Two Men, One Guv’nor: Paul Ince at Liverpool

Posted: January 7, 2021 in Uncategorized
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As he sat in Massimo Moratti’s office in the summer of 1997, Paul Ince’s stock had never been higher. Viewed by Alex Ferguson purely as a neat and tidy holding midfielder, his desire for a more expansive midfield role dismissed as the delusions of a “f**king Big Time Charlie”, he’d spent two seasons in Serie A proving his former manager wrong. His committed, driving box-to-box displays for Internazionale had established him as a firm favourite with the Nerazzurri, and he’d shone too for England at Euro ’96. Now, Moratti painted him a picture of a glittering future for Inter, having just broken the world transfer record to sign Ronaldo. Ince, however, had a bombshell for the President. He wanted to go home.

The self-styled ‘Guv’nor’, never less than a careful cultivator of his own legend, insists that Moratti broke down and wept at the news, and certainly, the former Nerazzurri supremo remains a keen admirer to this day. While Ince had enjoyed his time in Italy, however – not least Nicola Berti’s notoriously star-studded parties – his family had found it harder to settle, and his wife was eager for their young son, Thomas, to go to an English school.

Unsurprisingly, a host of English clubs were immediately interested. Chelsea were initially favourites, but Ince favoured a return to the North-West, which he felt would be quieter for his family. After being wined and dined in Milan by Liverpool Chief Executive Peter Robinson, an impressed Ince agreed to join The Reds for £4.2m in July 1997.

Why Liverpool?

It was a ballsy move. The 29-year-old’s Mancunian past meant that the Kop would take more convincing than usual. Yet Ince saw a project – he, the elder statesman, would provide the steel previously lacking on the pitch and in the dressing room, whipping the talented but flaky ‘Spice Boys’ into shape.

Certainly there was a perception that a leader was needed. As exciting a side as Roy Evans had built, they’d earned a reputation as chokers, a collection of beautiful young men playing beautiful football, winning friends in lieu of silverware. They faced accusations of mental weakness, leading the Premier League for much of 1996-97 only to be overhauled in the last few months by Manchester United, eventually finishing fourth, as their detractors gleefully pointed out, in a two-horse race. Then there was the Spice Boys thing – the notion that win, lose or draw, what really mattered were the girls, the catwalks, hotfooting it to London after the game and being in Chinawhite by 9pm. Ince told himself he was the man to end all that: “I just thought they needed that professionalism on the pitch,” he told the Blood Red podcast. “That change in attitude, that change in mindset, because they hadn’t won anything for years and they wanted to win the title.”

Almost immediately, he was given the armband and hyped as the ‘missing piece of the jigsaw’ needed to turn Liverpool into bona fide title challengers. In reality however, he didn’t so much solve the puzzle as create a new one entirely…

‘The Guv’nor’ took enthusiastically to his leadership brief, but The Reds missed the quieter authority of John Barnes, allowed to leave on a free transfer that summer after a decade at the club. Though time had unquestionably caught up with ‘Digger’, and he wasn’t necessarily always appreciated by the crowd in his latter years, his post-injury reinvention as a deep-lying, metronomic presence in the middle of the park had been key to keeping the red machine ticking. In training, meanwhile, Barnes’ seniority carried significant influence, and he was one of the few prepared to challenge Evans and Ronnie Moran about what he considered to be increasingly lax and outdated training methods. “Melwood was turning from a training ground into a playground,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Liverpool’s training principles became diluted, compromised even…we needed to work on patterns of play, functional work.”

Liverpool’s commitment to going all-in on Ince even went as far as changing their system. Their best football under Evans had come using a 3-5-2 that afforded a free role to the often-electric stylings of Steve McManaman. When Ince struggled to adapt, being far more familiar with 4-4-2, Evans decided to switch to accommodate his new captain. Though the change to 4-4-2 wasn’t the disaster it might have been – both Liverpool and McManaman (now largely tethered to the wing) scored more goals in 1997-98 than the previous season – it didn’t get Liverpool any closer to the title. The Reds finished third but trailed champions Arsenal by 13 points – they’d finished 1996-97 seven points off the top.

What the change of system did do was ratchet up the pressure on Ince to perform. He was expected to do the ‘enforcing’ almost by himself, and though his performances steadily improved, he was never able to dominate games in the way Keane and Vieira did for their clubs. The Kop, already wary of him, was less than impressed. Was he really worth all this change?

Co-Manager Chaos

It’s perhaps ironic that the reasons behind the appointment of the man who would become Ince’s nemesis, Gerard Houllier, were in large part the same ones that prompted his own signing. Again, the need for a more disciplined culture was the driving factor in Liverpool snatching the Frenchman from the clutches of Sheffield Wednesday in July 1998. Houllier’s reputation was soaring after France’s World Cup win, of which he was considered an architect owing to his work as Technical Director at Clairefontaine, helping develop players like Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. An Anglophile and longtime friend of Robinson, he’d also spent time in Liverpool as a teaching assistant in his younger days, and was seen as the perfect man to ease the club’s transition out of the Boot Room.

The problem was that the Anfield brass couldn’t quite bring themselves to say goodbye to those old institutions. Though Moran had retired that summer, there was a reluctance to move Evans on – he was respected professionally and personally, and the job he’d done didn’t seem deserving of the sack. There was also perhaps a reluctance to change too much too soon – Graeme Souness’ earlier attempts to modernise the club had been rejected wholesale, while foreign managers were still something of a rarity in the English game at the time. Evans had assumed Houllier was being brought in as either Moran’s replacement, or in the Director of Football-type role previously discussed with John Toshack the previous year. It was awkward, then, when he learned he’d actually be job-sharing with the new man…

The co-manager arrangement was doomed from the outset. Evans knew it, the writing on the wall visible in his sad eyes as he tried to smile on the day of its unveiling. The presence of two very different men, with very different footballing philosophies, soon divided the dressing room. Evans, in the grand Boot Room tradition, was laissez-faire, content to let the senior players police the squad as they pretty much always had. Houllier, aware of how the game was changing, was all about control. Evans was a romantic, committed to attacking football. Houllier was more conservative. The two were soon clashing regularly, over everything from where Vegard Heggem should play to what time the team coach should leave. Players didn’t know who to turn to. Liverpool began to struggle, and in November 1998, just five months into the arrangement, following an awful League Cup defeat to Spurs, Evans, nobly, fell on his sword: “It would have been easy for me to stay around and become a ghost on the wall,” he said during an emotional press conference. “To give Gerard and his team a real chance, I have to walk away.” 

Houllier taking sole command was very bad news indeed for Paul Ince.

Now, the manager’s modernisation campaign could start in earnest. Training became more intense and tactics-focused. Diet became an important consideration – the days of senior players wandering round Melwood clutching a bacon sandwich were brought to an abrupt end (Neil Ruddock estimates that his Anfield career ended within approximately one hour of the Houllier era). The Frenchman famously railed against the drinking culture in English football, giving Jamie Carragher a dressing down after he was photographed falling out of a nightclub, and declaring: “I compare top-class players to racing cars. Drinking alcohol is as silly as putting diesel in a racing car.”

There was no room for compromise, and resistance would not be tolerated. ‘He was comfortable taking on big characters at the club’, Carragher told Simon Hughes in the excellent Ring of Fire. ‘Nobody was getting in the way of what he wanted to do in terms of discipline.’ To help him in this regard, and again to retain at least some connection to the club’s traditions, former great Phil Thompson was brought back as a Sergeant Major of sorts, tasked with ‘getting into’ the players when necessary. Thompson had been sacked as youth coach by Souness for being overly aggressive and belligerent with his charges. Now those very tendencies had brought him back to the fold, and would be given full voice.

Ince was identified early by the regime as a potential barrier to progress. His was the loudest voice in the dressing room, the one the young players looked up to. “He was the big man, running the dressing room,” Thompson told Hughes. “So I made it my point to make it difficult for him. And he hated me.”

Doomed

A messy end to his Anfield career was inevitable, and the catalyst came during an FA Cup fourth round tie at Old Trafford. With Liverpool leading 1-0 deep and 20 minutes remaining, Ince picked up a knock and asked to be substituted. This enraged Houllier. “He walked off the pitch,” he’d tell Hughes, still incredulous years later. “If the captain of Liverpool leaves the pitch in that sort of game, he only goes straight to hospital. A few days later, Paul was training again.”

A week later, Ince, during a team meeting, called Houllier’s training practices into question. “The strikers haven’t been doing enough finishing practice,” he contended, as recalled in Carragher’s autobiography.

In response, Houllier listed from memory the dates and times that the strikers had been called in for shooting exercises, with Michael Owen and (known Houllier sceptic) Robbie Fowler confirming their veracity. He proceeded to tell Ince that he’d only won four training ground five-a-sides in the six months since he’d been appointed, before rounding on him about the Old Trafford cup match: “When my team is 1-0 up at Old Trafford, I don’t expect my captain to limp off with an injury. If he has to come off the pitch, I expect it to be on a stretcher.”

There was no response from Ince, and no way back for him at Liverpool. In the summer of 1999, Houllier bluntly declared that he was surplus to requirements. “Paul Ince is not in my plans for the future. I have told him that. That’s life.” Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough had become something of a rescue home for ageing Pauls, with Merson only just having departed and Gazza still on the books. An offer of £1m was all it took to add the 32-year-old Ince to their ranks. He stayed in the Premier League, but his career at the elite level was over.

‘The Guv’nor’ wasted no time in lashing out. Before the season had even started, he complained publicly in The Sunday People about his “disgraceful” treatment, saying that Houllier and Thompson were “two-faced and treated people like dirt” and that he hoped they would be sacked. “It’s ok coming out with all this technical stuff about the game but when it comes to managing players he certainly doesn’t seem to know how to,” he said of Houllier, adding “all Thommo does is shout his mouth off.”

The broadside drew censure from the FA, but by that point, his words seemed like an errant parting shot, as Houllier’s methods began to bear fruit. “It was only when Houllier started to achieve success by running the club a lot more professionally that everyone realised Liverpool had fallen behind because they hadn’t moved with the times,” Danny Murphy said in his Ring of Fire interview with Hughes. The end of the following season saw the club win its first trophies for six seasons, lifting the FA Cup and League Cup at the Millennium Stadium, before a dramatic UEFA Cup final win over Alaves in Dortmund brought a first European trophy for 17 years. Houllier though, never forgot Ince’s attack. At the club’s AGM at the end of 2001, he referenced Ince’s comments in his first public appearance since undergoing emergency heart surgery that October: “He said when he left that Phil and I would drag the club down. He was right. We dragged the club down to Cardiff three times this year.”

Legacy

Ince’s time on Merseyside wasn’t a complete failure. His performances did improve after a rocky start, scoring in the Merseyside derby in his first season and grabbing a last-minute equaliser in his second against Manchester United, which briefly threatened to deny his old club the treble (and which he celebrated with particular relish). He could never entirely win over the Kop however. This, Carragher believed, was down to more than just his being a former Man Utd player: ‘There was an instant contradiction between playing for Liverpool and calling yourself ‘The Guv’nor’, he opined in his autobiography.

In some ways, Ince’s signing was a gateway to the coming change at Liverpool. It was an admission that Evans’ methods weren’t enough, that a change in culture and attitude was needed. Ultimately, Ince himself would be sacrificed at the altar of that change. Houllier’s modernisation brought silverware back to Anfield; Ince’s departure made space in midfield for young players to flourish. Steven Gerrard, made his first team debut within a fortnight of Houllier taking charge. Almost symbolically, the youngster’s introductory act in his first training session with the seniors was to flatten ‘The Guv’nor’ with an emphatic reducer.

One man had no doubt that Houllier had done the right thing. On the day Ince joined Middlesbrough, Houllier received a phone call from Ferguson congratulating him on the decision…

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