Young son helps Ince to grow up

Glenn Moore on the transformation of one of England's headless chickens
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The Independent Online
To rework a dated cliche, it increasingly appears that behind every successfully maturing footballer is a gurgling baby. Regan Gascoigne is the latest catalyst, but before him there was Thomas Ince.

Thomas is now well past the nappy-changing stage; he is four years old but remains one of the reasons why his father, Paul, has changed from being an argumentative "headless chicken" to a more thoughtfully combative force.

The other factor is la dolce vita. A possibly reluctant emigre, Ince has warmed to life by the banks of Lake Como. Off the pitch he has become interested in Italian wine (though, only, like the locals, in moderation); on it he has learned to temper his aggression with patience.

Having been one of the dominant figures in England's Euro 96 campaign, Ince prepares for tonight's World Cup qualifying match with Poland at Wembley as one of the few players sure of a regular place. Like Terry Venables before him, Glen Hoddle is a fan.

"I think he has learned to appreciate when to tackle and when to stand off, the higher he has gone," the England coach said. "From stepping into European football with Manchester United, and now playing regularly at club and international level he has realised that some of the things he could do defensively in the Premiership you cannot do at this level."

Hoddle was referring to Ince's old habit of stretching for the 40-60 loose ball with studs showing. In the maelstrom of English football that was fine, in Europe, to quote Hoddle again, "they played the ball around him". And when Ince did catch them he was usually penalised or cautioned by referees unaccustomed to a more physical game.

Ince thus took a while to settle, and had it not been for the arrival of Roy Hodgson at Internazionale he may have come home. Now he is a convert. He talks enthusiastically of the Italian way of warming up and warming down, even of the two-day incarceration before matches.

"I didn't really want to go but it's the best move I've ever made," he said after training at Bisham Abbey. "I've never stopped learning. When I was young I was a bit of a hot-head, stupid sometimes. But since I've had a family, it's settled me down.

"It's not easy the way I play, always in the thick of things. There's always little niggly things going on, but the older you get, the more you learn to take it. I feel more in control. I haven't noticed the changes in my game that much, but people who watch me from the stands have been able to spot them."

What they have seen is a player who knows when to make his runs, who can pass the ball simply and accurately, and who usually bides his time before sticking a foot in.

There are still aberrations. He was needlessly booked in Moldova, but he is improving all the time. The once ever-present dissent is now rare, but Ince has not lost that edge to his game.

"I will always be the player I am," he said. "I like to run about and set the pattern of the game, to make that first tackle."

It was his and others' running about in England's last match against Poland that led Graham Taylor to infamously describe his team as being "headless chickens". The repetition raises a smile now from Ince, where it once might have provoked a snarl. "We've come a long way since then," he said.