Football: Ince finds time and temper running short

Recent events suggest the legendary influence of `the guv'nor' may be on the wane. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
IN A television advertisement coinciding with France 98, two African tribesmen discussed the England team comparing players to animals and Paul Ince was a lion leaping on the back of a fleeing wildebeest. The message was simple: if it moved, "the guv'nor" would pounce.

Six months on and the image of the lion is still valid because the roar remains. But a true portrayal now would see the pursued escape and, shamed by his failure, the pursuer would noisily slink off to sulk, cuffing a fellow member of the pride as he went.

You do not need to study Ince's disciplinary record this season, dreadful though it is, to appreciate he is in decline. Just look at a video of him when he played for Manchester United and then compare it to the way he performs for Liverpool. The difference is stark.

At Old Trafford he snarled and pouted, but there was substance behind that prickly attitude, as he was guv'nor by deed as well as nickname. He tackled, he ran, he subdued opponents by energy and sheer force of will. At Anfield the bite is still there, but the zest has gone, and as that declines his posturing increasingly becomes, like the smile of the Cheshire cat, the last remnant of former grandeur.

On Six-O-Six last weekend one Liverpool supporter described Ince as "a bluffer" which, for a man who once was respected by midfields all over Europe, is an unhappy label. Roy Evans bought him for pounds 2m from Internazionale to give his skilled but lightweight team presence and although he undoubtedly brought that last season, the benefit is losing poundage by the week.

The suspicion is that Ince, now 31, knows it too. At his age he would not expect to surge into penalty areas with the vigour of old, but he is a split second later into tackles too, which is yielding yellow cards and frustration in a deeply proud man.

His record this season carries the trademark of someone who is angry that his powers are diminishing. He has made the tackles that got him sent off playing for England against Sweden before - and few people thought he was unlucky to be dismissed - but his reaction afterwards was unusual. To bad-mouth the Italian referee, Pierluigi Collini, was bad enough but to aim a V-sign at someone yet to be identified was worse.

Since then he has clashed with his England team-mate, Graeme Le Saux, in the Anfield tunnel and on Tuesday he marred an otherwise splendid result by Liverpool in Spain by being dismissed along with Steve McManaman, after being dragged away by Jason McAteer and Steve Staunton from Valencia's Amedeo Carboni.

It is a spiral of misbehaviour that would have had social workers trying to locate and douse an inner fury as part of an adolescent's programme of punishment and rehabilitation. Ince was unrepentant yesterday, however, even though this season has brought a three-match England ban for the incident in Stockholm and he faces a misconduct charge brought by the Football Association.

"That's me, that's what I'm like," he said. "If people don't like it there's nothing I can do about it now."

Liverpool might wish otherwise because Ince will have to face another Uefa disciplinary committee, where a three-match ban is the minimum punishment he can expect. He had already received his second caution in the competition earlier on Tuesday evening and would have had been suspended in any case even if he had not gone on to turn yellow into red.

"I will just wait to see what the referee's report says because all I was doing was trying to stop trouble," he said. "I got a straight red card, there was no yellow first, so I don't really know what that means.

"The most important thing is that Liverpool are through to the next round, not whether I'll be playing. We're carrying the flag for the rest of Britain in this competition now the rest have been knocked out."

The chances of Ince hoisting that standard are remote because he is unlikely to be able to rejoin the Uefa Cup campaign until the semi-finals, if Liverpool get that far (and there was not much evidence against Valencia to suggest they will), and the ban could easily extend into next season, by which time Ince's age will be an even bigger factor.

There are doubts about whether he will increase his 44 caps when he becomes available for England again and it is not inconceivable he has played his last European club match which, for a player who has been competing for honours since he moved to Old Trafford in 1989, will come as a significant blow.

In September Alex Ferguson, his former Manchester United manager, described Ince as a "big-time Charlie". The sad thing for him is that "big time" might not be apposite any more.