Respect in football is a curious thing. It’s an eternal concept with numerous unwritten rules much more in tune with tradition than anything else. It’s a buzzword that often doesn’t really mean much of any tangible substance. We have respect for the game, respect for individuals, hyper-inflated respect for tradition and respect for teams because of their history.
Then we have the ever-entertaining “respect”, or lack thereof, players have for their former clubs, in particular when they score. This ranges from uber-respectful – think of Frank Lampard scoring for Manchester City against his former employers Chelsea – to the pure deranged, almost visceral reaction of, say, Emmanuel Adebayor scoring for Tottenham against Arsenal.
For us, the braying audience, watching it can be tiring to see this unique brand of respect played out over and over, but sometimes there is a worthwhile cause and often it comes in the form of History: spelt with a capital ‘H’. Enter stage left, Paul Ince: a staple of numerous midfields throughout the 90s and a player who had more reason than most to celebrate against his former employers.
It was 5 May 1999 and Manchester United, chasing an improbable treble, were visitors to Anfield, set to face Liverpool in a crunch game. The Reds, who, despite winning two games in a row, are having a very iffy season and are looking likely to miss out on a European spot for the first time in five years.
Somewhat under the radar, and by now in his second season at the club, was Ince. A product of the West Ham academy, he was notorious for being a tireless runner in midfield, unafraid of big tackles or physical battles. This was proven a few years earlier in a World Cup qualifying match for England versus Italy in a game that encapsulated all of Ince’s footballing abilities.
England needed a draw against the Azzurri to ensure World Cup qualifying and instead of failing to deliver in spectacular circumstances, as England were wont to do in this period, they delivered a calm and assured display, helped by Ince’s brave and bustling performance in midfield. He protected Paul Gascoigne, playing in his last competitive match for the Three Lions, and harried Italy, invoking memories of Terry Butcher by finishing the game with a bandaged head and bloody shirt.
For Liverpool, he ran tirelessly and managed to add more goals to his game. It had been nearly four years since Alex Ferguson had ruthlessly sold Ince to Internazionale, much to the dismay of many United fans. He was the heart and engine of Manchester United for a number of years, a mainstay in a midfield that saw him partner the likes of Bryan Robson, Mike Phelan, Neil Webb and, in a bit of a hard-man duo, Roy Keane.
Ince was successful during his time for Ferguson’s United. He played nearly 300 times for the club, won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, a brace of FA Cups and, most importantly, two Premier League titles. But he never exactly had a happy working relationship with the boss and being a fan favourite didn’t save him from Sir Alex’s implacable ambition.
Speaking to talkSPORT, Ince recounts a time where, in a game against Norwich, he went on a mazy run, eventually losing the ball. United were 3-1 up at the time in the 93rd minute of the game but that didn’t stop Ferguson launching into a tirade against Ince once the game was finished: “Ferguson comes in and goes absolutely ballistic at me saying ‘who do you think you are? You ain’t no Maradona or Pelé.’” It’s an instance that captures why Ferguson was such a success and why Ince’s time at Old Trafford came with a sell-by date.
And so, in 1995, after United drew with another of Ince’s former clubs, West Ham, and lost the subsequent game to Everton in the FA Cup final, Blackburn won the Premier League, preventing United from making it three in a row. In the ensuing weeks, Ferguson sanctioned Ince’s departure to Inter. It’s a move that still rankles with the self-styled Guv’nor to this day: “I didn’t want to [go]. I didn’t sell [myself] to Inter. I was the one who was going to sign a four-year contract, buy a house in Bramhall and put my kids in school. It was United’s decision. I had six great years. I was part of the first title in 26 years. I gave my blood, sweat and tears, everything – like I did for every club I played for.”
Ferguson, however, believed Ince had become too arrogant towards the end of his tenure in Manchester, creating nicknames for himself, and nor was he tactically aware enough to continue playing in central midfield at the level he needed: “Paul Ince had reached an age of maturity and this ‘Guv’nor’ nonsense should have been left in his toy-box. On the field he had already worried me with an altered approach to his game. He was spending more and more time going forward but not coming back quickly enough and it was quite apparent that he was completely carried away.”
Both Ferguson and Ince have their own versions and both stick to their stories but it’s clear the manager wasn’t too heartbroken to see the midfielder leave, especially as his departure paved the way for the Class of ‘92 to cement their place in football history.
So, Ince left and replaced Gascoigne as the principal English interest in Italy. He spent two seasons in Serie A, in a climate where black footballers were – and still aren’t – exactly welcome. He became a bit of a fan favourite of the Curva Nord, and Inter’s president Massimo Moratti, but still suffered horrific racist abuse that made him question whether he should stay at the Giuseppe Meazza past his first season.
Roy Hodgson’s arrival in Milan helped make up his mind and he ended up playing a pivotal role in Inter’s run to the UEFA Cup final where they lost out to Schalke. But, such was the importance of Ince to that side, without him in the team they were described as Inter sensa Anima – Inter without Soul.
Despite Moratti’s pleas for him to stay, Ince ended his brief Italian sojourn and headed to Merseyside. West Ham already called him Judas, so what was another football betrayal? He became the latest member of an incredibly exclusive club of players to play for Liverpool and Manchester United. Joining Liverpool was an unforgivable act in the eyes of many United supporters and it’s a grudge many still hold.
For Ince, the transfer was a no-brainer: “United had first option and they didn’t take it. I thought, ‘Hang about. I like Liverpool. They’ve got young players and some world-class ones like Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. If I could instil my professionalism they could challenge for the title.’” And so, back to a time of Y2K fears and Anfield – a stadium that has a habit of ramping up the atmosphere on big occasions – for Ince, this was a bigger occasion than most.
Still smarting about his exit from Old Trafford, the situation was made all the more volatile when, a year earlier, Sir Alex had been captured on camera lambasting his former midfield maestro in one of the most public put-downs in Premier League history: “If he tries to bully you, he will fucking enjoy it. Don’t ever let him bully you. Right? You just make sure you are ready for him. That’s all you need to worry about. He’s a fucking big-time Charlie.”
Now this was personal. An incensed Ince was out for blood and the chance to prove Ferguson wrong. And his chance came in the last minute of the game in front of the Kop.
A goal down, at 2-1, but with United having had Denis Irwin sent off, Liverpool were pushing for an equaliser. A mix-up in the box meant the ball fell to Ince who touched the ball away from Peter Schmeichel and hammered it into the corner, sending the Liverpool faithful wild. And Ince himself had no problems celebrating against his former team: there was too much previous between him and Ferguson to observe the norms of respect.
He didn’t hold back: “I’d always wanted to score in front of the Kop, and with Fergie and what he’d said, I just enjoyed it so much – and rightly so,” Ince said. “I never understand not celebrating because you’re playing against your former club. You play for these fans now. They pay your wages. It was an unbelievable feeling to do that.”
It was a result that prevented United from going top of the table, incensing Ferguson, but gave them added motivation to go on to seal the title on the last day of the season and subsequently add the FA Cup and Champions League to a historic Treble-winning season. Unfortunately, Ince’s goal was a small bump in the road and, in stark contrast to their rivals, Liverpool finished the season trophyless.
An excellent, ferocious, passionate midfielder, it’s curious that arguably Ince’s two most significant contributions came in the guise of kingmaker: first, leaving United to pave the way for the boys who would be kings and, second, scoring the goal that spurred United on to craft their greatest legacy.
These eventualities make for a bitter pill to swallow for someone who had such a successful career in his own right, but never hit the heights of those he left behind. Ince’s is a career that comes with an asterisk: he probably could and should have won a lot more than he did. In his own words: “I have no regrets about my career,” he said, “just that maybe I could have won a few more trophies.”
By Matthew Gibbs @MatthewIeuan