“You’re Premier League now, mate.” Sean Dyche’s words boom out across Burnley’s homely Gawthorpe training ground as Danny Ings strikes a pose for The Independent’s photographer.
The manager’s teasing suggestion that Ings might, to use football parlance, have suddenly become Billy Big-Time is easily laughed off. Ings’ immediate hope now he is a Premier League player is that people will finally start getting his age right.
“I’m the world’s oldest 21-year-old,” he laughs as he points out that he was born in July 1992 – not in March, as is widely stated on football websites, mistakenly making him 22. It may seem a little thing but, in a time when facts are at our fingertips, it serves to illustrate the swiftness of Ings’s rise out of the shadows during a remarkable season at Turf Moor.
Just as nobody would have predicted the Lancashire club winning the promotion they secured on Monday with victory over Wigan Athletic, so few could have foretold the impact of a player who three seasons ago was an 18-year-old Bournemouth hopeful playing on loan at Dorchester Town in the Conference South.
The question last August was how Burnley could possibly replace the 25-goal Charlie Austin following his move to Queen’s Park Rangers, but Ings has helped provide an emphatic answer, scoring 20 league goals to earn the Championship Player of the Year prize, an England Under-21 call-up and even rumoured interest from Liverpool and Celtic.
“It is unbelieveable for me personally and for the team,” he says. “I have worked my way up from the bottom, which makes it even more special. Playing League One with Bournemouth and moving here, having some downs with my knee [injuries] and then having the biggest up. The fact I’ve done it with the players here is fantastic because they are such a good group – they are all down to earth and they all deserve it.”
“Unbelievable” is a fair summing up. In each of his previous two campaigns, Ings had scored just three league goals, his progress hindered by cartilage injuries suffered in both pre-seasons. “We had Jay Rodriguez and then Charlie Austin the year after, so I was being patient. I was playing in different positions and learning the game. This year I got the chance to play in my strongest position and just took it.”
He certainly did, forming a formidable partnership with Sam Vokes, who has 20 Championship goals of his own, making the Burnley pair English football’s second most prolific after Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
Ings can play either side of a striker but it is in the No 10 role behind Vokes that he has shone. “It definitely just clicked,” he says. “We work hard for each other, we are unselfish and it is quite rare – usually the striker wants to be the main man but with us we just want to do well for each other and the team.”
In Dyche’s Burnley side, hard work is a given. He has spent just £400,000 on transfers in 18 months as manager but with short, intensive training techniques borrowed from the Bundesliga, has turned Burnley into the Championship’s fittest team, transplanting Borussia Dortmund’s gegenpressing principles – pressing opponents high up the pitch – to a corner of Lancashire. The reward is Burnley’s third most successful league campaign in their history, and a return to the Premier League, where they had a brief stay in 2009-10.
“It’s press, press, press,” Ings explains. “The lads have bought into it this year and it shows in our fitness in games – we have run all over teams. Even when we have gone behind in a game we always seem to have that edge physically to come back. Teams don’t like it, especially at Turf Moor – they come here and don’t get time to play because we are in their faces and as soon as we win it back we are straight in their faces. We have got some really nice goals from counter-attacking – there was one against Wigan [by Ashley Barnes] that was a fantastic team goal.”
Ings’s own defence-piercing pass in the lead up to that goal showed there is more to his game than goals and he even claims to get “get a buzz” from pressing defenders. This team-first attitude befits a polite, teetotal individual who benefits from the steadying influence of his father, Shayne, who, by Ings’s admission, would “bring me straight back down” if belated fame did threaten to go to his head.
At primary school Ings trained with Southampton – playing “a couple of times” with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – but was released at 10 and until the age of 15 “just concentrated on playing Sunday league football for the team my dad managed, Itchen Tyro” in the Hampshire village of Hamble. “Then Bournemouth invited me down to a trial,” he continues. “I nearly got released from there too when I was going from Under-15s on to a scholarship.”
Doubts continued to stalk him as injuries in his second year as a youth-team player meant Eddie Howe, his Bournemouth manager, only gave him an initial three-month professional deal. But a loan spell at Dorchester in autumn 2010 provided an unlikely turning point. “It was probably the best bit of development for me because I was playing with fully grown men. I was only 18 and was getting kicked about, but at the same time I was scoring goals and coming into my own. Then I came back and we went on a good run and ended up getting into the [League One] play-offs.”
Ings’s eight goals in the final few months of 2010-11 earned him a move to Burnley and that £1m fee now looks a bargain after a campaign that has also brought international recognition. Ings scored twice on his England Under-21 debut against San Marino in November and there have been reports that England manager Roy Hodgson is considering him as a contender for his Euro 2016 qualifying squad. “I did speak to Roy Hodgson when I was training with the 21s. We had a good conversation and he just told me to keep my head down and work as hard as I can.”
A more pressing question is whether Ings, who has 12 months left on his Burnley contract, will sign a new deal after rumoured interest in January from Liverpool and others. He plays a straight bat when asked about the future, explaining that contract talks have been postponed until the season’s end and adding: “I am contracted with Burnley and I love it here. I read papers and I go on Twitter and social media so I see that stuff but I am very focused on my job and my club, and I am enjoying it here.” After the season he and Burnley have had, and with Premier League football on the horizon, what is there not to enjoy?
My other life eating out
I like to switch off from football so I go to the cinema or for a nice meal out. I share a house with an old friend from home, Lawrence, and we went through a stage where we’d take turns cooking but packed it in and eat out most nights. We ask for recommendations on Twitter and try different places, although my favourite food is still my dad’s roast dinner. Family is important to me and we’ve never had a holiday abroad together so to celebrate promotion I’m taking the whole family away this summer.