From the moment, aged about six, he sent one of his mother’s precious pieces of porcelain smashing to the floor, Tom Ince has always known he had a good left foot. The question that has hung over him all summer is who he should use it for?
In a perfect world, the midfielder would continue to play for his father at Blackpool. This will be Paul Ince’s first full season managing at Bloomfield Road. His chances of surviving in a division where the life expectancy of a manager is 18 months would be immeasurably strengthened if Tom stuck with him. However, like all fathers, Paul (right, with Tom) wants what is best for his son and what is best for Tom probably does not involve staying at Blackpool.
“I have had long chats with dad, as manager and player and father and son,” said Tom. “He told me he has had his time as a footballer and he can look after himself at Blackpool. He wants me to play at the level he believes I can play at. I have proved I can handle myself in the Championship but I don’t want to go into the Premier League and struggle. I know there will be days when I am criticised and days when I am out of form. It’s a rocky road ahead and I want to cope like Ryan Giggs coped.”
Tom Ince is 21, the same age as another prodigiously talented young footballer, Matt Jansen, was when, 15 years ago, he chose to join Crystal Palace rather than Manchester United. It is a decision Jansen, who was playing for Carlisle at the time, admits he has “dwelled upon” in retirement.
Ince had been expected to sign for Cardiff City until he was seized by an instinct that joining the freshly promoted club might be an error. “For whatever reason when I went to Cardiff, I had a gut feeling that it wasn’t right. My family is in the north and I’d just become a dad.”
Paul Ince, the bloodied, head-bandaged hero who kept Italy at bay in Rome to take England to the 1998 World Cup is a grandfather at 45.
“When I told him he sat there with a very straight face but mum was all over the place, in tears,” said Tom. “When they came to the hospital, it was Stepping Hill in Stockport, which is the same one where I was born. It was very emotional.”
Halle Rae Ince was only a few days old when Paul and Tom arrived on the beautifully manicured artificial pitches at Cardinal Heenan School in Liverpool. The two are preparing their under-12 team for the Danone Nations Cup, a tournament involving school children from 32 countries who will contest the finals at Wembley in September.
It is appropriate they should be training here. Eton produces prime ministers, Holland Park Comprehensive actors and artists but Cardinal Heenan breeds professional footballers – eight at the last count including Steven Gerrard. Few will have had Tom’s education.
“I have been a lucky boy with my upbringing,” he said. “When dad was at Inter Milan we’d all go to the San Siro to see him play. We lived in a four-bedroomed apartment in the hills by Lake Como, not far from Bellagio. I went to an Italian school, learned the language and then lost most of it. Dad still loves speaking Italian, although mum’s a bit more reticent.
“She is the person who keeps the Ince family going, though I dread to think how much football she’s had to sit through. I remember flying around France with her and the other players’ wives during the 1998 World Cup. The game against Argentina sticks in my mind, their fans waving their scarves around their heads in the stands. Afterwards, dad introduced me to Javier Zanetti who he’d played with at Inter. As I said, I’ve been a lucky boy.”
When Tom flew home from Israel after last month’s European Under-21 Championship, the feelings were not of luck but of anger and frustration. From the Under-20 World Cup to the Women’s European Championship in Sweden, this has been a long, hot disastrous summer for England teams but Stuart Pearce’s side produced the worst performance of the lot. They lost every match.
“There was no wind out there. It was humid and dead sticky. We were sweating loads in the warm-up and I found myself catching my breath before we’d even begun because of the heat. Everything in Israel – the pitches, the heat – was a surprise but what was a shock was the way we played,” he said.
“I think the quality is there. It is difficult for young players to break through in the Premier League because there are so many foreign managers and they find it easier to bring their own players in. They tend to want the finished article rather than allowing youngsters to make mistakes. When my old man was playing for Manchester United, Alex Ferguson was able to take a gamble on young footballers like Ryan Giggs. That would be more difficult nowadays.
“There are signs that when young English players are given their opportunity they do repay you. The key for Jack Wilshere was going on loan to Bolton, playing week-in and week-out in front of thousands of fans. When you are not in the side or playing five minutes here, then 10 minutes there, you are no one.
“I was fortunate enough to have had nine years at Liverpool’s academy with a silver spoon in my mouth. New tracksuits, new set of boots, everything was on a plate. Then, I went on loan to Notts County and saw the real world, experienced players who work hard to put dinner on the table for their families.
“They wake up on a Saturday and put themselves on the line for three points and a win bonus. I decided there and then that this was the football I wanted to be part of and, although Liverpool offered me a four-year contract, I took a step back and thought that, if they were offering more reserve team football, I’d be better off elsewhere.
“It is not the sort of reserve-team football dad would have recognised, full of lads trying to break into the first team or win back their place. It is a youth development squad where you play in front of one man and his dog, get a pat on the back and it’s ‘see you tomorrow’. There is no motivation to win and I never regret moving to Blackpool. It made me the player I am.”
When Tom went to Bloomfield Road two years ago, Ian Holloway was his manager and there have been three more men he has called “gaffer” since, although the third has been the most surprising.
“After I’d finished training, I had a text from mum, saying: ‘Have you met your new manager yet?’ As I walked out of the training ground I ran into my old man. I asked what he was doing here and he told me he was my new manager. I said: ‘We need to go home and talk about this.’ It was an interesting conversation.
“We have a good relationship. Looking back, I never had the feeling that, if I didn’t make it, dad could always sort me out with a job. But, fair play to my parents, they never brought me up to think like that. He has been very dispassionate as my manager. It’s odd because he is a hard man to please but I love it when I do.”
Tom Ince was speaking on behalf of the Danone Nations Cup World Final, which will be taking place at Wembley Stadium on 7 September. Tickets are only £5 and can be purchased via www.ticketmaster.co.uk
Parental guidance: Other partnerships
John and Kevin Bond
Kevin played under his father at Bournemouth, Norwich and Manchester City.
Brian and Nigel Clough
Nigel flourished under his father, with 130 goals for Nottingham Forest between 1984-93.
Johan and Jordi Cruyff
Johan took his son from Ajax to Barcelona and gave him a debut in 1994.
Harry and Jamie Redknapp
Jamie started and finished his career under dad Harry, from Bournemouth in 1989 to Southampton in 2005.
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