Football: Paul Ince - Manchester United

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Boxing Day and Alex Ferguson was totting up the knocks that would restrict his team during the Christmas programme. 'We're covered in most positions,' he said, 'but any injury to Paul Ince is a concern. He's very important to Manchester United.'

It was a statement accepted without rancour then but one which would have appeared facile a few months earlier. Even last season Ince was a bit player, a talent operating round the edges of a match and one who never threatened, in Alfredo Di Stefano's words, to let it flow through him.

He had looked so ill at ease in midfield that United had to play him at right-back initially and were sufficiently disappointed last season to substitute him nine times. Not all were the result of injury. Signed as the successor to Bryan Robson, Ince looked destined to become a not altogether convincing accessory to the United captain rather than his eventual replacement at club and international level.

Indeed it was significant that, for all England's ailments in the European Championship finals last summer, Ince's name was hardly every mentioned as a potential remedy. Too temperamental was the consensus, a player whose enthusiasm for arguing with referees and opponents seemed stronger than his desire for the ball. 'He's like a spoilt kid,' one opponent put it.

Since Ferguson's Christmas appraisal of Ince, however, the 25- year-old's relevance to his club's championship challenge has magnified rather than diminished. He has become the fulcrum around which a team rich in talent but suspect in backbone revolves. Not merely a winner of the ball, he uses it well enough to make his description in an England context as 'Gazza's minder' a damnation by insufficient praise. Perhaps the long-term injury to Robson has made Ince realise his responsibilities. Certainly he could make a claim to be the most improved player in the Premier Division.

Ferguson, who signed Ince from West Ham for pounds 1.5m, is at a loss to explain it. 'He's young,' he said, 'a likeable and volatile person who found it difficult to take his personality on to the park. Now he's emerging as a player of standing. I feel we shall see him emerge as a top Manchester United player over the next few years.'

A reason could be Ince's adjusting to leaving a club he described as 'my family'. Abandoned by his parents by the time he was eight, the unstable domestic aftermath left him open to undesirable influences in London's East End and he says he would probably have been tempted by crime but for football. 'If John Lyall was still at West Ham, I'd still be there,' he says of the former Hammers manager.

Lyall left and Ince soon followed, ensuring an unpleasant reception at Upton Park for the rest of his career by appearing in United's colours in a newspaper before the transfer was complete.

'If you consider the pride of West Ham it was the worst thing Paul could have done,' Ferguson wrote in Six Years At United. 'It caused us embarrassment because at that point we had not even spoken to the player.'

There is no embarrassment now. Ince is fully settled at the club he supported as a boy - Gordon Hill was his idol - and his performances this season have been so commanding United have been able to adjust painlessly to the absence of Robson for all but three full matches this season. Bobby Gould, the Coventry manager, was so impressed when his side played at Old Trafford that he shook Ince by the hand as he left the field.

'One second he was attacking our goal, the next he was making a tackle in his own penalty box,' Gould said. 'He was phenomenal. Awesome. Whatever Alex Ferguson is saying to him he should listen to every word and every sentence.'

At the moment Ferguson can only praise and he is not alone. In Aston Villa's programme on Wednesday the Villa votes for the PFA player of the year were revealed. Ince, with six, had most.

(Photograph omitted)

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