EXCLUSIVE: Paul Ince admits Premier League management came 'too early'

EXCLUSIVE: I’m inspired by my wife, not Fergie! Paul Ince admits Premier League management came ‘too early’ for him… but after eight years away he’s making a fine return to the dugout at Reading as they sit third in the Championship despite a transfer embargo

  • Paul Ince took over an Reading initially on a temporary basis last season
  • Former Manchester United and England midfielder has the club flying this year
  • Club currently sit third after a tricky spell in which they flirted with relegation
  • Ince says his wife inspires him not former figures from his time as a player

Just a couple of weeks. That was the plan. Just hold the fort until they can find someone else. ‘That old chestnut,’ smiles Paul Ince from behind the desk in the manager’s office at Reading’s training ground.

He is into his eighth month in charge. Back in his natural habitat after eight years out of football. The competitive fire is back in his belly and his team are third in the Championship, with 18 points from 10 games, despite operating under a transfer embargo.

‘In my head, the plan was two or three games and I’d be on my merry way,’ says Ince. ‘I was thinking, steady the ship, get some standards in the building, get some fun back in the building — never easy when you’re not winning — and change the culture a bit.’

Paul Ince is loving his return to managerial life with Reading after eight years away from the dugout 

When Reading lost his fourth game 4-0 at Nottingham Forest, Ince thumbed the newspapers for names linked to the job but found nothing. Football’s grapevine was silent so on he went, into a run of only one defeat in seven games. The threat of relegation eased and when owner Dai Yongge asked him to stay until the summer he accepted.

‘One of my biggest achievements as a person,’ says Ince, when he reflects on last season. ‘You listen to people criticising, doubting, punters coming out and saying it’s a big risk, and I get that.

‘When you’ve been out for that long it is a risk, but I know I can lift players who are down and need some guidance. That’s something I’ve always done, going into clubs like Macclesfield and Blackpool.

The former Manchester United and his England midfielder has Reading flying in the Championship

‘It felt good to keep them up because this was a Premier League club not long ago. You look at the stadium, the training ground, and the staff and you know if you go down into League One you’ll have to start cutting costs and making redundancies.’

He enjoyed working with his son Thomas again, who had just joined Reading on loan from Stoke, and a familiar sensation was taking hold. Incrementally, he was drawn back in. ‘That little feeling of nervous excitement in your stomach before a game, like I used to have when I was playing,’ says Ince. ‘It’s funny, because if they’d asked me at the start to be a permanent manager, I would have probably said no.

‘Eight lovely, stress-free years then all of a sudden everyone has an opinion on you, “Don’t do this, do this, you’re rubbish, put him on, get him off”. Why would you put yourself back into the pressure cooker?

Sir Alex Ferguson is not his main source of inspiration he revealed, with his wife Claire taking that mantle 

‘There was no director of football, no scouting system, the club wasn’t how it should be. I knew the budget would have to be sliced enormously.

‘We can’t buy players. We’re patching together a team with loanees and free transfers because we’re under this embargo but we know if we can stay in the league this year, we might have two or three years to build something special.

‘Managers always talk about projects when they know they could be out the door in six games, but I do feel with this owner I’ve got more chance of achieving this project than I’d have elsewhere.

‘He’s receptive, he’s put a lot of money into the club and wants to do it right.’

Reading, after a difficult few years that saw them flirt with relegation, are flying towards the top of the division

This could not be further removed from his previous managerial experience at Blackpool, when he was sacked by chairman Karl Oyston while at St George’s Park taking his UEFA Pro Licence.

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‘I came out to find about 50 missed calls from my wife,’ says Ince. ‘I called her back, worried something had happened to one of the kids. She said, “Haven’t you heard, Karl Oyston sacked you”. He’d not even told me face to face.

‘That was disappointing. We were mid-table with one of the lowest budgets in the Championship and it left me feeling despondent, wondering if I could be bothered with it all any longer.’

Ince, 54, may have won the game’s top prizes and captained his country but his managerial career started at the bottom. Macclesfield were seven points adrift in League Two without a win in 15 games when he got the job in October 2006.

Players like Lucas Joao have Reading fans believing of better days ahead under manger Ince

‘After all the big games, cup finals and England internationals I played in, I was never as nervous as I was before that first team talk at Macclesfield,’ he says.

‘I couldn’t sleep the night before. In a little changing room with all the players just looking at me, hanging on every word, taking it all in, and I was shaking. It was terrifying.’

Having kept them up, Ince then joined Milton Keynes Dons where he won promotion and the EFL Trophy at Wembley in his first season before becoming the first black British manager in the Premier League with a move to Blackburn at the age of 40.

‘Honestly, it was too early for me,’ he admits. ‘I wasn’t ready. It was a different generation of players from when I played in the Premier League. You had to be more gentle with some of them, hold their hands. Some of them weren’t even that good.

‘It was tough but enjoyable, and I was gutted when I lost my job, because I was learning a lot. But in the Premier League if you dip and it doesn’t change quickly they have to make changes.

Despite the club having struggled for funds and players the current group look united together

‘Tom Finn was the secretary there and he was devastated when he called me to tell me, because he knew I didn’t have a fair crack of the whip.

‘I made mistakes but I learned a lot and I promised myself if the chance came again I would know what to do.’

There would be no second chance at that level. Ince returned to Milton Keynes but was unable to recreate the magic of his first tenure, and then came brief unsatisfactory spells at Notts County and Blackpool.

Ince admitted his time at Blackburn in the Premier League came too early for him as a manager

The former midfielder said that he struggled with some of the players during his time at the club owing to how they were different to how him and his team-mates had been in his day

Eight years outside football followed. Initially, he resisted ‘firefighting’ jobs that didn’t appeal. He toyed with the idea of coaching abroad. And he settled into a rhythm combining TV work with family life.

He was watching his son Thomas play and golfing with his other son Daniel, who plays off scratch and is about to turn professional. He also spent time with his daughter Ria, who is at university studying international business and Mandarin, and, he admits, getting under the feet of his wife Claire.

They were at school together in Dagenham and have been married for 32 years. Ince says: ‘When people ask whether my inspiration is Sir Alex Ferguson or John Lyall, I will tell them it’s my wife Claire.

‘She went through a lot of things in the ’80s when white people and black people weren’t often seen together as a couple. She sacrificed her work to move with me to Manchester, away from her family.

Wife Claire is the former player’s inspiration in life – even if sometimes he did get under her skin!

‘We’ve been married for 32 years and she’s used to me not being there. To have me back in the house for every minute of the day was a pain in the neck for her.

‘I’d come downstairs in the morning to find a list on the table: do this, do that, go to the skip, change a lightbulb, there’s a parcel coming.’

Then came the call to fix Reading. Once Ince had agreed to stay permanently, they installed Mark Bowen as head of football operations and Brian Carey as director of recruitment.

‘We’re trying to move forward,’ he adds. ‘There’s a lot of work to do here and I realised I wanted to be part of it.

Reading are still targeting survival this season with the foot down on the accelerator until they hit the 45 point mark

‘Reading is a wonderful club with a wonderful owner. My energy isn’t sapped worrying what he might do. We all understand where we’re at. The supporters understand.

‘They’re behind the team and the players are a great bunch. No egos, no bad eggs. They keep fighting as they showed last year because they know if they don’t keep fighting they’ll lose.

‘That doesn’t mean I’m not under pressure but in a perverse way the embargo and the small squad could help us.

‘It’s a good start but it’s only 10 games and we’ve got to keep going. We need to stay in the league, that’s the No1 priority. Until we get to 45 points the foot will be down on the accelerator.’ Ince is firmly back in the groove.




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