It would be easy to ignore Paul Ince‘s plight, very easy. After all, this is the man who posed in a Manchester United shirt long before his move to Old Trafford from West Ham was complete, this is the man who not only gave himself a nickname, also picked the most arrogant, and mildly pathetic nickname to boot (“The Guv’nor” caused even his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, to cringe), it is also the man who famously could not bring himself to watch, let alone take a penalty, as less self-professed hardmen such as Alan Shearer, Stuart Pearce & Paul Gascoigne nervelessly buried theirs in the Euro 96 semi final.
But with Ince relieved of his managerial duties today after just six months in charge at Blackburn Rovers, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the former England man.
Ince replaced the Manchester City-bound Mark Hughes in June amid a wave of optimism at Ewood Park, Rovers chairman John Williams was applauded for being bold enough to opt for a manager from outside the Premier League circle- although cynics pointed out that Paul Ince’s prestige made him a more suitable candidate than, say, Roberto Martinez or Gary Johnson- and Ince was labelled a trailblazer for young black managers in the British game. Everything was rosy in the house that Jack built.
Or was it? Closer inspection upon Hughes’ departure would have shown Ince that not only was he soon to be a goalkeeper short (and a very good goalkeeper at that), but he was also resigned to losing his side’s main creative talent, with not many more within the squad capable of stepping up. He would also have discovered pretty quickly that, under Hughes, Blackburn had been punching above their weight, if not hugely, certainly slightly.
Yes there were quality players there- Roque Santa Cruz & Benni McCarthy have proven themselves in Europe as well as the Premiership, Steven Reid was emerging as a quality midfielder after years of unrealised potential, whilst Ryan Nelsen is a fine leader at the back, and Stephen Warnock was good enough last season to play his way into the England setup, albeit as part of an admittedly weakened squad- but in many areas the team was workmanlike, rather than impressive, and strength in depth was thin on the ground. Hughes got lesser players to play above themselves; Ince would always face an uphill battle to get the same sort of performances. Especially right away.
Of course Ince made mistakes. His first one for me was his decision to replace the outgoing Brad Friedel with a confidence-shattered Paul Robinson. Some critics even suggest that Ince could well have done more to persuade Friedel to stay, although Friedel himself has since stated that he felt it was time to move on, and £2.5m for a 37 year-old keeper can be considered decent business. Robinson may once have been England’s number one, but those days seem a really long time ago now, and he simply isn’t in the same class as Friedel. Whereas the likes of Newcastle & Bolton can rely on Shay Given or Jussi Jaaskelainen, Blackburn simply do not have that luxury, with Robinson more likely to spoil a good display than save a poor one.
It is always hard to know exactly who is to blame for poor transfer business at a club of course, after all it is the board who sign the cheques. But at Blackburn it was undoubtedly Ince who was picking the players this summer, plucking goalkeeper Mark Bunn and midfielder Keith Andrews from his old club MK Dons, adding a bit of grit and creativity through Vince Grella & Carlos Villaneuva, whilst picking up Danny Simpson & Robbie Fowler on a loan and a short term contract respectively. Hardly awe inspiring stuff for a side which could reasonably have been expected to make a charge for the top six this season.
Were funds denied to Ince? Rovers will have earned around £20m from the sales of Friedel to Villa & David Bentley to Spurs, yet their overall summer outlay stands at around £5m for Robinson & Andrews. Ince was quoted as saying he had faith in the players already at the club, but with the likes of Steed Malbranque, Scott Carson, Danny Guthrie & Justin Hoyte all moving from bigger clubs to smaller clubs for affordable fees in the summer, it is hard to see why Blackburn were not in for players of this calibre, instead of seemingly scraping round the bargain bin and calling in favours.
Andrews isn’t a bad player, he captained MK Dons with great distinction under Ince, and since signing for Blackburn he has made a goalscoring debut for the Republic of Ireland, but it was unreasonable to expect a player with nine seasons of lower league football under his belt to begin bossing a Premier League midfield immediately. Admittedly, Ince was not helped by injuries to Reid, Grella & David Dunn in that respect, but a more established presence in the midfield was certainly required this summer, particularly with Tugay getting older and looking like a relic.
There was also no real replacement for Bentley, a source of ten goals and twenty assists in the past two seasons. Villanueva was brought in on loan, and is undoubtedly a talented player, but would clearly need time to adapt to a whole new style of play. At the moment Blackburn have no-one looking capable of chipping in with five goals from midfield, let alone ten. Especially since Morten Gamst Pedersen’s left foot no longer masks serious deficiencies in his game and character.
Add to that the huge gap left by an early-season injury to Roque Santa Cruz- a gap which neither Jason Roberts, Matt Derbyshire or Fowler ever looked likely to fill on a regular basis- and you have a team which is bordering on being unequipped for Premier League combat. The midfield lacks a real leader, even a Robbie Savage would do at the moment, and the pressure the team is under causes mistakes from normally reliable defenders such as Nelsen & Warnock, mistakes which Wigan on Saturday ruthlessly exposed, much to chairman Williams’ disdain.
The fact is, whereas the likes of Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough & Tottenham around them can point to two or three match winners, Blackburn are having difficulty hanging onto the only one they have got, with former boss Hughes lurking outside Santa Cruz’s gate with a suitcase filled with gold. Whether Ince was denied funds, or afforded funds and chose not to use them, or was unable to attract the players he wanted is unclear, but the Blackburn board should certainly be taking a long hard look at themselves tonight, they may well have just set a promising manager’s career back a year or two. Yet who will they be answering to? Not me or you, that’s for sure.