Blackburn Rovers are desperate for Paul Ince to succeed but his future is in serious doubt amid a sense of shock inside the club at the fall towards the foot of the Premier League table and an acute awareness that relegation might condemn them to a long period outside the top flight.
Though the club want to have patience and build on what they call the "Sparky" model – developing a young manager as they did with Ince's predecessor Mark Hughes – there is some soul-searching about whether they have recruited an individual who can actually keep them up. The view from inside the club is that, with the smallest fan base in the league and lacking a Jack Walker figure, they would struggle to regain top-flight status. "Nightmare," was one word used by an Ewood Park insider yesterday about the current position.
It is difficult to see Rovers persisting with Ince (right) if he cannot rectify the club's position in the relatively straightforward games which follow Liverpool's visit to Ewood tomorrow. The visit to Wigan, Stoke's arrival and the trip to Sunderland appear to be make-or-break, with Sam Allardyce seemingly the safety option if Sunderland do not hire him first.
The anxiety Rovers are feeling stems from not knowing what inner resources Ince actually has to get them out of their current predicament – second bottom, in the table two points behind the Sunderland side which Roy Keane left yesterday. There is an awareness that Ince faced pressure at Macclesfield Town, 11 points adrift in League Two when he arrived, but a fight for Premier League survival carries higher stakes.
The sense of nervousness explained a general reluctance yesterday to criticise fans for the abuse they handed out to Ince during the dire display which saw Rovers beaten 5-3 at Old Trafford in Wednesday’s Carling Cup semi-final. There were chants for the former manager Graeme Souness and the perennial caretaker manager Tony Parkes as the night wore on.
Ince defended himself last night, saying: “No one can question the spirit of the players or say they don’t want to play for the manager because they do. You can be the best manager in the world, you cannot do anything if players are making individual mistakes.”
Though the spirit within the Rovers dressing room is indeed said to be good, there is an acceptance from within the club that it will be difficult to hold on to Roque Santa Cruz, one of their prime assets, should the situation deteriorate. Rovers are adamant that Santa Cruz has reiterated his commitment to Rovers, despite widely reported suggestions, backed up by a Paraguayan radio interview, that he is intent on following Hughes to Manchester City.
Rovers, one of the best-run clubs in the top flight, have rarely gone in for sacking managers. Brian Kidd, nine years ago, was the last to depart that way after his unhappy tenure following his departure from Manchester United. But the fluid nature of the Premier League – Rovers were seventh only two months ago – does not appear to have engendered any sense of optimism. The current run of one win in nine is unheard of at Rovers in recent years and it has to be said that Ince is working with the same group of players, the departures of David Bentley and Brad Friedel aside.
Tomorrow’s visitors have lost once in 12 years at Ewood Park and Steven Gerrard’s comments yesterday would have offered little succour to Ince. “In my 10 years in the first team, this is the first time that we have been where we are at this stage of the season with this opportunity,” Gerrard said, reflecting on consecutive 0-0 draws in the league. “We have got to get better, be more consistent and start killing teams off when we get the chance.”