Sir Alex Ferguson's text message was one of the first Paul Ince received when he arrived in football management at Macclesfield. "Welcome to the madhouse," it read, a marker that the Manchester United manager, with whom Ince joins managerial battle for the first time at Ewood Park this evening, would be a point of constancy throughout the new journey.
The two men last sat down together in Ince's office at MK Dons on a Friday night last March, talking football for an hour while Ferguson, as Ince told it with a grin yesterday, drained his red wine supplies after the Peterborough side managed by his son, Darren, had secured a draw.
There have been several phone calls down to Manchester from Ince these four months past, too. "That's what you're there for when you've got the experience I have," Ferguson said.
It has not always been such a bed of roses for the two of them, of course. Ferguson accused Ince in his biography of treachery over the way he left United for Internazionale in 1995 and described him in a team talk captured for a TV documentary three years later as a "f***ing big-time Charlie" while at Liverpool. "Yep, that was a mistake," Ferguson said yesterday, five words he does not string together too often. The rows were face to face with the 1993-94 United side. "Fergie must have fallen out with every one of that United squad," Ince said.
The rueful smile as Ferguson yesterday recalled their relationship in that Double-winning season said everything. "You could not have a honeymoon all the time because he was such a volatile character. But he never let us down," the United manager said. But neither man would have had it any other way. Ferguson cherishes the memory of the class of '94 more than any other because, as he always says, they were "warriors" and for Ince that warrior spirit was built on the collective strength of huge personalities who sometimes collided monumentally.
"Arrogance in players is [something] you need to play for Man United," Ince said. "They're not horrible people but they are arrogant and the special players, the likes of Keaney [Roy Keane] and [Eric] Cantona [who've] got egos, are going to clash. For me that's why the '93-'94 team was the best team – not necessarily on ability but because there were so many opinionated people in that changing room. If you feel you're right, you don't just sit there and take it in." And at the heart of all that was Ferguson, the only man on earth capable of handling them, to Ince's mind. "They were such strong characters," Ince said. "He was the one who could control everyone and get them to perform on the pitch week in week out."
The warrior spirit is the reason why so many of that squad have made it in management. The success of Mark Hughes, the quiet one off the pitch, has been the big surprise to both Ince and Ferguson, as is Peter Schmeichel, whom they both felt would make it into the "madhouse". Ince sees that same potential in Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, perhaps Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic too, but it is not like it used to be at Old Trafford, he said, hinting that the game's millions have taken away the hunger.
"I look at Ferguson's team today and what Alex Ferguson says, probably goes," Ince declared. "At the time when we were playing that wasn't always the case. If we felt we were right, we'd chip back. He could absolutely rollock us and knew that he'd get a response. With today's footballers you have to be a little bit more careful with them. I don't think Ferguson uses the hairdryer as much as he used to. I'm not sure you can be like that any more."
Ince has shown an inclination to soften the persona he adopted as a player, which did not endear him to many team-mates, including a young Steven Gerrard at Anfield. Ferguson disliked the "Guvnor" image Ince created for himself at Old Trafford and when that term started accompanying his Blackburn match programme notes at the start of the season Ince let it be known that he was unhappy. Now his column is entitled: "The Gaffer". He is as much his own man as ever though; chippy yesterday when it was put to him that there might be Ferguson qualities in him. "I'm my own person – I have to have my own identity," he said, though the man best qualified to compare the two, Ferguson's long-time Aberdeen and United assistant Archie Knox, now with Ince at Blackburn, sees much of his old friend in his new boss. "Alex hates losing and Paul is the same," he said. "Even in training there's a pressure put on the guys."
There are other similarities between sorcerer and apprentice. Both have an understanding of life in lower league obscurity and there
were the beginnings, for Ince, of Ferguson's difficult baptism in the top flight. That included questions about Ince's commitment to daily duties in July which led him to tell friends he felt Rovers were being "relegated before the season has begun." He was still ruminating on that one yesterday. Rovers' current seventh spot hides a multitude of uncertainties shown up by the 4-0 home defeat by Arsenal last month but Ince now senses progress. "It is never easy when you have had a manager for four years like 'Sparky' [Mark Hughes] and the new manager wants to change things," he said. "Players don't like change. But these players have taken things on board slowly and the performances are getting better and better." Ferguson has also declared himself impressed.
Much to agree on, then, when they take another glass of wine together, tonight, though Ferguson is less receptive to talk of time having changed football. "Management is an easy game so long as you stick to the principles of it," he said. "Black is black and white is white. I haven't changed in that way. What is difficult is winning matches."
When Guvnor met Fergie (Jnr)
Paul Ince has already beaten Ferguson twice in the management game – that is Ferguson Jnr, his son Darren, who manages Peterborough. The pair, who were team-mates at Old Trafford, met three times in League Two when Ince was managing Macclesfield, then MK Dons. Ince leads 2-0 with one match drawn. Peterborough lost 2-1 at Macclesfield in February 2007, and 2-1 at home to MK Dons last December. In March of this year the teams drew 1-1 at stadium:mk. Last season Milton Keynes went up as champions while Posh were second, five points behind.
"You have to admire Paul," Ferguson said in March. "He accepted tough challenges when he was a player and he has accepted even tougher challenges as a manager. I mean no disrespect to Macclesfield, but a player of Paul's stature would have been forgiven for turning down the chance to manage them – yet he steered them to safety quite comfortably in the end. Paul is destined for big things as a manager."