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24th Aug 2019

The New Colossus: Tyrone Mings, Aston Villa and this brazen love affair

Kyle Picknell

Questions were asked when Aston Villa stumped up £20 million to sign the defender permanently. There are no such questions anymore

During the pre-game warmup at Villa Park on Friday night, Tyrone Mings pulled up after sprinting and began holding his groin. He looked in visible discomfort. Gary Neville, who was presenting a pitchside segment alongside Kelly Cates, noticed the defender struggling behind him as he was attended to by members of the Villa medical staff whilst lying flat on the turf.

Neville, never one to miss an opportunity, broke his train of thought to emphasise what a blow it would be for Aston Villa to lose defensive lynchpin before a game that, after two losses from two in their meant-to-be-triumphant return to the Premier League, had the footballing intelligentsia already starting to write them off as relegation fodder.

After the match, a 2-0 win for Villa that was slightly less comfortable than the scoreline might suggest, a win built on the imperious defensive presence of Mings, ably partnered by unheralded new signing Bjorn Engels, the central defender told Neville and Cates that he had a painkilling injection before the game and was now ‘feeling like a million dollars’.

It might seem like a small, inconsequential thing given the way football is now, endless slurries of games, the players themselves expected to play non-stop, flat-out, at peak condition for an entire season and maybe an international tournament with only a few weeks off before they come back and do it all over again. It wasn’t.

There’s an inherent risk with these kinds of injections before a game and it would have been no surprise to see Mings stride out of the Villa Park tunnel, fly into a challenge early on and then limp off within the first ten minutes having done even more damage to his groin. That would have had far-reaching, possibly fatal consequences for the rest of Villa’s season.

Tyrone Mings isn’t an injury-prone player. But given the extent of the ACL knee injury he suffered at Bournemouth, one that kept him out of first team action for 15 months and effectively ended his career at Dean Court, and given his importance to his football club now, every bit as vital as Jack Grealish, as John McGinn, as the red brick and steel of the famous stadium, whenever he goes down it causes mass panic amongst the supporters.

He is, after all, a defensive spine of a team pretty much unto himself. The additions of Tom Heaton and Engels have been really smart bits of business, of course, but Mings – once Matt Targett inevitably displaces the Neil Taylor as Villa’s starting left-back – will be the only carryover from last season’s play-off Champions in the defensive unit.

Watching him lead the backline, ushering everyone out of the box after one of his last-ditch clearances, yelling at other players to pick up and gobbling up header after header after header like a man possessed, a man possessed with heading things away; footballs, UFOs, asteroids hurtling towards earth; the very notion of him being overpriced in this vastly inflated transfer market; is every bit as entertaining, as aesthetically pleasing, as fundamentally satisfying as watching your favourite attacking players dribble through a sea of defenders and plant one in the top corner.

In some ways, it’s even better than that.

Villa has always been a club enamoured with its great centre-halves. Paul McGrath, Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu, Olof Mellberg and Martin Laursen have all written themselves into the folklore of the club during the Premier League era. If anything, the supporters seem to be more drawn to them than the great strikers the team has had – your Atkinsons, Yorkes, Angels. It just seems to matter more to the Holte End that they have someone throwing their body in front of shots than they do converting them at the other end.

Maybe it’s just part of the psyche of Villa, a historic club that hasn’t won anything since the Coca-Cola Cup in 1996 or the Intertoto in 2001, if you count that, which you shouldn’t unless you support Newcastle United. In which case, you definitely shouldn’t. Please stop counting it. It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for you.

It’s part of the yearning for relevance again, that we need our own Colossus of Rhodes, something great, something grand to admire; something to look up to and cherish; an epic monolith to our coming through the siege unscathed. As any supporter of any of the hundreds of teams that aren’t serial winners will know, through necessity, sometimes our attachments to certain players can mean more than trophies. At the end of the day, what’s a Community Shield or a Carabao Cup win compared to having Tyrone Mings play for you every week.

What’s a trophy to a 6 foot 5 centre-back who is quicker and more athletic than opposition forwards and can thump laser-guided passes from corner flag to corner flag?

What’s a trophy to a defender who can watch the ball cannon back off the post of his own goal right in front of him, react in a split second to control it instantly and dribble out of his own six-yard box in an impossible fashion past two attackers straining to pressurise him into losing the ball and giving away a surefire goal?

And this is without talking about his character, the fact that eight years ago he was driving an x-reg Citroen Saxo – green, white wheels, faulty handbrake – to his shifts at a pub and to unsuccessful job interviews at his local Comet and corner shop. He then went into mortgage advising for almost a year. Can you imagine? Walking into a mortgage broker and taking a seat opposite this man-mountain of an individual, listening intently as he talked you through different figures, repayments and interest rates, all with that pearly white smile, the natural, easy charm, the voice like a Somerset Barry White. All with that hidden, burning realisation that his ultimate dream, of being a professional footballer, was quickly slipping away.

As he told the Football Daily podcast: “There have been times in my football career where I’ve thought: ‘Is this is? Is this as far as I’m going to go?’. There have always been times where I’ve not been sure and I can’t see the path, see my way into football at the moment.”

You can tell he takes absolutely nothing for granted. He was forced into a homeless shelter with his sisters and his mother as a child and when he signed his first professional contract at Ipswich he immediately upgraded from his Saxo… to a Vauxhall Corsa. As Matt Law describes in The Telegraph: “Mings spent part of his Christmas Day feeding the homeless when he was a 20-year-old at Ipswich Town, donated his complimentary match tickets to ‘skint’ fans, bought new shirts for supporters after changing his number and paid off his mother’s debts.”

It’s all part of the reason he has been adored in B6 since his arrival on loan in January, his defensive performances lifting Villa to a historic run of wins and eventually promotion via the play-off final. It’s the strength of his character as much as the stuff on the field.

The way he has carried himself through childhood, his teenage years, to now, combined with, oh I don’t know, a thing like sleeping in full match kit the night following the 2-1 win at Wembley over Derby County and then just staying in it f0r his entire train-ride home back to down to Bournemouth, winner’s medal still dangling around his neck.

Yeah. That kind of thing generally helps you become a cult figure quicker than most in claret and blue.

I guess, for Mings, after just 17 league appearances in four seasons at Bournemouth, it was about playing regularly again. Belonging again. Given his history and his route into professional football, it’s no surprise that after becoming a bit-part player under Eddie Howe on the south coast he wanted to feel like he could still see that path, the one that had been hidden away and obscured for so long, the one that, at a point long ago, had veered off sharply into a stuffy, white-collar desk job.

Given that Aston Villa were ready to give him unconditional love from the moment of his arrival, partly due to the dire straights the club was in, both in terms of options at centre-back thanks to Steve Bruce’s negligence and an injury to James Chester, and the fading hopes of promotion, it is no surprise that such a bond has been formed between this player and this football team.

The way he played on Friday night, making everyone around him better, offering his teammates – who, let’s remember, are even less experienced at this level than he is – a relentless assuredness and calmness both on the ball and off it, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the way Virgil van Dijk has influenced such a major sea change at Liverpool. The same thing is happening in Birmingham.

During this new period where Villa will have to fight for their life to just stay up, and this semi-eternal one where the yearning for silverware will likely continue unabated, it is having players like Tyrone Mings that make it impossible to give up on the team. Or on football.

Aston Villa back in the Premier League and Villa Park on nights like these, under the floodlights, the Holte End, to every man, woman and child, on their feet, in full cry, in unison. There’s an undeniable magic to it.

Before the game, both Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher reminisced about the semi-finals of yesteryear played out in similar circumstances on similarly ethereal nights and waxed lyrical about its intrinsic qualities as a venue.

It had been missing for a while though, the magic. Now it appears to be back. A boyhood fan with the armband. A boyhood fan in the dugout. John McGinn haring around the place in that ridiculous crouched fashion like a Glaswegian Forrest Gump re-enacting the Normandy Landings.

But then, part of the reason it’s all so impressive is because there is a force of nature of a player at the heart of it all.

The New Colossus of Villa Park; the brazen giant, Tyrone Mings and his conquering limbs astride from stand to stand.