Ian Herbert: A failed gamble on a manager who lost his muscle

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The Independent Football

One of the first portents came on a night of biblical weather, against the club that had helped define him. After Manchester United, who had come to fear the physicality of Blackburn Rovers, rolled over them over in the rain nine weeks ago, Paul Ince declared that defeating them was impossible. "You can spend all week, as I have done, discussing tactics and personnel, but when a team is that good sometimes you can't do anything about it."

Those words of Ince's crystallised what had changed when one United legend succeeded another in charge at Ewood Park. Ince was irritated on the afternoon of his first home match to find his programme notes printed under the headline "The Guv'nor" and demanded that be changed to "The Gaffer", but by casting off his old suit he removed the uncompromising quality, manifest in Hughes, which Rovers chairman John Williams thought he was buying when he took a gamble and made Ince the Premier League's first black manager 17 weeks ago.

Aesthetics might never have been high on Hughes' agenda but the big teams always dreaded the journey to east Lancashire. Arsenal's 4-0 stroll at Ewood on 13 September looks even worse for Ince in the light of what we now know about Arsène Wenger's current side and Chelsea would have left Lancashire with a rugby score without the heroics of goalkeeper Paul Robinson. The capitulation at Wigan Athletic four days ago, where Ince was speechless and alone in his technical zone throughout the second half, reinforced the sense that the muscle had gone.

It had seemed so different on the season's opening afternoon when Blackburn won at Everton and were defeated only twice in the first eight games. But there were hints from the start of Ince's struggle to fashion the right spirit. On Rovers' pre-season tour of Portugal, to which the side flew via Germany, players were bemused when the manager, apparently seeking a rapport, invited them to take beers at the airport. Once at their final destination, Ince is understood to have joined his family at a villa while his players stayed at the team hotel.

While apparently removing the healthy distance that Hughes had always kept between himself and his squad – the decision to allow a team so adrift of safety their Christmas party in Dublin is one Hughes would not have tolerated – Ince did not appear to have been much involved in training. His lieutenant Archie Knox has not been popular either – some have found the Scot's training sessions old-fashioned – and players were also bemused by the presence at Rovers of Ray Mathias, Ince's assistant through his managerial travels but not an individual with top flight experience.

The signing of Keith Andrews, Ince's captain from Milton Keynes Dons, raised as many eyebrows as bringing in Robbie Fowler, when it seemed to have furnished Rovers with a player out of his depth. Tactically, Ince has seemed limited too, deploying Stephen Warnock, patently a full-back, as a second striker and midfielder. On Saturday, midfielder David Dunn was second striker and Jason Roberts briefly at full-back.

Managerial storms elsewhere at Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Everton deflected attention but Williams has seen a storm brewing for two months and privately it has left him a haunted man. Williams has desperately wanted to believe that the "Sparky model", as he calls it, of developing young managers might work for him but despite a cordial relationship with Ince he has been reduced to mentally rehearsing the arguments for and against persisting with him.

The pressures Ince overcame at Macclesfield – preserving their Football League status on the last game of the 2005-06 season after inheriting a side 11 points adrift – have been a source of comfort. The knowledge that Rovers, with their small fanbase and no Jack Walker money, would take years to bounce back from relegation is a point to which he persistently returns. At a board meeting last week, Williams persuaded those members set against Ince to give him one last game. The only comfort in the manner of defeat at Wigan is that it will have cleared the fog from Williams' head. A board meeting on Monday afternoon sealed the manager's fate.

Fate certainly might have dealt him a better hand. The core of Hughes' side – David Bentley and Brad Friedel apart – is intact but his midfield, in particular, has been bereft, with David Dunn's Achilles ruling him out for almost four months in August and Vince Grella's absence not helping the search for a settled midfield. But the futility of the project was reflected in Saturday's dependence on Dunn, a player with such little match fitness. Ince has been waiting, he explained two weeks ago, for his Mark Robins moment. "Ferguson was probably 20 minutes away from the sack until Robins scored that winner against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup," Ince said. "It would have been easy to sack him if they had lost, but look at him now."

But Robins' FA Cup goal for Ferguson came in different days, 18 years ago, when the consequences of a drop from the top flight were neither as apocalyptic nor as long-lasting. Rovers just could not risk it any longer.