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Profile: Ince Perfect?

Paul Ince could not have made a much better start to management. The former England midfielder saved Macclesfield Town from sliding into the Conference after taking over at Moss Rose during 2006-07 and, after switching to ambitious MK Dons last summer, got his hands on two pieces of silverware in 2007-08. His side secured the League Two title with a match to spare on 26th April, to add to the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy that they won by beating Grimsby Town 2-0 at Wembley at the end of March.

Without doubt, the Dons will do well to keep hold of the 40 year-old as Ince's name is certain to be near the top of the list of any bigger outfits looking for a fresh impetus this summer. Good enough to play for Internazionale and in the English top-flight for five different clubs, Paul has the potentail to be an even better manager than he was a player. He was a trend-setter in his playing days, by becoming the first ’black man’ to captain England; and it will not surprise me if he goes on to be only the second black manager after 1997-FA Cup winner Ruud Gullit to win a major trophy in England. Even more relevant is his ability to get the best out of his players. And, with the help of his experienced assistant Ray Mathias, he has clearly succeeded with both Macclesfield and the Dons.

The Ilford-born Ince first made back-page headlines as a youngster with West Ham United. He made his First Division debut in the 1986-87 campaign which saw the Hammers reach their highest ever position of third. He became a regular member of John Lyall’s side the following season, demonstrating pace, the ability to pass the ball and the ability to win it in the middle of the pitch. He was rewarded with a call-up to the England Under-21 squad.

The 1988-89 campaign was to be his last full one in claret and blue. He shot to national recognition with two stunning goals in a shock 4-1 win over Liverpool in the League Cup, which helped West Ham reach the last four. In contrast, the Hammers struggled in the League and were relegated on the last day of the season. It was inevitable that Ince would leave Upton Park during the summer of 1989 and it was no surprise when Manchester United showed serious interest. However, a straightforward deal became deeply complicated when a photograph of Ince wearing a Manchester United shirt appearaed in a newspaper while he was still a West Ham player. The shot of him should not have been released until after the transfer had been finalised; but the badly-advised Ince had allowed it all to happen in order that he could fly off on holiday.

The sight of Ince wearing Manchester red sent West Ham fans all over the world into a rage. Some sent him hate mail and many bubble-blowers will never forgive him until their dying days. To compound matters, the deal with Manchester United nearly fell through as the player struggled to pass the medical. In the end, after Ince played in the Hammers’ first game of the new season, he did move to Old Trafford for a £1 million fee plus significant appearance add-ons.

Ince quickly became a major member of Ferguson’s squad, alongside skipper Bryan Robson and Neil Webb. He helped lift the FA Cup in his first term, when Crystal Palace were beaten in a replay. Ince proved his worth, with his snapping tackles, precision passes and some useful goals. He helped United lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup (in 1991) and the League Cup (in 1992).

He made his international debut in 1992 in a friendly match against Spain and later in 1992-93 helped the Red Devils become the inaugural winners of the FA Premier League. It was the club’s first League title in 26 years. During the summer of 1993, Ince made history on  the summer tour of the States when, in a match against the host nation, he became England's very first black captain.

Ince’s medal haul leaped to six at the end of 1993-94 when he helped United capture the League and FA Cup ’Double’. However, 12 months later, United faced ’Double’ heartbreak as failure to win at his old stomping ground Upton Park on the final day of 1994-95 enabled Blackburn Rovers to take the League title. Six days later United were beaten in the FA Cup final by Everton.

After Ince had made over 200 League appearances for him, in the summer of 2005, Alex Ferguson decided that there would only be one 'Guv’nor' at Old Trafford and unloaded Incey to Inter for £8 million. Just as with his previous transfer, this move caused controversy. Many United supporters were surprised and disappointed to see the experienced midfielder leave and were initially apprehensive when his place went to young Nicky Butt.

Paul had to overcome a slightly stuttering start to his career at the San Siro but soon won over the majority of the fans with his passionate performances. He had two decent seasons in Italy and helped Inter reach the UEFA Cup final in his second term. However, his side they lost the final to Schalke after a shoot-out. In the summer of 1997 he moved back to England and joined Liverpool, Internazionale getting a £4 million fee in return.

He never let anybody down at Anfield, but Ince was on the move again after two seasons when he joined his old Manchester United team-mate Robson, who by now was manager of Middlesbrough. He became club captain at the Riverside and during this period he announced his international retirement following his 53rd cap and England’s exit from the 2000 European Championships. All-told, Ince stayed with Middlesbrough for three seasons, making 93 League appearances. He then dropped down to the second-flight to join Wolves on a free transfer. The Essex boy proved to be a useful acquistion as, at the end of his first term, the Molinuex men regained top-flight status for the first time in 18 years. Ince got one last opportunity to play in the Premiership although Wolves were relegated 12 months later. He eventually left Molineux in the summer of 2006.

Ince briefly played for Swindon Town, where he also coached before replacing Brian Horton at Macclesfield in October 2006. He was nominally the player-manager of the Silkmen, although he made just one League appearance, his 555th in English League football, before calling time on his playing career. More importantly, though, his side battled bravely to avoid relegation, having been seven points adrift at the bottom when he took over. They eventually finished in 22nd place – two points above the relegation line. It was a massive achievement for their new manager especially as Macclesfield did not post a win until their 20th fixture. A run of seven victories from nine games around the turn of the year provided the impetus to stave off relegation, but safety was not confirmed until the final day of the campaign.

It was ineviatable that Ince would move on and he did so during the summer to upwardly mobile MK Dons, who had just moved into their new mk:stadium. From quite early in the campaign, it appeared obvious that the Dons and the division's other big-spenders Peterborough United were likey to carve up the League between them. And so it proved, with the Dons taking the title with 97 points – five more than the Posh, who are also managed by another ex-Manchester United midfielder in the guise of Sir Alex's son Darren.

Ince's strong and mobile side were deserved champions. The bulk of of the goals were shared around five of the offensive players – Mark Wright (13), Keith Andrews (12), Lloyd Dyer (11), Aaron Wilbraham (10) and Keith Gallen (8) – but equally important were goalkeeper Willie Gueret and the solid line in front of him – usually Drissa Diallo, Sean O'Hanlon, Danny Swailes (who followed Ince from Macclesfield) and Dean Lewington. The veteran Colin Cameron along with Alan Navarro and the consisently excellent skipper Andrews provided the bullets from midfield.

The Dons boss hopes that his achievements encourage current black players to turn to management at the end of their careers. Paul was quoted recently as saying: "Why not try your hand at management? It can be done and if I can be the yardstick then I've done something good." He added: "I hope I can do something to say to people like Andy Cole, Sol Campbell and Ledley King that once they've finished playing football, why go out of it?"

It will be interesting now to see what sort of fist the Dons make of level three, and for that matter, how long they can keep hold of their talented manager. They will do very well to stave off the interest from some bigger and more established clubs.

Personally, I look forward to the day he gets his chance at Premier League level. I have to admit that I would quite like it if it was at my own club West Ham. Sadly, I am in a very tiny minority of Hammers fans who would welcome that particular appointment. Many thousand others will never ever forgive him for the events of 1989 - but I suspect that they are the very people that are spurring Paul Ince on to be an even better football manager.

David Powter

*David Powter is the editor of Winger, the monthy review of British Football