It is just before 6.30pm on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after England defeated Kosovo in an eight-goal thriller, and Harry Kane is refusing to give Tyrone Mings a moment’s peace on a five-a-side pitch in Birmingham. This Kane is so small, though, that he could almost run between Mings’s legs. “Incredible, isn’t it? He could have at least put a Mings shirt on!” the Aston Villa defender says, laughing about one of the youngsters at his new academy.
Mings chuckles and shakes his head as he allows himself a moment to take in everything that has gone on during the last week. “To see people running around with Kane shirts on here … I’m still a Kane fan myself. He’s an England player and until I step on the pitch with him, I wouldn’t class myself as one. But they’re people I was in the changing room with last night; all week I’ve been training with, competing against and learning from them. I probably don’t realise what level I’m at because I don’t see myself as that person.”
“Tyrone from Chippenham” is how Mings described himself when we met five years ago, at a time when he was starting to cause a bit of a stir with Ipswich in the Championship. While his life has changed so much since then, his personality is just the same. For the best part of an hour Mings has been playing football with 36 children, aged six to 16, on the artificial pitches in Nechells, less than a couple of miles from Villa Park. At 6ft 5in and with a wide grin, he is the biggest kid of the lot.
Refreshingly, there is nobody holding Mings’ hand, telling him where to go and what to do, or ushering him out of the door as soon as the photographs have been taken, which is often the case with footballers. In fact, long after training has finished Mings is posing for pictures not only with the children and their parents but also with the five-a-side footballers who turned up to play on the pitches next door and did a double-take when they realised that the newest member of Gareth Southgate’s England squad was a few yards away.
“Everything that has happened with the academy so far has been my idea,” Mings says, proudly. “I always wanted to give something back. And the message we wanted to send out by setting up the academy was that we’re not trying to take people away from what they’re currently doing with their clubs, and that we want to give children the experiences I felt were beneficial to me growing up, and that was that my best development came from enjoying my football and not feeling that I had to worry about a result, getting in the team or disappointing or impressing someone.”
With A licence coaches overseeing his academies in Bristol and now Birmingham, and children charged £6 a session, it is put to Mings that he cannot be making any money out of this venture. “It costs me a fortune,” he replies, laughing. “Nah, it doesn’t cost me a fortune but it does cost me money.
“We only use a certain type of pitch and location. We like to have more coaches than we need, to give more of a human element to the coaching. The coaches who are managing the sessions are qualified to a high level – they’re more expensive but that’s a choice that we make. If we have poor coaches, that’s a reflection of me and a reflection of what we think we can give to the kids.”
There is an interesting debate to be had around young children playing football in non-pressurised environments, similar to the one Mings has set up, or joining a professional club. Mings was released by Southampton at 15 and, much as he enjoyed being with a professional club at the time, he now sees things a little differently. “I think I missed out on so many good experiences – maybe priceless experiences – playing with my friends when I was growing up. I was in an academy from the age of eight. I couldn’t play for my grassroots team then. It’s incredible, really, because what are they really protecting?
“For parents it’s a difficult option to turn down. If you want your child to be a footballer, it’s so hard to know whether they will ever get that chance again. But knowing what I know now, I think I would try and keep them away for as long as possible. Kids will never go under the radar any more because there are so many scouts at grassroots level. Also, if you come out of a professional academy, it’s a very lonely place for a child and some kids don’t bounce back from it.”
Mings is the exception to the rule, not just in terms of bouncing back but getting to the very top. Reporting to St George’s Park last week was a surreal moment for him. “I remember going into dinner and sitting around the table for the first time and thinking: ‘Bloody hell, it feels crazy to be sitting here with these people.’ People who I see as being at the pinnacle of English football, people who have just won the Champions League, won the Premier League, played in the World Cup semi-finals. It was baffling. Really baffling.”
Not that Mings felt out of his depth when it mattered. “I had a good few conversations with the manager. His feedback was positive. I felt like I gave a good account of myself in and around the camp. Unfortunately I didn’t get any minutes but I’ll be so much better for the experience when that day does eventually come.
“And even going back to Villa, I said to the England manager that this has lit a fire in me that I never even knew was there. I’ve seen the other side of the fence. This is something I could only have dreamed of at times. So to go there and be involved in the set-up has sent me back to Villa even hungrier.”
It is clear Mings is in a good place following his permanent transfer from Bournemouth, where he “never felt like a real integral part of the squad”. At Villa, he talks about being able to play with freedom, partly because of the faith that Dean Smith, the manager, has in him but also because of his relationship with the supporters.
He is a hero to many, especially the youngsters. “It’s something I take great pride in but I don’t see myself as what those kids see me as tonight, which is probably a good thing,” Mings adds, smiling. “I still have the same group of friends from school and I’ve stayed humble. So while it’s really nice to see those kids look up to me, I’ll go home in a minute, have some Haribo, flick the TV on and go back to normal.”
The Guardian Sport