Football: Ince bringing home the style

Ian Ridley hears the thoughts of a leader who has added sophistication to inner steel

One Englishman, at least, made a European final last week and after achieving that, Paul Ince returned to London, where his wife Claire gave birth to their son Daniel on Thursday. If good fortune comes in threes, then England are in for an equally productive evening against Georgia at Wembley on Wednesday.

Ince and Internazionale of Milan reached the final of the Uefa Cup on Tuesday by avoiding a two-goal defeat in Monaco but ironically his best spell with Inter is coinciding with what looks like the end of his career with them, as they challenge, too, for the runners-up spot in Serie A that will give them a shot at the Champions' League.

It will make it hard to let him go, the Inter president Massimo Moratti said after Ince had played "like an angel" at Cagliari last week. Ince himself says such considerations, allied to the knowledge that he could profit hugely by a post-Bosman transfer in a year's time, have made it a desperately difficult decision whether to return to England.

It is one he has made, he says, but he is unwilling to volunteer what it is so as not to rock a happy boat until after the final. Still, it seems certain that he will return, probably with a club in his native London, quite possibly Arsenal. "It's not because I don't like playing for Inter," Ince insisted. "It's not a football decision. It's solely a family decision." Racial abuse and threats, now happily subsiding, have clearly been a factor, along with the impending departure of Roy Hodgson to coach Blackburn Rovers.

The new club is likely to benefit from Inter's achievement in taking the rough edges from both his personality and his game. Though he will be 30 in October, there seems no slowing yet of the combative tackler. Indeed Italian football may have extended his career with more care over diet and preparation, less reckless rushing around.

"At Manchester United I used to be careless," he admitted. "I went flying in, didn't stay on my feet. Playing in Italy is very technical and you can't afford to keep diving in. I have worked at staying up and that's added a lot to my game."

Not that the spiky ball-winner is no more. "I've not changed in that way. It's still a big part of my game," he said. "I still like being involved in the frantic parts of the game. It's just that now I can say 'hang about, stop and think about it'."

"The thing about Paul is that he knows he is an international player, he's got that inner assurance," Glenn Hoddle said. "He has added to his talents by going abroad and taking on the challenge. He's not as hot- headed as at West Ham and the early part of his career with Manchester United. He's still going to get booked because his game is about winning balls and you are going to mistime some tackles but his main asset is that he's a winner."

It seems unlikely that Ince will retain the captaincy with Alan Shearer and Tony Adams fit again after injury but a coach reluctant to give any guidance on team selection pre-match is certain to call on his leadership. "He's the first one you would want on your side," Hoddle said.

Under Hoddle, Ince has had more licence to go forward from midfield, creating a goal in the first match in Moldova and winning the penalty, albeit a dubious one, in last month's friendly against Mexico. "I saw it even in Euro 96 when he was in the anchor role," the England coach added. "He makes things happen when he goes into the box. He is infectious. If he can add goals to his game, he could end up as the complete player. In the modern game now, players like Paul Ince are invaluable."

Ince, who has responded with seven goals this season for Inter, has appreciated the presence of David Batty as a holding player. "I don't want to be classed as just an anchor man," he said. "I like to go forward too. It's just that I have always played alongside attacking players, like Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne.

"Glenn has told me to pick my time, not to keep going all the time but when I see the space. I have always felt I could do more. I never used to come off sweating, now I feel like I do."

Ince has never appeared to lack swagger or self-confidence but it has at times been a front. "Sometimes English players are in awe of foreign players and I suppose I was when I went to Inter. I think I was seen as not a skilful player, just one who got his foot in. Now it's not a problem for me. I have played against the best in Italy and Europe and I am not worried about them."

He has come, too, to appreciate the virtue of patience. "In England it's a cavalier thing, wanting to attack and score goals. With the Italians, they know when to go for it and when not to, as they showed against us. Their crowds are used to it." It is something England must remember against Georgia. "We can't keep attacking, attacking, attacking because we know they can counter."

It is unlikely that Ince will ever turn into a swan when his nature is that of the scorpion but it seems that all this self-styled "guv'nor" stuff has disappeared and he now appears a more rounded person.

And if he really has changed from the headless chicken that Graham Taylor once described in Poland, or from the indisciplined character sent off for United in a Champions' League game in Gothenburg - prompting Alex Ferguson to decide his time at Old Trafford was up - then England can at least be assured of a little continental influence to go with improving domestic talent this week.

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