Mr Motivator ready for physical challenge

The stage is set for Paul Ince to govern at Wembley today, says Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
At Old Trafford they call him "The Guv'nor"; elsewhere he is described in ways that would have the Press Council choking on its waffles if repeated here. Love him or hate him, it is hard to ignore Paul Ince.

There is certainly very little that gets away from the Manchester United tyro on the pitch, not unless you have a first touch like Hagi or the nous of Barcelona's Bakero. But more of that later - no one on the Everton side that he faces in today's FA Cup final comes into that category, except perhaps Anders Limpar, and it is hard to imagine the Swede venturing too near Ince's sphere of influence.

That might create a problem for Limpar and Everton, for in the rough- and-tumble skirmishing of the English game, Ince is the premier midfielder, and there is not much that escapes his influence.

In six years at Old Trafford he has won every domestic honour available, become the first black captain of England - not that he likes making an issue of it - and confirmed his place at the heart of the national team's midfield.

Last year, he drove Manchester United to the Double, winning the club's Player of the Year award in the process, and began this year in the mood to take them to the European Cup final. Gothenberg were swept aside at Old Trafford, Barcelona put on the rack, and various domestic opponents squashed underfoot. Newcastle were among the notable casualties, with Ince giving Robert Lee, his putative rival, a thorough chasing.

Across the country, football writers began preparing to crown him Player of the Year and his wife, Clare, started clearing a bit more space in the trophy cabinet. Then it all began to go wrong.

Against Romania at Wembley and away to Barcelona, Ince was made to look ordinary. Then in Gothenberg, his temper resurfaced after a long lull, and he talked himself into being sent off as United stumbled out of Europe.

He still ruled the domestic game - until Eric Cantona lost les marbles at Crystal Palace and Ince was alleged to have challenged the Selhurst Park crowd with the offer to "take you all on". One of the supporters claims he followed up by putting his words into action, and on Tuesday, Ince will appear at Croydon Magistrates' Court to answer the subsequent charges.

The court appearance cost him his place in the last England squad and threatens to rule him out of this summer's international tournament against Brazil, Sweden and Japan. With the squad due to be announced on Tuesday, it is going to be difficult for Terry Venables to include him. The England coach was said to be "reflecting" on the matter.

More importantly for United, the case appears to have taken the edge off his game. Ince must have hoped his brushes with the law were behind him - as a youngster he was involved in a few scrapes, and the police once came to West Ham's training ground to see him.

This did not go down well with John Lyall, the then manager, and a probable father-figure to Ince, whose own father walked out when he was two years old. With his mother following suit eight years later to work in nightclubs in Germany, Ince had a chequered childhood which may be reflected in his adult persona.

While he is now successful and adored by the Old Trafford faithful, he still needs to feel at the centre of attention, is constantly talking, and revels in a nickname which was first bestowed for his snooker prowess as a West Ham apprentice.

But while the Red Army sings "He's the Guv'nor", and his car has GUV as part of its number-plate, his team-mates all call him Paul because they know he prefers his nickname.

That is if they can get a word in edgeways. While opponents feel the force of his tackles, team-mates and referees get the force of his tongue. But, although it is the all-action streetfighter that catches the eye, there is more to Ince. His passing - both in conception and execution - is high quality, and his ability to read opponents' attacks and then break them up by interception or timely tackle is uncanny.

And much of the bawling at his team-mates is positive. He has been a excellent tutor to Nicky Butt. The teenager, who has been learning at Ince's shoulder this season, said of him: "He has been a very big influence on me. He does not let you float about. He is always telling you what to do and keeping you in position."

Ince must see something of his younger self in the strong, but seemingly waif-like Butt. Yet while Butt has settled nervelessly into United's midfield, Ince has always needed time to adjust to new surroudings.

At West Ham, his ability was respected soon enough, but not his temperament. The psychologists would put this down to his difficult childhood - and they would be right. Ince himself admits: "I think I took my childhood on to the pitch. I had a chip on my shoulder and nobody could tell me anything."

Lyall helped calm him down, and two stunning goals which knocked Liverpool out of the Littlewoods Cup in late 1988 earned him a place in Upton Park folklore.

However, less than a year later, he would be filed under "J for Judas" as far as Hammers fans were concerned, after he ill-advisedly posed in a Manchester United shirt before his move to Old Trafford had been sealed. Unlikely as it now seems, he then failed a medical and the deal looked off, but Alex Ferguson took a calculated gamble.

Initially, it seemed to be a bad one as Ince, isolated in a hotel, struggled to fit in. But, by the time United reached Wembley in the May he was Ferguson's man of the match, and the Guv'nor was up and running.

Until this season that is. Even before his recent slump, questions were being asked about his ability to cope in higher company. His game, so perfect for English football, seems less effective against players with better control. Ince thrives on loose balls and loose passes, the likes of Hagi and Bakero do not offer him many of either, and when sides like Romania pass the ball around him, Ince is prone to foul someone out of frustration.

However, he is still only 27 and his understanding of the game is constantly improving. Internazionale's interest is indicative of his continuing potential - as is United's desire to keep him.

But that is in the future. Ince is more interested in today's match, and it would appear to be designed with Ince in mind. A physical battle is expected, with the tackles flying.

Lee Sharpe, his Manchester United team-mate, said of Ince: "When he makes that first tackle it sets the pace of the game. He is a great motivator. When the chips are down, he has a tremendous will to win."