Football: Flawed captain faces cost of being caustic

Norman Fox argues that Liverpool's abrasive leader needs class assistance
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The Independent Online
SUGGESTIONS that first among the critics of Paul Ince's continuing bad behaviour should be his employers, Liverpool, not only fly in the face of reality but miss the main point: the reason why the club bought him in the first place and why they are unlikely to curb his boorishness either on the field or in the dressing room.

Ince was obtained by Liverpool from Internazionale for pounds 4.2m and by Inter from Manchester United for pounds 7m and by United from West Ham for pounds 1.8m largely because of his caustic nature, not in spite of it. To understand why Liverpool particularly felt they needed him requires nothing more than a glance at the rest of the present team and the under-achieving club he joined last year.

In the years since the club dominated domestic and European football, they have often been lacking in that physical persuasiveness that in the past Tommy Smith, then Graeme Souness, supplied in full, intimidating measure. Before the arrival of Ince, only Steve McMahon had come near to providing Liverpool's pretty, neat passing team with the core of ruthless ball-winning which was so important to the success of the Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley sides.

Souness, McMahon and Ince are first-out-of-the-trenches men, though McMahon and Souness undoubtedly benefited from the fact that in the past so many referees had the "pat 'em on the backside" attitude to discipline. While Ince deserves all the disciplining he gets, his similar pugnacity has referees fingering the yellow card as soon as his name appears on the team-sheet.

The particular problem Liverpool have brought on themselves is making him captain. Captaincy assumes a strong sense of responsibility. Ince interprets that responsibility as a licence to intervene when others would stand back, as he did yet again in Valencia on Tuesday. The club appointed him for the simple reason that no one else could be such an inspiring bully. Judged purely as a constructive midfield player, he has probably always been over-priced, but that was not Liverpool's concern. Their subsequent fault, and one that even the astute Gerard Houllier seems not to have recognised, was the need to provide Ince with a truly imaginative midfield partner of world class.

When Ince comes over as arrogant and defiant in the face of criticism, with his "that's what I'm paid for" attitude, he may fall far below the standards schoolteachers would expect of a player who is supposed to be an icon for youth, but he is saying what he expects his employers want to hear. Having bought him mainly for his belligerent leadership, the chances of Liverpool asking him to make humble apologies for his actions are, to say the least, remote. Additionally, as captain, he seems to believe that any trouble involving other members of the team immediately becomes his problem. Misconceived, no doubt, but that is exactly the way he sees the duties of a captain.

For Roy Evans and England's Glenn Hoddle, Ince's value as a player is something that those of us who are less than sold on his ability possibly fail to appreciate. Hoddle explained: "When he goes forward with the ball, you know that things are going to happen. When he gets into the penalty area the opponents never know what is going to happen. He makes goals and gets penalties." Gets penalties! Again, why should Ince stop doing something that is against the spirit of the game when the England coach seems to be encouraging a cheap form of advantage?

Ince himself says Hoddle's interpretation of his talent for "getting things going" confirms his own opinion of himself. "I got that at Manchester United - determination, aggressiveness. I believe in myself as a leader - every team has got to have a leader." He fostered that during his spell in Italy which began unpromisingly and saw him brave much venomous racial abuse. Because he won over the Italian crowds after being critical of their intolerance, other black players benefited from an improved atmosphere.

To understand why colleagues and coaches value him so highly, you also need to know how much his hollering, gesticulating and physical involvement rubs off on younger, would-be leaders. Nicky Butt, at United, freely admits that his own toughness (which also sometimes becomes irresponsible) came about largely because he felt the full impact of Ince's motivation.

Ince accepts that a difficult childhood left him with a chip on his shoulder which made it difficult for him to accept authority. Over the years he has spoken of how much calmer and self-disciplined he thinks he has become. But would any of his clubs or England have made him the guv'nor (as he calls himself) if he had been sweet -natured? Unlikely.