Saints' new number nine discusses his emotional journey back home
When Southampton swooped to secure the signature of Danny Ings on transfer deadline day, the club reconnected the player with his childhood.
A high-profile capture from Liverpool, where his career hit such peaks and troughs the striker was left mentally drained by the end of it all, Ings sought pastures new with a nostalgic twist.
He left behind his life in the North West – his home of seven years where he developed a level of independence that turned boy to man and where his career took off, starting with a prolific spell at Burnley that earned himself a shot at Anfield.
Ings needed to feel loved, and not just by his close-knit family and school friends with whom he could reminisce over old times.
He craved the responsibility of being the main man again. Of feeling needed, and relied on by his team to deliver when they need a goal most.
Coming home ticked all the boxes.
Such has been the emotional roller coaster of his recent past, Ings seems in his element in the soothing surrounds of the Solent, watching the rippling current disappear into the distance in front of the Southampton Harbour Hotel.
He shares a passion for boats with his father – the biggest influence on his football career who would take his son out on the water when a young Danny wasn’t having a kickabout with his mates in Netley.
“My dad’s always been into his fishing,” reveals Saints’ proud new number nine. “He’d take me out on the Solent when I was younger on his boat that was falling to pieces!
“Over the last couple of years, once I was in a position to improve his boat, we replaced it for a nice one.
“Now that I’m down here, I’ll be able to go out on it a lot more. I haven’t lived here for a long time, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Since he was 15, to be precise. That was when Ings made the short but no less daunting step to leave home for Bournemouth and pursue a life in football, five years after his Saints dream was cut short.
“I was ten years old,” he recalled. “I was going through quite a bit emotionally at the time with my family, so the best thing was to pull me out of that stuff.
“My dad didn’t want to see me getting upset anymore from being rejected with trials.
“He wanted to see me enjoying my football again, so he took me out of all those setups and trials and let me play with my friends.
“It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me – playing with my old man, my friends and school football. It was good fun growing up.
“I played against a lot of this town at Sunday League football! I always bump into people I’ve played against in Sunday League. It’s nice to be back in the environment where I started.
“I didn’t have the pleasure of coming through an Academy. That probably makes me more grateful for the routes I’ve taken.
“I’ve played in a lot of the leagues building up to the Premier League, and the experience of it all is something other players don’t have.
“Coming through an Academy is great – already being at a top club – but I wouldn’t change my roots and the way I’ve done it for anything.
“It’s helped me mature as a man. I moved away at 15, signed pro at 17 or 18 and worked my way up.
“I’m extremely proud of that – being able to play League One, Championship, Premier League… I even had a loan spell at Dorchester Town in the Conference South!
“When I speak to youngsters who are coming through and explain my journey, hopefully that can inspire them to never give up when it doesn’t quite work out at an Academy.
“It’s not the end of it. You’ve just got to keep believing and keep enjoying your football, because things do change quickly.”
A Saints fan growing up, Ings admits his allegiance was tested by the whole experience.
“Being rejected did affect me when I was really young,” he admits. “There was a lot of… not hate, but I was gutted as a kid.
“It was my hometown club and I wanted to play for them. I had to go away and take it on the chin a little bit, but I’ve always followed Southampton.
“We didn’t really have the privilege to go to games. We went to the odd one, but back in those days things were a bit more difficult for us.
“I’ve had friends who have played for the club over the years, and everybody supports their hometown team. That doesn’t change now that I’m here.”
Ings declares himself a perfectionist and his own biggest critic, so when things go wrong he takes it personally.
“I’m still exactly the same, but I think I’ve learned how to deal with it and not show it to people,” he says.
“I’m terrible with myself – whether it’s in football or just overthinking things I say to people.
“Even after this interview, I’ll go away and think ‘did I say that right?’ It’s just the way I’ve always been.
“If there’s something I could’ve done differently in a game, I can’t get it out of my head for at least 48 hours.”
Maybe it’s that quest for perfection that drove him up through the divisions – League One with Bournemouth, Championship to Premier League with Burnley, Premier League to Champions League with Liverpool.
It was Eddie Howe, the man who handed Ings his senior debut for the Cherries, who brought him to Lancashire in 2011.
Beyond his success on the pitch at Turf Moor, where he was voted Championship Player of the Year in 2013/14, the marksman founded the Danny Ings Disabiity Sport Project.
“It came about after I met a young boy in a game,” he explains. “He was sat in the corner, down by the corner flag. Joe Skinner, his name is.
“As I was about to take a corner, I said to him ‘do you want my boots after the game?’ because it was the last game of the season.
“He said ‘yeah, ok’. He’s got cerebral palsy so he can’t use his hands as well as others, but I handed him my boots, gave him a kiss on his forehead and got pictured doing it without realising.
“From there it spread. It went crazy that weekend – my social media blew up – and from that day it hit me; the impact myself and other footballers can have on the community and people who aren’t fortunate enough to have similar journeys to ourselves.
“We started out with 30 people with disabilities per week. From then it just grew and grew and grew. BT Sport and the Premier League started to invest into the project and it’s grown from there.”
Ings announces his intention to bring the project to Southampton, but only once he’s “more established” at his new club.
“I’ve always wanted to give something back,” he added. “Growing up, it was difficult times. It was difficult with my family and we struggled quite a lot.
“My dad having to take me down to Bournemouth all the time wasn’t easy, so giving back to him and my family is one thing, but giving back to a whole community of people who go through troubles of their own… I understand where they’re coming from and feel their pain.”
This desire to keep himself occupied away from football became a necessity when his first love was cruelly stripped away after landing his big move to Liverpool in 2015.
Back on the boat, Ings shares a joke with Jack Stephens, grinning with the infectious smile that often concealed the emotional torment of the injuries that left him fearing for his career.
He sports a black cap and t-shirt printed by his own company – another of his side projects.
“I have a friend up in Burnley who is a super, super talented guy,” Ings enthuses.
“He’s a graphic designer by trade, but he’s managed to reprogram a printer that can print direct to garment and direct to trainers that I thought was super impressive.
“He’s such a creative man that he let me invest into him and together over the last 18 months we’ve been building our company.
“We print all sorts of clothing and it’s going well. It’s something I like to do away from football and it’s another challenge – he teaches me a lot on that side of things, because I’m not a very creative person.
“I can’t really do graphic designing or Photoshopping or anything like that, but when I need to switch off from football, it’s good to challenge myself in the business world as well.
“I am obsessed (with football) and nothing will change that, but it’s good to have other interests when you’re away from the club.”
The Liverpool journey started well.
“When that came up it was crazy,” he reflects, still shaking his head in disbelief. “It was exciting. On the back of four great years at Burnley, to have the opportunity to go and play for Liverpool was insane. It was just mental, and beyond anything I’d ever imagined.
“It started off fantastically – I was playing games and scoring goals, but football can change overnight and unfortunately it didn’t change in a positive way for me.
“I got very unlucky with a tackle and a movement that didn’t go my way. I suffered from that, but it doesn’t change how proud I was to get to a club like Liverpool and find such a great relationship with the fans and my teammates.”
Ings missed seven months of action, only returning in time for the final game of the season at West Brom. The timing of the injury could not have been worse.
Jürgen Klopp, newly appointed as manager, was taking his very first training session at Melwood, while Ings had only just come back down to earth following the highlight of his career – his England debut in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Lithuania.
“I only arrived back the night before,” that same look of disbelief overcomes him. “I went from the highest moment in my career to the lowest. It was difficult.
“I’m quite a positive person, from what people think. I’m always smiling in my pictures, but that time was really, really difficult to overcome mentally.
“It wasn’t easy, but that’s football. You just have to take it on the chin and keep going.”
After more than a year between appearances on home turf, it happened again – this time the other knee, in a completely unrelated incident.
“It was a tackle I made against Tottenham under the lights at Anfield,” he remembers, vividly. “I carried on playing the game for the last 20 minutes and didn’t even realise. I even nearly scored towards the end of the game!
“After the game, it felt a little bit strange, so I went to the treatment room and had some swelling on my knee.
“I thought ‘there could be something wrong with that’ and looking back, I know the exact moment it happened.
“It was a tackle I made where I was probably a bit too eager, with the angle I was lunging in at.
“That hurt a lot – I broke down in the doctor’s room fearing the worst… it wasn’t good.”
Ings was beginning to wonder whether he would ever play again. Even if he did, would he ever be the same?
A predator who once scored 26 goals in one season, Ings went two and a half years without one.
Again, The Hawthorns was the scene of happier times, as he could finally experience that unique striker’s thrill once more.
“You could see it in my celebration,” he says. “I’d played a lot of football leading up to that in the Under-23s to build up my fitness to be in the best shape I could be for when that occasion occurred.
“It was the best thing that I did, playing those Under-23 games, because it brought me to the level I needed to go back into the first team and cope with it.
“Getting that goal was just relief… it was closure to what I’d been through.
“I can honestly say that since my last injury I’ve felt in the best shape of my career. I’m extremely fit now, and very happy.”
It was not until his omission from the bench for the Champions League final, on what may have been the biggest night of his career, that Ings decided it wouldn’t be Liverpool who would reap the rewards of his return to fitness.
"There were a few windows before that where I probably could’ve left if I’d really pushed for it, but the club wanted to have me around,” he says.
“To be left out of the squad in the final… I understood the reasons why, but that didn’t stop it breaking my heart.
“That was enough for me to realise it was time to go somewhere else. I wanted to be someone else’s Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah or Sadio Mané. I want to be a big player for a team.
“When Southampton came in for me, this is a dream in itself. To put the number nine shirt on here, in front of my family and friends, it feels like a great reward for all the hard work I’ve put in over the last couple of years.”
He may have moved clubs before, but this one feels different.
“When I moved up north I’d only just turned 18 – I’d only just passed my driving test,” he laughs.
“My friend came to live with me for seven years, so he helped me settle in and we made it our home.
“It was a shock to the system, how quickly it happened on deadline day.”
Ings admitted at the time he was unsure whether or not the deal would actually go through.
He continued: “To move out of my house, into a new place, move all of my stuff back down back to where it all started… it feels strange. It’s going to take a while to sink in.
“It certainly feels different. I built a very close group of friends up north – I moved away, built friendships with new people who had grown up in different places and I learned a lot of new things.
“To come back down here was a really big culture shock – going back to the life of when I was 15 and younger.
“It’s strange, but it’s also nice being able to pop ten minutes down the road to see my nan and grandad, my old man, my mum… it’s a nice feeling to be able to do that.
“It’s right on the doorstep. For them and all of my family – my nieces and nephews, my best friends from school… everybody can come and watch me enjoy my football again.
“That gives me great pleasure and great confidence that I can really do well here.”
So far so good for Ings. Despite leaving in search of regular football, he’s quick to point out he did not expect to go straight into the starting line-up.
With three goals in four starts, he’s already become impossible to leave out. It also means he’s ahead in his bet with former teammate Salah, who outscored him 44-1 last season. We’ll get to that later.
“I wanted to be a big influence on the team and on the town, and to feel good about myself again, because I’ve had a lot of moments when I lost my confidence,” he added.
“I don’t like to be in that position; I like to feel confident. I like to prepare through the week for a game, knowing I’ve got a good chance of starting.
“I’m still catching up on my fitness. I’m confident now that when I’m fully fit and firing, hopefully I can keep improving and do even better for the team.
“I’m happy with how I’ve started, but for me this is just the beginning. I want to keep building, keep pushing and score as many goals as I can.”
The timing of the interview, coinciding with the international break, prompts the question about adding to his sole England cap.
The appointment of Gareth Southgate (Ings’s England manager for two years at Under-21 level) and the retirement of Jamie Vardy can both aid his cause.
“I’d be stupid to say it’s not in my mind, because it is, and it’s also a big part of me moving teams,” he revealed.
“I’ve dipped my toe into it – literally went to one camp and got one cap – but that was enough to keep that hunger there for the rest of my career, to push myself to get back there.
“It’s the pinnacle for any English football player. For me, it’s a dream that I’ve never given up on.
“There have been a lot of hurdles in my way – a lot more than others – but I’m fighting every day to achieve that again.
“I think I’ve given myself the first step towards that by moving to a special club who have given me the opportunity to enjoy my football again.”
All that remains is to clarify that friendly wager. Does he really think he will outscore the Egyptian king?
“I need to clear this up,” Ings leans forward intently. “A lot of people are hammering me on social media, but I just want to make it clear that Mo messaged me on Instagram saying ‘come on, let’s have a bet – who’s going to score the most goals?’
“I laughed at first. Our seasons last year were worlds apart, but I did have a bit of banter with him because he’s such a role model and such a huge body in Egypt.
“I said to him ‘I’ll take the bet, but if I win you give me half of Egypt – if I win, I’ll buy you a Costa!’ so I left it at that.”
So there you have it. Only another 42 goals to go.