close-up; Paul Ince; Powered by bruised pride

Ian Ridley assesses what will be expected of Manchester United's blunt genius on his debut for Internazionale today
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The Independent Online
A DESIGNER had flown in from Germany just to show Paul Ince the new boots he had made for him. They were an expensive prototype of the new-fangled Predator, into which much time and thought had gone. "No. Don't like them," Ince said bluntly.

His objection was not so much to do with the revolutionary ribbed design of the upper but with the moulded studs, which were not the usual little round stubs of malice but strips of rubber strategically attached to the sole, designed to facilitate turning. "No one's going to be frightened of those when I go in to tackle them, are they?" Ince said.

I ventured to the man from Adidas at the company's UK headquarters that Ince was probably not the easiest of their clients. "Well, we don't want yes men. We want people to say what they think and Paul does," he replied diplomatically.

Ince does in fact now wear the boot, but the episode illustrated much about him: the assertiveness; the sense of his own importance; the lack of concern for social graces; the unwillingness to be controlled until he finally conforms. All have been evident in a turbulent youth that, by his own admission, might have landed him in jail, and in a spiky career that has taken in the uniteds of West Ham and Manchester.

And now Internazionale of Milan, for whom the only Englishman left in Serie A makes his competitive debut against newly promoted Vicenza this afternoon in the San Siro stadium. His transfer there - worth around pounds 7.5m once the revenue from two friendly matches between Inter and Manchester United is added - also mirrored his personality and part baffled, part angered United fans.

Ince signed a new contract with United only last September after protracted negotiations and when Inter first came in for him - and Eric Cantona - in January they were given little encouragement. The mood changed, however, after Cantona had signed a lucrative contract, said to be worth pounds 15,000 a week.

Ince, on about half that sum, had gleaned the impression that he was as important to United as the Frenchman. He may have wondered too loudly within Old Trafford whether he should be getting a similar deal. "If a player is worth it, we'll pay him. There's no problem there," Alex Ferguson said last week.

According to the United manager, Ince had been talking about a move to Inter soon after the Cup Final loss to Everton in May. Ince professed shock, however, when told United were willing to sell him. Ferguson, his grail the European Cup, probably saw that as the time to change the character of his team from one capable of rampaging domestically but ill-suited away from home in Europe. Ince's performances in the 4-0 defeat in Barcelona, in which he was anonymous save for some dissent, and the 3-1 loss in Gothenburg, where he was sent off, may have raised doubts.

Ince was also not the dominant player of 18 months ago in the second half of last season, though the court case resulting from the Cantona affair - he was found not guilty of assault - clearly weighed. There was word that he was not working as hard at his game. "The mood of one or two players changes, sadly," Ferguson said last May, referring to the effect of success. In hindsight, he may have been talking about Ince. The arrogance that cockney footballers have about them can be galvanising during good times but tiresome when the tide turns.

Ince's first experience of Milan was not encouraging, as he upset his hosts by saying only "arriverderci" at the end of a visit during which he was expected to sign. The first black man to captain England was, however, concerned by racist graffiti on the walls of the San Siro. Inter officials reassured him that it was just Milan supporters' bad taste.

Now he seems to have settled in, having just found a home for himself, his wife Clare and son Thomas and moved out of the Villa d'Este complex on the shores on Lake Como, where Inter's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Matthaus and Dennis Bergkamp lived before.

Ince impressed in a pre-season friendly against Arsenal but that was against an English team familiar to him and Inter looked toothless in attack. That was emphasised by another goalless draw a few nights later against PSV in Eindhoven.

"So far, the reaction to Ince has been quite positive," Sergio di Cesare of the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, said. "But the first impression is of a player of quantity rather than quality. Ince was presented as a mastermind, what you call a playmaker, but he is not that. I am sure Inter will try again for Cantona when our market opens again in November." But the former Inter midfield schemer Liam Brady detects something more. "I can see what they mean about Paul. He's not a sophisticated player like, say, Johnny Giles and maybe not a midfield schemer. But I would say he's both quantity and quality. His passing is positive, he breaks forward and scores goals. I think he'll do well."

There must be doubts, however, in both Ince and the club as the three- year contract worth pounds 25,000 a week has a get-out clause after one year: United have first refusal. He finds himself in the middle of a rebuilding exercise overseen by a new president, Massimo Moratti, and implemented by the coach Ottavio Bianchi, who won the title with a Napoli team that included Diego Maradona. Sixteen players, five returning from loans, have come to the club this summer, the most exciting so far the Brazilian left- back-cum-midfielder Roberto Carlos.

For a while at least, Inter's fans will indulge coach and players because they realise how great the task of turning around what has latterly been an under-achieving club force-fed on the achievements of Milan. But it will be for only a while. Inter fans believe theirs is the prouder history. The last of their 13 titles was in 1989; two Uefa Cups this decade are but sideshow prizes.

"Comparison with Milan has been very painful for them," Di Cesare said. "Inter fans have confidence in the president at the moment but they are cautious. They are afraid to be disappointed again."

Clearly, Inter have bought Ince for his drive. The Dutch midfield player Wim Jonk, now back home with PSV, was probably a more accomplished passer of the ball but lacks his successor's bustle. "What fan wouldn't like a player like Ince?" Brady wonders. The problem may be, however, that the greater patience shown in the Italian game may frustrate a player who has thrived on the error-strewn passion of the Premiership.

But Italy may add a greater precision and composure to Ince's game, wherein could lie the doubts that Terry Venables undoubtedly has. Venables has not so far chosen him for England this year, the official reason being the pressures of Ince's court case. There was, too, Graham Taylor's indirect criticism of him among the "headless chickens" after an England match in Poland.

Ince looks certain to be named on Tuesday in the England squad for the match against Colombia in 10 days' time, but the self-styled "guv'nor" is now merely a name among those competing for the central midfield slot behind David Platt, Paul Gascoigne - and possibly Aston Villa's Mark Draper, who is likely to get a call-up.

That, along with his spring of tribulation and summer of disruption, may be enough to galvanise Ince's pride anew into that assertiveness he brought to Manchester United not long ago. From today he will begin answering the question of whether he can conform to more sophisticated European expectations of quality.

Life and times

Born: Ilford, 27 October 1967

Club career: Trainee at West Ham, made debut as substitute in 4-0 defeat at Newcastle on 30 November 1986. Scored seven goals in 72 appearances for the Upton Park side. Signed by Manchester United for pounds 1.5m in September 1989. Failed to score in the League in his first season at Old Trafford. Scored 24 goals in 206 games for Manchester United. Signed for Internazionale in the close season for pounds 6m. Makes his debut today.

International career: 16 caps. Made his debut in 1-0 defeat by Spain in September 1992. Became first black player to captain England in 2-0 defeat by the United States in Boston in June 1993.

Career high point: Winning the double with Manchester United in 1993- 94 season.

Career low point: Returning to play West Ham at Upton Park for the first time, in February 1994, and being booed throughout the game by his former fans.