When Did Former Manchester United and Liverpool Player Paul Ince Become So Out Of Touch?

The Premier League and Champion's League have made playing for England obsolete, says Paul Ince. Did his generation really put country before club, or has he got his rose-tinted specs on?
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The Premier League and Champion's League have made playing for England obsolete, says Paul Ince. Did his generation really put country before club, or has he got his rose-tinted specs on?

How Did ex Manchester United and Liverpool player Paul Ince Become So Out Of Touch?

Putting aside inter-club rivalries is difficult when discussing former Manchester United, Liverpool, Inter Milan and West Ham player Paul Ince. In truth, there has been plenty to dislike for years without him adding fuel to the already roaring fire with baffling comments about the current England set-up last week. But I have tried to take his comments on their merits.

In a 5Live interview, reported subsequently on BBC Sports website, Ince is quoted as saying: “Playing for England used to be the pinnacle of your career. Now it’s not that important, as we have the Champions League and Premier League.” Is this Pat Crerand talking or Paul Ince?

Is this a bitter ex-pro from the 1960’s with an axe to grind with almost every contemporary that was more successful than him, or with current players who earn an Old Trafford-sized wad of cash more than he did? Or is this the first black captain of England, or the first black Premiership manager, or a medal-winner for the first two Premiership titles in 1993 and 1994?

Whatever you think of Paul Ince, he raised the bar when it came to setting aspirational standards and showing what can be achieved by black kids in Britain. Okay, maybe he does not hold the same iconic status as Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson, the West Brom triumvirate from the late 1970’s who dodged bananas on the way to England recognition, but Ince has achieved things that have made statements of cultural significance in modern Britain.

So why does he now sound like he hasn’t earned millions from being a Premiership player for Manchester United and Liverpool and manager for Blackburn Rovers? Did he not play in the Champions League himself? Was he not a prominent part in the cash-obsessed escalation into ‘Never-never’ land that modern football has become?

Of course the money in the game is obscene, of course the importance put on the Champions League is elitist and out of control, but you can’t blame the kids or even the clubs.

How can Ince decry the Wembley crowds by saying “…I can’t remember from my time fans singling out a certain (England) player to boo or have a go at. And it kind of sickens me…”? This from a player ever-present throughout the calamitous reign of Graham Taylor, when ritual booing of England players such as Carlton Palmer and most famously Geoff Thomas, has gone down in the folklore of the Twin Towers as a routine pastime from a fallow period of long-ball and non-qualification.

I agree with Ince that Wembley is no ‘home’ for the England players, but this is nothing new, and is a by-product of the insane media expectation that feeds fans anticipation and patience levels to a point where the players are expected to re-invent the wheel every time they pull on an England shirt. I have never envied an England player in the savagely unforgiving amphitheatre of Wembley, who needs that? Ince must be used to this pressure, it has been the same for forty years as England have written the book on being maddeningly inconsistent.

Of course Wembley is now an anti-septic corporate dining club, with banks of empty seats from 45 minutes onwards. Parents whisk their kids off to tackle the London transport system before bed time and the canapés and free-bar dwellers think better of the life-draining experience of watching Gareth Barry plod through the second half. If anything football fans are less inclined to boo England players at Wembley now because there are fewer die-hard football fans there. Wembley is a day out now, a treat for those lucky enough to afford it, a chance to star spot Stevie G, Lamps and Rooney.

When Ince bemoans the fact that England caps are given out “like confetti”, he sends out a confusing message, particularly when the article finishes with a defence of Fabio Capello’s England set-up via the quote "It's hard for Fabio, or for Stuart Pearce with the Under-21s. You want your best players and you want England to go forward. When your best players aren't turning up it becomes hard.” Yeah, it’s hard, but who are you having a go at? The clubs you very recently played for? The FA? The kids? The game itself? I get what he means, this is all directed ultimately at UEFA. But why dress this up in a sepia-tinted rant about the England set-up when you have just answered your own question?

Like most fair-minded football fans, I have no sympathy for the modern footballer, and I am not disagreeing with Ince just for the sake of it. Of course the money in the game is obscene, of course the importance put on the Champions League is elitist and out of control, but you can’t blame the kids or even the clubs. I am staggered that Ince feels he exists on a different plain to how the game is now, as if he retired forty years ago when you were lucky to take home £1,000 from a testimonial against Bradford Park Avenue, and you were grateful you still had cortisone-injected knees to help you prop the bar up in the pub you run with the Missus.

Ince did a lot of good for the game, but there are other sides to the story and I don’t think he is in the saintly position to demonise modern footballers and the modern game. Club football will always be the lifeblood of the game.

Ince seems to think he belongs in a bygone era that doesn’t exist anymore, whilst he is very much synonymous with creating what we have now, and is particularly familiar with the mercenary trait of the well-travelled modern day footballer, with eight clubs to his name. He has extended that into his managerial career having twice left MK Dons in the middle of a long contract, once for an ill-fated spell at Blackburn and the second time citing financial restrictions.

Possibly he thinks that the enduring image of a blood-soaked Ince combining bandage with England shirt affords him eternal Terry Butcher national treasure status, and free reign to berate modern England players for doing what people are stupid enough to pay them for. But many in the game remember Alex Ferguson, who despite his negative points has proved to be a decent judge of character, belittling Ince upon selling him to Inter in 2005, labeling him a “bottler” and a “big-time Charlie”. Many remember him opting to sit in the centre circle facing the wrong way, whilst the then rookie Gareth Southgate reluctantly agreed to take a sudden death penalty against Germany in Euro 96, instead of the more experienced Ince.

Ince did a lot of good for the game, but there are other sides to the story and I don’t think he is in the saintly position to demonise modern footballers and the modern game. Club football will always be the lifeblood of the game. What else would we do whilst waiting for a November friendly against Estonia? I don’t know anybody who considers England to be more important than their club, and I doubt footballers are any different.

The muddled outpourings are compounded by Ince’s closing quote in the BBC article "Whether these players, aged 18 or 19, now dream about playing at Wembley, I don't know. Or would they rather play against Barcelona in the Champions League final?" Yeah Paul, the biggest game in the European football calendar, this year played at Wembley, nobody dreams about that………

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