Football / Coca-Cola Cup Final: Natural stamp of high class: United's driving force is just as fearsome with his mouth as his feet. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
A pedant could pinpoint the difference but to the rest it was not an easy argument to follow. 'Yes, United are moaners,' Paul Ince agreed, but 'definitely not whingers'.

The man should know. At a time when Manchester United's shining image of a month ago has been disfigured by accusations of over-robust use of foot and mouth, his features epitomise the abrasive side of the team. Ryan Giggs is the smile on the face of the champions, Ince the snarl.

Some of his tackles would make Nobby Stiles wince while any perceived slight from officialdom and he is there, his eyes blazing with indignation, his mouth uttering curses. The man could moan for England, which is what he does of course. Ince the mouth is also Ince the near-complete midfield player for club and country and wouldn't Ron Atkinson love to have him playing for instead of against Aston Villa at Wembley tomorrow?

The Coca-Cola Cup final has arrived with United being pilloried for lack of discipline. Talk of the treble has been overshadowed the propsect of Eric Cantona going for a hat-trick of his own: in dismissals. Fingers have been pointed, too, at Ince and Roy Keane, whose robust play in midfield has been matched with an equal determination to have their say.

'People are jumping on a bandwagon,' Ince said. 'Of course you're going to moan. I moan. In every side there's got to be someone someone who does it. It motivates yourself and gees up the other players.

'If you watch every team there will be one player going 'come on ref', it doesn't matter what standard you're playing at. But people see me and Keaney on the television and they think 'those two are off again'. Because we're Man United the attention is on us. It's part of the price you pay for being at the club.'

There is also a price being exacted due to the attention of referees. Cantona will miss five matches through suspension while Keane's bookings have forced him out of the FA Cup semi-final against Oldham. Ince, himself, is only a yellow card away from an unwelcome rest.

It is a list that does not make edifying reading but one that Ince believes is inevitable. 'If you play in midfield,' he argues, 'of course you make bad tackles sometimes. It's the engine room, it's where it all happens. But I don't go out to injure someone deliberately, that's not my style. You have to stamp your mark, put your foot in and sometimes you're going to mistime things.'

In his favour, Ince has probably done more than anyone at Old Trafford to improve his image. The spoiled brat who would run with more enthusiasm to row with an opponent than he ever would for the ball has mellowed. He may still perpetrate some horrendous tackles - the high hack on Arsenals's Ian Selley on Tuesday being a perfect example - but the hot-head has cooled to the point where he captained England last summer.

'It was getting older, growing up,' he explained. 'Having a family helps because it means you've more responsibility. There's more to life than just football.

'Captaining my country made a big difference too. I never thought I'd get there and if I did it would be much later in my career. To get it so early proved that Graham Taylor thought I had the maturity to lead out big players such as Ian Wright.'

His maturity is reflected in his play too. Others may be the eye- catchers in United's ranks but Ince is the ball-winning fulcrum of the side; a stopper who also starts many of United's best moments. 'His work gives me the space to create,' Eric Cantona said.

'What he is now realising is an appreciation of all his natural talent,' Alex Ferguson says of the 25 year old he bought from West Ham for pounds 1.5m four and half years ago. 'He was a runner with the ball when he first came here, now he's a passer. His vision has grown.'

His expectations for the season have expanded as well. Talk of the treble and he will whisper the word with a 'don't mention it' smile on his face but the prospect is getting nearer and therefore more tangible 'I think if we can get past Villa then we'll have a great chance of doing it,' he said. 'They're a good side who've caused us problems before and if they're on their top form it's going to be very difficult for us.

'But Wembley is a big pitch and I think in the last 20 minutes that could tell. You get a lot of space at Wembley - you can spray it about a bit. I think our wingers should make the difference.'

Ferguson would probably pinpoint Ince as the potential difference. When United met Charlton last month he was all for resting him to ensure he did not pick up the extra booking that would have forced him out of tomorrow's match. It was a futile gesture.' It would have been easier to tell the wife to stop shopping,' the United manager said ruefully.

(Photograph omitted)

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