Tom Ince interview: ‘It would be a dream to play for Manchester United one day’

Tom Ince first kicked a ball at Old Trafford as a toddler but, as he tells Ian Herbert, it is his enduring relationship with Ryan Giggs that makes FA Cup clash so special

It was in the players’ lounge at Old Trafford that toddlers Kasper Schmeichel, Alex Bruce and Tom Ince enjoyed their first football kickabouts – none of them old enough to know that, outside on the pitch, their fathers were together creating the beginnings of something extraordinary for Manchester United, though they seemed to have a hint of where their own paths might lead, even then. Young Schmeichel played as goalkeeper, says Ince, who will happily take the credit for what has come to pass for the player at Leicester City. “That one is down to me! Putting a few in the top corner, so he knows! So he’s ready!” 

Yet beyond the archive videos of those childhood days, which he has been reminded of this week, there’s a bond between Ince and his father Paul’s old team which creates a resonance about his Derby County side facing United in the FA Cup.

Though Steve Bruce was the man who hired the young Ince – and later dropped him – Ryan Giggs is the one who has become a sounding board for his hopes and fears through his complicated, sometimes difficult, formative years in football. Giggs was even closer to Paul Ince than Nicky Butt, his great partner in wind-ups in their younger days, and after the two roomed together, wore “daft suits” together, as Sir Alex Ferguson recalls, and became best friends, Giggs was the Ince family’s lodger for six months. Giggs remembers the “massive place” the Inces had in Bramhall, south Manchester, playing snooker on the table Ince had installed, Mrs Claire Ince’s cooking – “endured with a grateful smile” – and occasional trips to the Coco Savannas nightclub in Stockport. 

It was from the roots of this friendship that Giggs has become a mentor to the child, newborn and known to him as “Thomas” at the time when he used the spare room. Though the benefits of having a father who has delivered for United, Liverpool and Internazionale are so abundant that Ince is one of the rare players who does not have an agent, or feel he requires one, the old man’s intensity creates a need for a gentler kind of counsel at times. Giggs has become that individual. 

“He’s someone I can speak to, other than hearing my dad’s voice,” says Ince, settling into a seat in one of the meeting rooms behind the main entrance at Derby’s iPro Stadium, having closed the door on the feverish preparations to face Louis van Gaal’s team going on behind it. “It’s hard because my dad is constantly on me because he wants the best for me. Sometimes it is nice to hear, too, from someone who is a neutral and knows how good I can be…”

Ince Snr is shrewd enough to know this, too. His son thinks deeply about where he ought to be, has appeared in the colours of five clubs in the last two years, and suffered some personal agonies, having ended a loan spell at Crystal Palace to take a shot at the Premier League  with Bruce’s Hull City, yet struggled to make headway there. He felt “bashed from pillar to post,” last winter, he says, and his father’s advice was: “Instead of me telling you, why not go to Ryan?” 

And the wisdom Giggs dispensed was to stay true to the kind of player you are. “You should never change your game for anyone,” is what Ince says Giggs told him. “You are who you are and you play the way you do. That one person will see it …  what you do is what people believe in.” Ince sees that now. “Managers are funny, they have different opinions. Some will think you are great and some will think ‘he is not for me’. You can get caught up in changing your style of play and change your identity as a player.”

He and Giggs have shared a Premier League football field for precisely five minutes – the period of time between the then 40-year-old arriving as a substitute and Ince being withdrawn, late in Palace’s 2-0 defeat to David Moyes’ United in February 2014. It is that final stride to become an established top-flight player, mixing it with United, City, Chelsea and Arsenal – the last of whom he supports for a slightly unfathomable reason which he thinks is subliminally linked to Thierry Henry – which has become the difficult part. He has never been afraid to strike out, leaving Liverpool in 2011, for example, at a time when there was an influx of foreigners and he felt there was no hope. He has certainly worn more tags than most: the new English prodigy as he flourished at Blackpool under the aegis of Ian Holloway, whom he clearly adored, and, of course, ‘son of Paul Ince.’ “It’s a heavy name to carry. It really is,” he says. 

Bruce Snr seemed to offer the golden ticket to national recognition when he persuaded Ince to join his efforts to guide Hull away from a second successive season fighting relegation, in 2014-15. “I thought the Premier League, the profile it was given, could help me represent England’s first team and accelerate me to the next levels – if I could make it there and show people what I could do,” Ince says. “Unfortunately for me, that didn’t work out. Steve played a 3-5-2 system and went back to more experienced players. That’s fine: you learn from it. Deep down, we could talk about it. My dad still speaks to him. So there’s no hate there at all.”

Derby seemed to offer a more natural home: two goals on his debut, 11 in 18 on loan last season, though the catastrophic finish to the season, when they missed out on the play-offs, extended the wait for top-flight football by another year. Ince’s five goals in December, as Derby led the Championship table at Christmas, offered renewed hope, though the fourth-round tie comes off the back of three defeats in four, with seven goals shipped in the  last two.

His father’s stories have given him a chastening sense of perspective, for all that. Paul Ince’s experience of being a young black player making his way at West Ham in the 1980s was tough and might have taken a different course had it not been for the quiet wisdom of the manager, John Lyall. “I remember him telling me the story of how he was at training one day and the police turned up at the gate,” Ince relates. “The police said: ‘Paul Ince has been in a bit of a scuffle last night’. Dad said he was panicking, and after that time he knew it was either this life or that life. John Lyall made him paint the training ground gates for a month. He had to come in at six in the morning and paint the gates black: every day, every morning. And he said from then on John Lyall took him under his wing and made him aware of the talent he had.”

No manager compared to Sir Alex Ferguson, though. “Dad said Sir Alex was by far the best,” Ince relates, though you sense that it is the presence of Giggs in the dugout which will ascribe the match with as great a significance as any in the 23-year-old’s young career. The Derby manager, Paul Clement, declared this week, without a shadow of a doubt, that Giggs – “the greatest-ever United player” – was the Manchester United player whose shirt he would most want to add to the collection which adorns his office. Ince would agree with that. “I have always based my game around Ryan and being an old-fashioned winger, so United has always been a club I have looked  at,” he says. “It would be a dream of mine to play for them one day.”

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