Football: Inspirational Ince ready for action

England's midfield general says there is more to his game than tough tackling.
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The Independent Online
WHILE Paul Scholes and Alan Shearer grabbed all the headlines following England's 2-0 victory over Tunisia in Marseilles last Monday, the foundation for their success had been laid further back in the heart of midfield. Paul Ince, the self-styled "Guvnor" winning his 40th cap, set the example for others to follow with a display that was as aggressive and wholehearted as any game he has played for his country.

His tenacious tackling, allied to a high-class all-round game, has elevated the former West Ham and Manchester United player to a position of credibility in the world game, especially since his spell with Internazionale where he won the hearts of the Milanese fans before returning to England as the Liverpool captain. Indeed, when seasoned observers compare the current England side with the World Cup winners of 1966, they point to a lack of world-class players, but there are few, if any, more effective defensive midfield players than Ince playing for any team in the tournament.

"I think I've improved technically as a player since I've been to Italy," Ince explained yesterday, in a very good-humoured interview at England's training camp in La Baule. "Before I was a bit raw. Also the older you get, the more experienced you get and I think that helps a player. You learn to conserve your energy, you know when to go for a ball and when not to, instead of running around like a lunatic - sorry, headless chicken."

Ince's partnership with Paul Gascoigne in midfield was one of the more fruitful international liaisons of recent times - England only lost once in 18 games they started together - but, with Gascoigne gone, Ince is forging a new double act, albeit of a slightly different nature, with Newcastle United's David Batty.

"I think we're starting to blossom as a partnership and I don't think we get the credit we deserve," Ince said. "People always look at the flair players and the goalscorers, but as far as far as I'm concerned we do a very good job in there. All the chasing and harrying puts their players under pressure and gives us a chance to get the ball to Scholes or Becks or whoever's playing."

Some would say playing both Ince and Batty is at times too negative, as their roles duplicate one another but Ince refutes that. "I wouldn't say we're similar styles," he said. "I like to get forward a lot more. It's only the fact that I've spent most of my career as a holding player that people say we're similar. Last year I got 10 goals in Serie A and this year I scored eight goals in the Premiership so I think we're different in that way. But for England we've just got a job to hold and protect our back four."

Ince's proudest moment in an England shirt was undoubtedly captaining them to a goalless draw in the absence of Alan Shearer in the decisive World Cup qualifier in Rome last October, and although Shearer wears the armband when fit there is no doubt Ince i s a natural leader.

"On the field I'm a nasty person," he said. "I'm really, really horrible because I want to win so badly and I slaughter the lads all the time. If someone's not up to scratch I'll tell them. If I make a mistake I'll say sorry but I do go off my trolley when I'm out on the pitch and for that 90 minutes I make sure everyone's doing the right thing. I think you need people like that. Probably Tony Adams does it in a calmer way, I do it in a more ferocious way. It keeps players on their toes."

His aggressive style inevitably made Ince a focus of special attention when Fifa's new guidelines regarding foul play were first published. "Glenn had a chat with me and said it was important to stay on your feet, which wasn't a problem as far as I was concerned. I'm a hard tackler but I'm a fair tackler. I think the problem could be if you're getting beat 2- 0, the game's slipping away or someone does one of your team-mates with a bad tackle, then you might go for it. It can happen. But if the game's going the way you want it to go, I can't see any of our lads getting sent off.

"I don't think my game's just about tackling though," Ince added, but whether he likes it or not it will always be his tackling which sets him apart. "I like to set the tone of the game," he said, "and in order to do that you want to get a tackle in as early as possible to get everyone pumped up. It's happened at Liverpool a few times when we've been struggling, then someone gets a crunching tackle in and it lifts everyone else. I think it's a very important part of the game."

Nobody in their right mind is going to argue with that and England will be hoping that the Romanians are suitably impressed when the teams meet in Toulouse on Monday night.