Can Paul Ince cut it at Notts County?
At Meadow Lane
At Meadow Lane
Paul Ince seemed determined to keep his emotions in check after son Thomas scored his first goal in professional football on Saturday afternoon to put Notts County in the lead late in their match against MK Dons.
It was a brilliant left-footed strike from Thomas, an 18-year-old currently on loan from Liverpool, and it ensured that a game meandering towards a goalless draw was transformed into a victory that saw the Magpies record back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
His dad quipped afterwards that he did not want to talk about the goal because he was sure he would spend the rest of the evening hearing all about it. But there was much for the manager to be pleased about as he assessed a result that lifted the Magpies out of the League One relegation zone and up to 19th in the League One table.
"I do not want to get carried away," said Ince. "But the last 20 minutes of the first half was the best I have seen from a team in this league."
His side looked solid across the back, delivered plenty of good quality crosses from wide areas and showed lots of determination and invention in attack. It was a performance that suggested Ince's team can comfortably fulfill his aim of climbing away from the lower reaches of the table.
Ince was appointed in late October following the dismissal of Craig Short after just 13 league games in charge of the club. Chairman Ray Trew, a man who made his money in recruitment, obviously decided he had made a mistake in employing the former County defender.
Trew, who bought the club last season at a time when they desperately needed a new owner, hired Ince after claiming he had been impressed by his "big ideas". In doing so he made the former England captain the club's sixth manager in 13 months. It is a point not missed on Ince.
"This club desperately needs stability," added Ince of the club where Sven-Goran Eriksson and Sol Campbell had brief roles last season.
"I said to the chairman there was no point bringing me here for four or five months. I want as long as it takes to get the club where I believe it belongs. Our aim is to stay in the division this year and push into the play-offs next season."
Ince is the only black manager in the top four divisions following the dismissal of Chris Hughton at Newcastle earlier this week and he believes the sacking of Hughton is a good example of the precarious nature of management.
"I am devastated for Chris because he is a lovely bloke and he has done a fantastic job at Newcastle," said Ince. "He got 102 points in the Championship and that takes some doing. His team went to Arsenal and won and then beat Sunderland 5-1 - what more has a bloke got to do?
"Managers do need time, especially younger ones, and that's what disappoints me about Chris. His team was not bottom of the table. If you are going to sack Chris then why not Avram Grant, Mick McCarthy or Mark Hughes because they are all below him in the table. Yet he gets sacked and that has gone beyond football.
"The problem now is that football is about owners - they make rash decisions and we are the ones who get it in the neck, which is disappointing."
Ince, who signed a three-and-a-half year deal, would be on new ground if he was still in charge of County when the next campaign kicks off. He has not been in charge of any of his three previous clubs for more than one full season.
His first role was at Macclesfield, where he took charge of the Silkmen in October 2006 with the club seven points adrift at the bottom of League Two. Ince could not have gone any lower in the Football League to start his managerial career and risked denting his reputation from the outset, but he managed to keep Town in the league, with the club securing survival on the final day of the season.
It was an achievement that impressed MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman, who hired Ince in the summer of 2007. The following season saw the fledgling club win the League Two title and defeat Grimsby In the final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
"That was the year that established us as a football club - it helped to put us on the map," Winkelman told me. "I will always be grateful to Paul for the personality and charisma that he brought to our club.
"When he wants to go out and do something he has a great ability to not only go and try to achieve that himself but to take other people with him."
His success with MK Dons persuaded Blackburn to appoint him as manager in the summer of 2008. Ince, a former West Ham, Manchester United and Liverpool midfielder, had graduated from League Two to the Premier League, but he was sacked by Rovers after 177 days and 17 league games in charge. His team had won only three of those and lost their previous six matches, leaving the Lancashire club 19th in the table with chairman John Williams fearful that his club were losing touch with the sides above.
Despite the first failure of Ince's managerial career, Winkelman was more than happy to reemploy the manager that had brought so much success first time around.
Ince was sacked after 177 days in charge of Blackburn. Photo: Getty Images
"It was then that I learnt about the old adage that says you should never go back," added Winkelman. "I must confess I did not know what that meant at the time but it is about circumstances and timing - moments in people's lives."
Promotion was the aim for the 2009-10 season and the campaign started well, but the club slipped out of play-off contention as the season wore on. Ince then resigned with four games left when it became clear that he would have to contend with a smaller budget for the next season. The 43-year-old has pointed to the sale of the influential Jason Puncheon to Southampton immediately after a defeat by promotion rivals Charlton in January as a key moment in the season.
Perhaps that is when disillusion set in. I have been told that Ince's second spell at the club lacked the intense desire and determination to succeed that characterised his first period in Milton Keynes. The chemistry wasn't quite there.
I asked Winkelman whether he thought Ince would return to managing in the top flight. Perhaps he was talking about Ince's motivation levels when he said: "I think it is about how much Paul wants it. There is no doubt he has achieved everything he has set his mind to in his life, including managing in the Premier League after his first spell with us."
Ince's appointment at County was hardly met with widespread approval but listening to him after the victory over MK Dons there seems little doubt about his determination to succeed at his new club. He struck me as being both engaging, charming (yes, I was surprised too) and focused.
County's three previous fixtures had fallen victim to the weather and the frozen pitches had restricted the amount of time spent on the training ground. Instead, Ince worked his players in the gym, the swimming pool and the boxing ring and told me he thought the last two weeks had been good for team spirit.
Prior to the cold snap Ince and assistant Alex Rae had been focused on improving set- pieces at both ends of the pitch and defending a higher line, thus restricting the amount of space in which the opposition team have to play.
"When I came in I felt the lads had not been organised properly and needed guidance," said the Magpies boss. "They needed discipline and someone to show them where to go.
"They were also giving far too many goals away and we had to raise the self-belief. Football is about the brain and the idea of persuading them that they can improve, but doing that takes time."
Ince has already brought in the likes of son Thomas and Stephen Darby on loan from Liverpool and former Charlton defender Sam Sodje But he will continue to remodel his squad during the January transfer window. His first three games ended in defeat but County have won their last two and Ince has noticed an improvement. Even so, he is not talking about a quick fix at County and is insistent that he cannot be judged until he has had the opportunity to bring in eight or nine of his own players.
When that happens the man known as "the Guv'nor" is confident that he can bring stability to County and rebuild a managerial reputation that has had to negotiate a couple of bumps in the road.
"We have a long way to go," he said. "As long as I am given the time and the finances needed to bring my own players in then I am sure we will be successful."