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Even though Paul Ince is the “boy from north Dagenham who was never one for the attention” he will relish the long walk along the touchline to the dug-out at Old Trafford on Saturday as he takes his Reading side to face Manchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
It is a prestigious tie that resonates for Ince. Not just for the six hugely successful years he spent from 1989 as the engine in United’s Rolls-Royce midfield, when the club took off under Alex Ferguson, but also because being a manager is something he felt had gone for him.
Ince’s eight years out of the game feels wrong and while his focus is on keeping Reading in the Championship – he says he would happily swap three points against Watford next weekend for victory at Manchester United – it will “not be a sightseeing tour” at Old Trafford. “We are going there to try and win a game – and who says we can’t?” Ince says.
Such belief defined his playing career and is why the 55-year-old was a success not just at United but also at Inter Milan and Liverpool. Mention of Inter, though, is a reminder of the dramatic circumstances under which Ince left United.
There are conflicting stories as to just what happened. In Ferguson’s first autobiography, defending himself, he claims that Ince had already had contact with the Italian giants and had helped engineer the shock £7.5million move.
So here is Ince’s version of that day in the summer of 1995.
“I was playing golf at Mottram Hall, with Giggsy [Ryan Giggs],” he says. “We got to the 16th and my phone rang and it was Sir Alex saying, ‘I need to see you’. So I said, ‘Ok, gaffer.’ And I was thinking – what have I done? It’s like a kid going to see the headmaster. I was thinking ‘No, I didn’t go out last night!’
“So my mind is going like that and I said, ‘Ok, gaffer, I will pop in and see you tomorrow’ and he said, ‘No, I am at the golf club.’ I said, ‘What!’ And he said, ‘I am at the golf club.’
“I was in the buggy with Giggsy – and I was one up and all – and I said, ‘I have to go, the gaffer’s here.’ So I left Giggsy there and he (Sir Alex) was sat in his car. I said, ‘What’s wrong, gaffer?’ and he said, ‘Listen we have had an offer from Inter Milan for £7.5million and we are accepting it.’”
Was that really the first he had heard of the deal?
“Yes. He (Ferguson) said, ‘We have Nicky Butt coming through and we are trying to build Carrington (the new training ground) so we need the money.’
“I was shocked at first, thinking I had been here for six years, was coming into my prime, thinking about another four-year contract and negotiating that, which would have taken me to my testimonial year.
“Thomas [his eldest son] was only two so we were thinking about nurseries and I got hit with that. It was more shock than anything. I told Giggsy and he nearly collapses. So the next week was tough.”
I tell him that I had read somewhere that Ferguson eventually accepted that he had made a mistake in selling Ince. “Yeah, he did!” Ince says, smiling.
“Listen, it’s fine. Sir Alex and I have a great relationship. Next year they won the Premier League. It wasn’t just me – Mark Hughes left, (Andrei) Kanchelskis left. It doesn’t mean the decision to let me go was right but it shows the greatness of the man.
“But I am pleased I did it. It widened my horizons, I learnt another language, made me a better player, a different type of player, more technical. And to be fair Serie A was the best league in the world. They had the greatest players: Baggio, Baresi, Maldini, Desailly. Obviously I would rather have stayed at United for the rest of my career. Look at Giggsy and Gary Neville – that could easily have been me with 12, 14 years at Manchester United. But I had an amazing career.”
And the FA Cup is where it all started for him, for Ferguson and for United also. What followed was an avalanche of trophies.
“In the first year we won the FA Cup and that was a bigger thing for me (than the league) because as a kid we used to play in the school playground and it was all based on going to Wembley, walking up the steps, lifting the cup,” Ince says.
“All kids played it but I never envisaged doing it. I always knew I would be a footballer but at what level I didn’t know. But I didn’t think I would get the chance to go to Wembley and lift the FA Cup.”
And it did feel like lift-off.
“We finished 13th that year,” Ince says. “It wasn’t fifth or sixth but after winning it there was a sense amongst us that we were not that bad and we could win things. But it only really changed about winning the title when we beat Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup (in 1991). That was the turning point for us. If we could beat Barcelona we could beat anyone.”
Ince cites Bryan Robson as one of the main reasons he joined United from West Ham. “He was my idol and I wanted to emulate what he did. I never got close. Going to Man United was great – the biggest club in the world – but it was even better to play with Bryan Robson because I held him in such high esteem,” he says.
So when, after 26 years, United did finally win the title in 1992-93 it was all the more vital to Ince that Robson was still there and that Matt Busby lived to see it.
“I don’t think there are any titles or cups they have won that were more important. They won the treble in ‘99 but that was the one; the one that set it all off,” Ince argues.
In the next season there would be another league title while he still winces at losing out to Blackburn on the final day the following year.
“It’s hard to go through the generations but I think when you look at what we had in that team with the likes of Keane and Giggs, Beckham and Kanchelskis, Cantona and Hughes, Schmeichel. You could go to Wimbledon against Fashanu and Vinnie Jones and you could mix it or you could go to Spurs and play them off the park. Even if I wasn’t involved in that team I would say, looking at all the teams United had over the years, that was the best.”
Of course United have now gone six years without winning a trophy.
“That can’t be right,” Ince says. “Even in ‘89 when we were building as a team we still won the FA Cup, the Cup Winners Cup, the League Cup, before we won the title. Man United have to be winning trophies. Six years without one, given all the money they have spent, seems unreal.”
But Ince believes they are on their way back under Erik ten Hag. “What was concerning me and what you don’t see now was all the stuff that was coming out in the press,” he says of the chaotic time before the Dutchman arrived. “Stuff in-house about the fragmentation of the group, cliques, I didn’t like that – with Pogba, Ronaldo. It didn’t feel like Man United and it was reflected with performances on the pitch. This season he has come in like a breath of fresh air.”
It is exactly what Ince has been since he arrived at Reading last February where he has performed miracles under a transfer embargo and is determined to build a brighter future.
Maybe he is all the more determined because of the eight years he spent out of management after being brutally sacked by Blackpool in 2014 despite the club being 14th in the Championship with the division’s lowest budget.
“I got a bit despondent,” Ince admits. And while he was offered “one of two jobs” they were back at the bottom of League Two where he had started with Macclesfield Town.
“It was firefighting,” Ince says. He considered moving abroad, but had a young family, so he waited for the right job. For the right “project”. It did not come along. Instead Ince threw himself into punditry and family life – spending time in London with his daughter, Ria, who was at university, playing golf with his son Daniel, who is about to turn professional in that sport, and watching Tom play football.
“I had gone from ‘I need to manage, it’s my life, it’s my passion, I am obsessed with it’ to ‘I can actually live without football’. It was healthy. I could sleep at night! Now I am tossing and turning,” Ince says.
“It was also strange for my wife Claire because all of a sudden I am under her feet. We have been married for 32 years and all my career I have never really been there and you do miss certain days, you do miss your kids’ birthdays. So it was really important. And what I realised in those eight years was how important family is.”
Then last February the phone rang. It was Reading, where Tom was and whom Ince watched a lot of. They were in trouble and told him that manager Veljko Paunovic was resigning. They asked if Ince would he take over “for one or two games until we find someone else”.
It was as blunt as that and, naturally, Ince asked himself whether he wanted to disturb “my lovely life”. Claire said he should and that tipped it. Ince won his first game, 2-1 against Birmingham, went on a six-game run and suddenly it was 10 games and he was asked to stay until the end of the season.
“And I thought to myself ‘please, just keep them up.’ Not for my sake. But I felt the responsibility,” Ince explains. “I was thinking of all the staff here and if we went into League One the budget would have been cut 50 per cent, people would lose their jobs. I wasn’t thinking of the players I was thinking about the people who work here. It would have been horrible and I didn’t want that on my conscience.”
He did keep them up and, during a family holiday in Barbados, the call came asking him to become the permanent manager.
Despite declaring it “the hardest managerial job I have ever had” with the “sanctions geared for us going down” it has turned out to be exactly what Ince had been looking for.
And now he will lead them out at Old Trafford. Not that Ince wants the limelight. “When we got this game it takes you back to when you played and I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about the fans, the players, the owner,” he says. “And I really would rather lose to Man United and beat Watford. It has to be the focus. That is for the future of the club.”
There is a pause before Ince adds: “But of course I want to win both.”