Football: Ince the enforcer determined to play out his final summer in France

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The Independent Online
Paul Ince's experience of playing in Italy could prove hugely influential for England in Saturday's World Cup qualifier. Mike Rowbottom hears how `The Guv'nor' hopes to rule in Rome.

Glenn Hoddle will not have it that the match against Italy represents the last chance for England players such as Paul Ince to sample what he refers to as the "creme de la creme" - the World Cup finals.

England's coach pointed out the fact yesterday that Franco Baresi played in the last World Cup final for Italy at 36. "If you are good enough at 18 or 36 you have got a chance in my squad," he said.

Encouraging sentiments for Ince, who turns 30 on 21 October. But he is not wholly convinced. "For me and a few others this is probably the last chance of playing in the World Cup finals," he said. "It's a big, big game that I want to win."

"The Guv'nor", as he has come to be known in a career that has taken him from West Ham to Manchester United to Internazionale to Liverpool, knows what it feels like to fail at this stage of the competition.

He was a member of the England side who missed qualifying for the 1994 finals when they lost 2-0 to the Netherlands in Rotterdam.

"It was a big disappointment to get beaten by Holland," he said. "But at the back of my mind I thought maybe I would be in the same situation in four years' time. And now here we are."

Ince's combative, assuring presence in front of the defence is likely to be one of the most influential factors in England carrying out Hoddle's stated aim of settling to play as naturally as possible.

That will not be an easy proposition in front of a partisan 80,000 crowd, but the prospect does not faze a player who has come through barrages of Italian abuse - some of it racist - in his time.

His two years abroad was also sufficient for him to absorb the Italian way of footballing life, with all its smoothness and roughness.

"I know the Italian mentality," he said. "If they can stop a player like Gazza in our half rather than theirs, they will.

"When I was at Milan, the coach, Ottavio Bianchi, said to me `If you don't get the ball, get the player - and do it further up their part of the field than ours.'

"He didn't mean take him out with a two-footed tackle. Nothing malicious like that. Just something like blocking. The little tricks."

Ince knows his reception is likely to be predominantly hostile, but he faces the prospect with the easy confidence he demonstrated 11 days ago at Upton Park, when he laughed off the unrelenting boos and catcalls of a West Ham crowd still resentful at the manner of his departure eight years ago.

That confidence has been underpinned by experience. He was a success in Italy, where other Brits have failed. And he now has a more secure position in the national side than he had under the previous manager, Terry Venables, who dropped him for a year after Ince had pulled out of the Umbro Cup squad in the summer of 1995.

Although Ince fitted back into the national side, he found it more difficult when he returned from Inter to play for Liverpool this season.

"It took me quite a while to adjust to the pace," he said. "In Italy it's like, slow, slow, slow then quick in the final quarter. In English football it's quick, quick, quicker, quicker."

The pace of his life may be frenetic, but Ince is now steadying himself before one of the highest hurdles in his career.

"We have got to go out and do the business in Rome," he said. "We had a good chance against Holland. We had a chance against Germany in Euro 96. Now we have another chance - and I think we are stronger and better equipped this time.

"When we beat Italy in the Tournoi, we had changed a lot of our squad but they were only missing Maldini, and we were comfortable.

"They got beat and that hurt them. You can't forget that. That will be in their minds and it will be in ours."