Ince happy to home in on captaincy

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The Independent Online
Paul Ince celebrated his reclamation of the national captaincy yesterday by posing for photographs with a Humpty Dumpty-sized Easter emblem at Bisham Abbey. A veteran colleague mused on the possible caption: "Headless chicken with egg".

Four years ago, Ince was one of the players Graham Taylor castigated as a "headless chicken" after a drawn World Cup qualifier in Poland. A fortnight later he made Ince captain for the first time; the side promptly lost to the United States. After leading England in the following match, a draw with Brazil in Washington, Ince returned to the ranks.

He has been close to regaining the armband several times in the intervening years but has not done so until now. However, with Alan Shearer and Tony Adams both injured it will be the Internazionale midfielder who tosses the coin with his Mexican counterpart at Wembley today.

"It's always been a dream to be captain at home," said Ince once he had put the egg down. "It will be great to walk out at Wembley."

It will also create a slight problem as Ince likes to walk out last and not put his shirt on until the last moment. The first superstition has to go but Sky's in-tunnel camera can expect a close-up of Ince's naked torso.

He may also figure more prominently on the pitch. "Under Terry Venables I had a holding role and was more restricted," he said. "I rarely came off the field soaked in sweat feeling I had given 100 per cent. Now, with David Batty alongside, I am able to get forward more. Everybody says I do not score enough goals but I did when I was at West Ham and I know if I get in the box I will. I've scored twice for England but as they were against San Marino I don't think they count."

Of his first match as captain Ince noted "losing took the shine off it". "When I tell people I captained England they say `oh yes, you lost to America'."

While Ince is keen to put the memory behind him he will first have to endure a reminder. Bora Milutinovic was manager of the USA that day in Foxboro; now he is manager of Mexico. And, before any Scotsmen start scoffing over England's Yankee humiliation, they may recall he also steered Costa Rica to victory over Scotland in Italia 90.

A Mexican victory today would not register as highly on football's seismic scale but it would be a surprise. Though far from full strength England are able to put out a fair XI. If everyone is fit - Gareth Southgate, Teddy Sheringham and Steve McManaman are doubtful - England could name this team: David James; Martin Keown, Southgate, Stuart Pearce; Phil Neville, Ince, Batty, Graeme Le Saux; McManaman, Sheringham; Robbie Fowler.

Seven players were in the Euro 96 squad and, but for injury, Le Saux would have been too. Only James is a debutant and he could be displaced by either of the previously capped pair of Tim Flowers and Nigel Martyn. Also in the wings are Stan Collymore, Ian Wright and Jamie Redknapp. More likely to play than any of them is the uncapped David May as Southgate is regarded as the most doubtful of the injury victims.

"There has been criticism of the match," Glenn Hoddle said, "but if it brings players further down the line in international football so they are better prepared when it comes to a crunch game it will be worth it."

The England coach says he has taken action to ensure there will be no repetition of the leaking of the team which embarrassed him before the Italy game. Karl Le Tissier, the brother of Matt, is presumably under house arrest in Guernsey with his telephone wires cut though the original leak is believed to have come from a different source, one not in the current squad.

In traditional style Hoddle then talked up the Mexicans who, though above England in the world rankings, do not travel well. "They did reasonably well in the World Cup and have since added some good young players to the squad," said Hoddle, who played twice against Mexico, winning in Los Angeles in 1986 and losing in Mexico City a year earlier. He added: "They have players with good goalscoring records."

They also have a continuity which Hoddle can only dream of. Having decided to concentrate on the national side rather than the club game, Mexico have played 15 internationals this season against England's four. In addition they are rather more sure of qualifying for the next World Cup than England.

Mexico's first visit since the 1966 World Cup finals is expected to attract about 40,000. Tickets will be available at the gate though the prices, from pounds 20 to pounds 45, seem a typical case of Wembley and the FA over-egging the pudding.

More football, pages 30-31