Paul Ince: 'I still see myself as a pioneer for black managers'

Former United hardman is working his way up again from the bottom and has taken Ferguson's advice on dealing with modern stars: don't give them an inch. Jon Culley meets Paul Ince
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The Independent Online

It is a little after one o'clock, an icy wind is blowing off the Trent and Paul Ince is digesting the news that the afternoon session he was planning with his Notts County players cannot proceed because the field next to a local hockey club that serves as his training ground is frozen.

A few feet from his office door the frost covers are being rolled out across the Meadow Lane pitch, which had seen only one first-team game in six weeks. In the office, Ince's lunch arrives. Beans on toast. It would be tempting to see this as symbolic, were it not his preference. Even so, for someone of his pedigree, you might expect at least a prawn sandwich or two. It is hardly Big Time Charlie.

Almost 12 years since Sir Alex Ferguson let slip that infamously derisive view of his former player, Ince has demolished the assessment by managing Macclesfield and MK Dons with honours in League Two and is now attempting to construct a promotion side in League One.

The only blot on his CV is Blackburn Rovers, which is why the diversion of an FA Cup run has acquired some personal significance. His brief tenure at Ewood Park, terminated two winters ago after three wins in 17 Premier League matches, led some to question whether Ince, for all his trophies as a player, could cut it at the top level as a manager. Yet in this season's Cup, County have knocked out Sunderland away and are preparing to face Manchester City at home a week today.

"Beating Sunderland was a great moment for me as well as the club," he says. "I wish it had been against someone other than my mate Steve Bruce but it shows I can get a result against a Premier League side. It might have been a weakened team but it was still worth £50 million."

Much as his professional focus is on his present role, he makes no secret of wishing to prove his doubters wrong, as well as to champion his other, broader cause as a flag-bearer for black managers. He won the League Two title and the Football League Trophy at MK Dons and is hungry to succeed at the highest level.

"It was difficult at Blackburn but there are things I would do differently now," he said. "Where I made a mistake was that I thought the dressing-room culture would be like it was at Manchester United and Liverpool. It wasn't. The players had changed. I was thinking, 'I mustn't be too horrible to them', and ended up trying to please everybody, and that's something you can't do.

"I remember speaking to Sir Alex after we had lost a League Cup tie against United and asking him what I should do. He said, 'Paul, don't give the players anything. If you give them an inch, it shows a sign of weakness'.

"I needed to be tougher. I needed to say, 'This is the way I manage, I'm not going to change for anyone'."

But the swiftness of his exit still rankles. "I didn't get time to work those things out and that is what is so disappointing. I needed a stronger board. When we started losing games, the line in the papers every day was, 'He's got to go, he's got to go'. Roy Hodgson was the same at Liverpool, getting slaughtered every week. It creates an atmosphere that affects the crowd.

"What I said [to the board] at Blackburn is you need to come out now and say, 'He's our manager to the end of the season, that's it', and it squashes all the paper talk, it stops the players reading the papers and asking, 'Is the manager going, who's going to come in?'

"Because if you don't, whether it is Roy or me or Avram Grant, who has had it at West Ham, it just keeps coming and coming, the headlines and radio phone-ins, and the pressure gets too much and you lose your job."

Yet despite the rancour, even with the comfort of financial security behind him, even with the suspicion that, because of his ethnic roots, he has bigger obstacles in his way, he rejects any notion of abandoning his ambitions. "I want to be the best manager I can be but listen, I enjoy doing this. I don't care what level it is, I just love being on the training ground, trying to improve players, make them better.

"When I went to Macclesfield, I took a risk. They were the worst team in the League, eight points adrift. If Macclesfield had gone down, everyone would have said, 'Oh, Paul Ince can't be a manager'. But I saw something, a bit of spirit, in those players.

"I'm so glad I did. It puts everything else into perspective. We trained on a school rugby pitch, trying to practise passing movements with the ball bobbling around all over the place, and with League Two players. I had to organise the team bus and had my own set of keys to lock up the stadium after everyone had gone. But I loved it and when we stayed up, it sent out shockwaves. Yes, I still see myself as a pioneer for black managers. I have to do – untillast week, when Chris Powell got the Charlton job, I was the only one.

"I don't want to say it is all about black people. You aspire to be a great manager, regardless of colour. But when you look at the number of black players who have worked with top managers but go out of the game, I think it's sad.

"I want to show that while there will be obstacles in your way, you can still get the job. It is wrong that people like Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand go out of the game when they should be trying to become managers. And I don't want people like Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell to go when they retire."

The modern game dismays him somewhat. In the same week that he offered friendly sympathy to Bruce over Darren Bent's walk-out at Sunderland, one of his own best players, midfielder Ben Davies, handed in a transfer request so he can sign for Derby. "Players do that now, throw their toys out of the pram, and I've got 10 days to find a replacement," Ince grumbles. "That's why this [transfer] window stinks."

However, the prospect of exchanging banter with City's manager,Roberto Mancini, a former incumbent of the job he most covets – returning to Italy to manage Internazionale, where as "The Guv'nor' he was most idolised – brings the smile back.

"I saw him the other night, when I was watching my son Thomas [whom he hopes to sign for a second loan spell at Meadow Lane] play for Liverpool Reserves. He told me he could remember a game where he got sent off for lunging at me. I couldn't recall it. I couldn't have been winding him up, surely. Not me!

"But I did remember another where I was supposed to be man-marking him and he nutmegged me three times. I ended up smashing him and getting a yellow card. He was a fantastic player.

"I'll share a glass of red wine with him after the game. But I've told him he'll have to bring his own – we can't afford it."

Life and times

Club career West Ham United (72 games, 7 goals); Manchester United (206, 25); Internazionale (54, 10); Liverpool (65, 10); Middlesbrough (93, 7); Wolverhampton Wanderers (115, 10); Swindon Town (3, 0); Macclesfield Town (1, 0).

International career England (53 caps,2 goals). First black captain of England, June 1993, in infamous 2-0 defeat by the United States under Graham Taylor.

Managerial career Macclesfield Town (2006-07); MK Dons (2007-08); Blackburn Rovers (2008); MK Dons (2009-10); Notts County (2010-present).

Playing honours 2 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 League Cup, 1 European Cup-Winners' Cup, 1 Uefa Super Cup, 3 Charity Shields (all with Manchester United).

Family ties Son Thomas – a left-footed attacking midfielder – is on Liverpool's books, and was on loan at Notts County, where he scored twice in six games.

Fascinating fact Employs the same tattooist as David Beckham, Louis Molloy.