How do you solve a problem like Paul Ince?
His early coaching success now a distant memory, Paul Ince found himself out of a job once again this month after leaving relegation-threatened Notts County. With several of his former Manchester United teammates having enjoyed relatively straightforward routes into top-level management, is it circumstance or something else that’s holding back Ince’s managerial career?
The latest change of manager at Notts County attracted press coverage mainly centred around Martin Allen’s admission that it was the pay cheque waved under his nose by the club’s board that persuaded him to abandon his Barnet rescue mission for a similar one at Meadow Lane. An angle of the story that received less attention, though, was the underwhelming manner in which Allen’s predecessor, Paul Ince, left his job.
For a man with the bravado to dub himself “The Guv’nor” in an Old Trafford dressing room that answered to a then younger, more hairdryer-happy Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United player’s exit from Notts County by mutual consent on 3rd April seemed uncharacteristically low-key. It also represented the latest knock to a coaching career that began with the same independence of spirit that typified Ince’s years as a professional.
Unabashed aggression and determination made Ince a vital element of Manchester United’s midfield at the beginning of the 1990s and played a part in his ascent to becoming the first ever black player to captain England. Unfortunately, that milestone coincided with a 2-0 loss to the United States in 1993; in Rome four years later, the armband would bring Ince a more pleasing outcome. If the midfielder never shirked a tackle on the pitch, though, he was not afraid of a confrontational decision off it either. He famously invited the fury of West Ham fans everywhere in 1989 by allowing himself to be photographed wearing a Manchester United shirt before his £1m move to Old Trafford had actually been completed. In 1997, following a relatively successful two-year spell with Internazionale, he had no qualms about joining Liverpool despite having left United just two years earlier.
Likewise, then, as a manager Ince has shown the same dogged commitment to doing things his own way as he did as a player. After a spell coaching with Swindon Town, he entered the dugout as the guv’nor of his own team for the first time in 2006. Macclesfield Town were staring relegation to the Conference in the face at the time, propping up Division Three with just five points from their first fifteen games. However, with Ince at the helm, Macclesfield rallied and eventually made it to safety.
After achieving such a tremendous early success with the most modest of resources, the young manager could not be blamed for seeking more salubrious surroundings. When Ince joined Milton Keynes Dons a month after securing the Silkmen’s League status, though, he moved to a club as familiar with pariah status as he was – to fans of at least two of his former clubs at least. The manager and his new side seemed to be a perfect fit. Ince and Milton Keynes won promotion in 2008 as champions of Division Three and lifted their first silverware in the form of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Ince’s managerial career then entered arguably its defining chapter. After becoming his country’s first black captain fifteen years earlier, Ince made history again when Blackburn Rovers made him the Premier League’s first black British manager. He lasted a mere six months in the job. An opening day win at Goodison Park proved to be a false omen and, with Blackburn having become used to being amongst the European contenders rather than the relegation candidates under Mark Hughes, a poor run of results saw Ince sacked before the turn of the year.
Despite – or maybe because of – his stay at Ewood Park being so brief, Ince’s route to Premier League management is worth comparing with those of his former Old Trafford teammates. Whereas Ince began, literally, at the bottom, many of those he played alongside – particularly Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, and Steve Bruce – enjoyed relatively smoother passages to the top. Robson benefitted from the patience and the cheque book of Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough; Hughes moved into club management with former club Blackburn after a long apprenticeship as Wales coach; and Keane shrewdly took over at Sunderland when the only direction the club could go in was up. Steve Bruce worked in the third tier with Wigan Athletic during his flighty first years in management, but that came between spells in the First Division with Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town, and Crystal Palace, before he settled at Birmingham City.
Since being sacked by Blackburn in late 2008, Ince had had only a second, unhappier spell with Milton Keynes before his six-month stint with Notts County. For a player who experienced both the Old Trafford and the Anfield inner sanctums, as well as presumably broadening his football knowledge and contacts book in a manner unlike most of his peers by virtue of his time with Inter, it seems curious that a man with so much to draw upon as a prospective manager should have found it so hard to gain work in the Championship, let alone the Premier League.
Ince’s skin colour inevitably makes race an issue when attempting to explain his lack of opportunities. Even though his record since leaving Blackburn has been average, what came before with Macclesfield and MK Dons (the first time around at least) should have been enough to secure him a job at a higher level than that from which he was elevated on moving to the Premier League. Given the dearth of non-white individuals managing in professional British football when compared to the number playing the game, it is impossible to deny that something is deterring those from black and mixed race backgrounds from remaining in the sport after they retire. However, it would be remiss not to ask whether there are elements unique to Ince that have conspired against his progress too.
Throughout his career, Ince has courted controversy through his choice of clubs. Whether it was moving back to England with Liverpool as a former United player or taking over at a club regarded so contentiously as Milton Keynes not once but twice, he has made decisions that presumably seemed the correct ones at the time but which others might have deemed to be possibly harmful in the long run. His stubborn refusal to take coaching badges – Blackburn put him on an accelerated training programme in 2008 yet Ince remained sceptical of the badges’ worth – betrays a man simply failing to act in his best interests.
Ince began, rather admirably, by doing things the hard way at Macclesfield. It worked for a while, spectacularly so, but management has rarely come that easy to him since. A two-time Premier League winner and former England captain with Serie A experience, not to mention a student of both Sir Alex Ferguson and Gérard Houllier, clearly has so much to offer to the right club. If Ince is to get another job, though, he will have to curb some of the contrary elements to his nature that made him the player he was but are preventing him from becoming the manager he could be.
William Abbs is the man behind Saha From The Madding Crowd. He is a Manchester United fan who follows the Football League as part of a healthy lifestyle.