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Paul Ince returns to Manchester United trapped on the wrong side of history

Paul Ince in action for Manchester United against Oldham, April 1994 (Getty Images)
Paul Ince in action for Manchester United against Oldham, April 1994 (Getty Images)

For a footballer with a glorious past at Old Trafford, Paul Ince returns to Manchester United on Saturday as Reading manager, and a man trapped on the wrong side of history. Since he last played for United, he has captained Liverpool: indeed his penultimate goal for Liverpool was an 89th-minute equaliser against United in 1999, which might have cost them the treble. Some don’t celebrate when they score against their former clubs. Not Ince. As he later remembered: “I went bananas in front of the Kop.”

If Ince has long shown a tendency to create enemies – West Ham fans never forgave him for posing in a United shirt before his move to Old Trafford was sealed – a status as the United talisman who crossed the great divide is not entirely his fault. “They sold me and broke my heart,” Ince later said. Sir Alex Ferguson recalled he was “Public Enemy No 1” for getting rid of Ince in 1995 – to Inter Milan, not Liverpool – but it proved a move that cemented his own legend. It was Ferguson’s greatest gamble, and led to his greatest triumphs. Alan Hansen infamously pronounced that United could not win anything with kids; they promptly won the double whereas Ince’s final two games brought disappointment in the Premier League title race and the FA Cup final.

He was the forceful presence who helped United smash through the glass ceiling, pivotal as they won their first league title for 26 years in 1993, terrific as they won the double a year later, the heart of Ferguson’s first great team, and yet who ended up disparaged by Ferguson and damned by comparison: when Ince was exiled to Italy, Roy Keane became the senior central midfielder and reached still greater heights. The kids permitted to play in his absence were Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. The classic Ferguson midfield became David Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Ryan Giggs, not Andrei Kanchelskis – another the Scot purged in the bloody summer of 1995 – Ince, Keane and Giggs. United got better without him. The seeds of the treble were sown when Ferguson sold Ince.

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He made history and wrote it. A rare occasion Ferguson permitted the cameras in his dressing room was before a Liverpool game in the 1998-99 season: he was captured describing Ince as “a fucking big-time Charlie.” The image of Ince stems in part from Ferguson’s autobiography. “He had attached a rather silly title to himself. ‘Don’t call me Incey, call me the Guv’nor,’ he was saying,” Ferguson wrote. “Paul Ince had reached an age of maturity and this guv’nor nonsense should have been left in his toy box.” Instead, he even had GUV on his numberplate.

But, as Ferguson once said after a fiercely contested game of head tennis: “‘There’s only one guv'nor around here, Incey, and it ain’t you.” But there was also a tactical element to his decision to dispense with Ince. Ferguson once rebuked Ince for a surge into the box by telling him he was no Diego Maradona. He felt Ince was too keen to bomb forwards, rather than settling into a role in front of the back four. It was an age of all-action box-to-box midfielders and if Keane had similar traits, he proved more willing to sacrifice himself for others; in modern terminology, he became a No 6.

But Keane’s brilliance may have left Ince overshadowed, at least in subsequent appraisals. At times, he has felt starved of praise, except by his teammates and himself. He immodestly said of the 2008 Champions League winners that “the midfield wouldn’t touch our midfield in 1994”.

Paul Ince is now the manager of Championship side Reading (Getty Images)
Paul Ince is now the manager of Championship side Reading (Getty Images)

He was a catalyst, part of Ferguson’s team of warriors who could outplay and out-fight opponents. He was good enough that Eric Cantona once branded him the best midfielder in the world and Keane, when picking his best side from his former United teammates earlier this year, selected Ince ahead of Scholes. An arrogance may have antagonised but he was arguably world class for around five years, from 1992 to 1997. Ferguson, who rarely admitted to making mistakes, said in 2008 he regretted branding him a big-time Charlie.

Ince, meanwhile, then reflected that the big personalities and big egos of the 1994 team would answer Ferguson back. Subsequent generations, he argued, were meeker. His was speaking before the big-time Charlie’s last appearance on the big stage. A 5-3 League Cup loss at Old Trafford in 2008 was the fourth of six straight defeats to end his reign at Blackburn. When he managed against United then, the Londoner was barracked as a “Scouse bastard”. He is a select group, with Carlos Tevez and Mark Hughes, of wonderful United players who could get mixed receptions at Old Trafford.

But, 15 years after leaving Blackburn, 24 after scoring for Liverpool, perhaps enough time has passed for an appreciation of his excellence, for a recognition he was an outstanding player in a terrific team, for an acceptance he lost a fight Ferguson started. Ince is the guv’nor of Reading now, but he used to boss the midfield for United, and superbly.