Dons eye promotion as Ince aims to keep rising

MK franchise finally make name for themselves with help from man who's gone from guv'nor to gaffer. Ronald Atkin reports
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The Independent Football

They have been installing the central heating at the raw, new Stadium MK over the past few days, but there seems no need to bother in the home dressing room. The team are blowing hot of their own accord, with Paul Ince stoking the furnace as MK Dons go charging on at the top of League Two, their run of nine wins in a row ended by yesterday's home loss to Stockport.

Now that the furore over Wimbledon's franchise being transferred to Milton Keynes has subsided, the Dons can set about making a name in their own right, doing it from the lowest of the divisions, League Two. How appropriate that Ince, who was 40 exactly a week ago, has opted to go about management in the same fashion, from the bottom.

When a distinguished playing career with West Ham, Manchester United, Internazionale, Liverpool and Middlesbrough effectively finished at Wolves at the end of last season, Ince applied for the vacant manager's job at Molineux.

"It was a job I felt I should have got," he said after a training session at Stadium MK with the clang and whirr of construction in the background. "The fans wanted me, the players and staff wanted me. But for some reason Jack Hayward [the then owner]decided no.

"I don't hold a grudge about that, but it was a knockback that told me I would have to go the long route to get where I wantedto [in management]."

Ince got his wish just a year ago when he took over as manager of Macclesfield Town, rock bottom of League Two. "There are not many who have achieved what I have in my career who would have done it, I had so many calls telling me I was bananas to take the job," he smiled. "But I thought if I could get them to stay in the League I would be gaining points asa manager."

Ince managed it, in the very last game, but by the start of this season had been snaffled for the Dons by chairman Pete Winkelman. "My job had been to keep Macclesfield up and I did that. If I had stayed another year, stability would have been the best I could do. At this club I feel we have a great chance of getting promoted."

It is already looking thatway. Ince certainly cannot remember being involved with such a winning run – "except perhaps in the playground back at school".

So he must be happy? "No, not really," he insisted. "If this is where we are going to be at the end of the season, that will make me happy. I don't get carried away with stats and records, they don't mean anything to me. What matters is that this club gets where it belongs, and that is going to take time. What I am happy with is the performances, the spirit among the lads. There are no bad eggs, which is important."

Ince, who has a two-year contract, cheerfully acknowledges: "This is another step up the ladder." Stadium MK, which will be officially opened by the Queen on 29 November, can now accommodate 21,000 and will be extended to a 32,000 capacity within two more seasons, when the team could conceivably be in the Championship if they carry on atthis rate.

Among the managers he played for, Ince identifies the late John Lyall at West Ham and Sir Alex Ferguson as the ones he most respected and who have been the biggest influences on his own attitude. "Lyall was the main man for me, a father figure. He is always on my mind. If things happen, I say to myself,what would John Lyall do? That's how much I think of the bloke. Alex Ferguson gave me high principles and high standards. I worked with him for six years and those standards will stay with me now wherever I go. People who have become good managers, like Mark Hughes, Roy Keane and Steve Bruce, all played under him. It shows we have learned."

At Old Trafford, Ince was known as "the guv'nor". Now, as the gaffer, he is assiduously applying those principles. "I treat the players like my family. You have to recognise problems off the pitch, as well as on it. If there is a problem, whatever it may be, I want to know about it."

One problem Ince is regularly forced to address is the dearth of black managers in the Football League. "When I captained England for the first time someone told me I was the first black captain, but I said I never looked at it like that, I never looked at the colour of people's skins. But I want to be a figurehead for the likes of Sol Campbell and Andy Cole who, when they come out of the game, ought to go into management.

"I am here to show that if you are good at your job it should not be a problem what colour you are. I have to make sure the likes of Sol and Andy look at me and say, 'If Incie can do it, I want to do it'.

And if they are also prepared to start at the bottom they will, like Incie, be the better for it.