Tom Ince was a completely unknown quantity when he left Liverpool to join the somewhat depleted ship at Blackpool last summer. The Seasiders were suffering from a hideous Premier League hangover that had engulfed the club after they lost some of the talents who had lit up the top flight. And so, when untried Ince,now 20, turned up at Bloomfield Road, there were serious questions as to what the ambitions of the club actually were.
This was a winger who had made just one senior appearance at Anfield, coming on as an extra-time substitute during the Carling Cup defeat against Northampton Town. How was he going to help fill the void left by Charlie Adam, DJ Campbell and David Vaughan? Was this just a lazy signing, given Tom's surname, aimed to excite the easily pleased?
But now, as Blackpool prepare for their second Championship play-off final in three seasons, Ince has been rapidly moulded into one of the most thrilling products in the Football League. His speed, composure and intelligence on the ball dispelled the worries almost immediately.
"I was at Liverpool for eight years and that was a very long time as a kid. I could have stayed at Liverpool for three more years, but I felt the time was right to play in the real world," Ince said. "Fortunately a club like Blackpool have given me that opportunity. They have made me feel welcome and given me the opportunity."
It was three days after Blackpool had been mauled 4-0 away at tomorrow's opponents West Ham United when Ince really made his mark. On a treacherously windy October Tuesday night, with the home crowd growing restless at being behind against lowly Doncaster Rovers, Ince came off the bench to score twice, including a last-minute winner. Modest as ever, Ince was quick to heap praise on his manager, Ian Holloway.
"The gaffer has been fantastic for me all season," Ince said. "I maybe thought I could walk in at the start of the season, but he has eased me in well. As a young player, you can't be impatient. I'm just happy to be part of this environment and to play as many games as I have this season."
The label that simply will not peel off is of being his father's son, but it doesn't faze him. "I have never taken things for granted and thought I can just walk into things because of who my dad is. Throughout my career, I have been labelled 'son of Paul' and you have to accept that," he said. "I'm going my own way in the game. I've got a long way to go and this week is part of that."
Although there is added pressure and expectancy to deal with, the upbringing Ince has been afforded – specifically the experience of spending two years in Milan, and watching his dad play for Internazionale – gives him a maturity and eloquence not befitting his years. He can also lean on the critical but supportive Ince Snr, who flew back from a trip to Abu Dhabi this week for the game at Wembley.
"After a game on a Saturday, my dad will tell me what I need to work on. You can only learn from a player and he hasn't done bad in his career," Tom said. "I went to all the games at France '98. I will always treasure that in my mind and hopefully one day it will be me."
There is added spice in that Paul started his career with tomorrow's opponents (below) and has never been forgiven by a section of their support for leaving for Manchester United. However, Ince Jnr remains calm about the task ahead: "We're underdogs and we slip under the radar. A lot of people thought Birmingham would turn us over and we deservedly won that one. We've now got another crack at West Ham, who have beaten us easily twice this season. It's a one-off."
If Blackpool succeed at Wembley, the introduction of Ince to the Premier League will be eminently refreshing. There are a lack of clichés, no pretence and heaps of hard work from a winger who could quite easily have sat back and enjoyed the lifestyle of being the former England captain's son. Maybe in a decade's time, Paul will be known as Tom Ince's dad.