milner works hard behind the scenes, never seeking the limelight. As an unassuming player, with a public persona to match, he’s often been undervalued or misjudged. A fluent Spanish speaker with a dry sense of humour, there’s more to him than meets the eye.
“I’m not sure how he got the boring James Milner label, but he couldn’t be further away from that. He’s one of the loudest in the dressing room for sure. Full of life. Full of banter,” explains Brighton midfielder Lallana.
“But he’s definitely old school. Those basics are always there and they’ll never change. I think that’s what’s made him who he is and given him his success. Those values that he’ll always live by. He taught me how to be a better professional and a better role model.”
Over the past two decades, since his Leeds debut in November 2002, Milner’s career has come full circle. Once the bright-eyed young prospect, he’s become the respected veteran of one of the world’s biggest clubs, passing on his knowledge and inspiring others to follow his lead.
Even now, his sheer enthusiasm for the game remains undimmed. Tireless, resilient and determined, those who’ve shared the pitch and the dressing room with Milner are clear on the characteristics that define him and how constant they’ve been.
“He’s never changed,” says Petrov. “He always has time for his team-mates, his friends and his family. This is the biggest judgment and the highest praise for someone who’s achieved so much.”