When Tyrone Mings describes his forearm smash on the Austria centre-forward, Sasa Kalajdzic, in England’s Euro 2020 warmup game last Wednesday, he makes no apologies for the cynicism, the lack of mercy. On the contrary.
“Football is very soft these days – you cannot get away with much,” says the Aston Villa centre-half, although he did get away with this. Austria were breaking up the left and when Kalajdzic makes his run into the area Mings stands his ground before throwing his left arm into his opponent’s face, sending him to the ground.
VAR would surely have awarded a penalty and sent off Mings and there was plenty of fretting about what would have happened if the flashpoint had been at the Euros, which starts for England against Croatia on Sunday.
Mings did not fret. “I wasn’t lucky, no, because I knew there wasn’t VAR,” the 28-year-old says with a steely glare. “It wasn’t [a red card], was it? We can go back through many different occasions in my career and you could say: ‘If there was VAR in that game, I would have got sent off.’”
The old joke is that ‘if’ is the biggest word in football. If the referee had seen it, Mings admits, “maybe” he would have reached for the red card. “If there had have been VAR, absolutely, I would have given away a penalty,” he says.
It is unclear whether Mings was able to assess the sight lines of the referee and his assistant but the move felt highly risky. Mings does not see it that way. “As a defender, I have done that many times in my career – when a cross is about to come in, block the striker,” he says. “That is not against the rules. But that one there was probably too aggressive.”
A small concession, then. But Mings wants to make a broader point and it is one he feels is worth making and acting upon when the finals begin. “Being streetwise is a huge part of the game,” he says. “You look at other nations and they are masters at the dark arts – staying on the floor for longer than needed, delaying restarts. Being streetwise is also sometimes what gets you over the edge because it winds up the opposition and breaks up their flow and rhythm.
“Everything is going to have to come together for us to win the tournament. There are other things that will be important as well.”
Mings is rather pointed when the subject of England’s defending in the warmup games – first Austria, then Romania on Sunday that ended in 1-0 wins – is brought up. “The defence might not have been as secure as you would have liked,” he says, meaning the media. “But we kept two clean sheets so we’re over the moon with that.”
True, but even Gareth Southgate, with the emphasis more on Romania, said that, collectively, the defending had to improve. It feels like certain better teams would punish England if afforded the same openings.
“Absolutely, the opposition had more chances, especially in the second game, than we would have liked to have given and if you give better teams those sort of chances, we would be punished and, perhaps, wouldn’t have as many chances going forward,” Mings says. “We’re aware we have to be better.”
Mings finds himself a central figure in the discussion about how that may be achieved. He had a poor game against Romania and with Harry Maguire expected to miss the Croatia game as he feels his way back from ankle-ligament damage Southgate has to decide whether he can trust Mings alongside John Stones in the centre of a back four. If not – and if he feels the same way about Conor Coady and Ben White – he will switch back to a three-man defence, which would have ramifications in the number of more attack-minded players he can field.
“I don’t really mind where I play – left [centre] of a four and left of a three are very, very similar positions,” Mings says. “The only thing you have different is you have an extra centre-half in there who can cover so, sometimes, the outside centre-halves can step in and go and be a bit more aggressive whereas in a four you have to be a bit more cautious. Genuinely, I’m equally happy playing in both.”
Mings cannot conceal his excitement simply to be here and, at times like these, it must be difficult not to reflect on a career that featured rejection by Southampton at 16 and playing part-time in non-league while he worked as a mortgage adviser. He was at Yate Town in 2011-12 – three tiers below the National League – and in the summer of 2012 he thought about quitting the game and going full-time in the mortgage industry.
Mings, though, would get a move to Ipswich after impressing for Chippenham and he has risen steadily to his first major tournament, overcoming setbacks such as the knee injury suffered six minutes into his Premier League debut for Bournemouth in August 2015, which kept him out for more than a year.
“It’s some setup, this,” Mings says, casting his eyes around England’s St George’s Park base. “We’re all England fans and we watched the tournaments every time they come on so to see what goes on behind the scenes and to be a part of it is just a dream come true. But at the same time I have to have my professional head on and realise we’re here to try to win the tournament.”