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We were all so fired up for those derby battles: Ince

By Simon Hughes

Published 15/10/2016

Listen here: Paul Ince gestures towards the crowd after scoring for Liverpool against former club Manchester United in 1999
Listen here: Paul Ince gestures towards the crowd after scoring for Liverpool against former club Manchester United in 1999

The pause between question and answer is brief when Paul Ince considers whether he agrees with Graeme Souness about the moments he misses most as a footballer.

Ince begins to describe his feelings straight away, in fact. "You're in the tunnel before a game and you're playing for Manchester United or Liverpool," he says.

"You know something is about to happen - it's all going to kick off in some way. The adrenaline starts pumping and you're thinking about all the possibilities. You either relish the expectations or they bury you under the pressure.

"At United we never used to speak to the players on the other team. It's eerie when you're standing there in a line and nobody is talking even though you might know some of the lads. You see players now and they'll give each other a big hug.

"I'd be at the back of the queue with Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes in front of me. They'd make you feel safe. I'd look straight ahead with dead eyes. I'd be thinking to myself, 'I can't wait to get going… just blow the whistle!"

Ince puts himself in the position of a Liverpool player, having become one in 1997 after two seasons with Inter Milan in Serie A separated six highly successful years, the best of which were spent running the centre of United's midfield with Roy Keane.

"Me and Keanie are still very good friends," he continues. "He was a phenomenal player and we had a great partnership.

"But all of a sudden, you're on the opposite side. I'm at Liverpool. So I know what he's thinking and he knows what I'm thinking: 'Make sure you don't lose your battle; if you don't match him he'll run all over you…'

"You don't understand the rivalry and the history between the two clubs unless you are a supporter or until you actually play in one of those games. It has changed a lot because both have so many foreign players.

"It takes longer for players from abroad with no emotional attachment to understand what it means unless you have some local flavour in the dressing room. At United, I shared one with Manchester lads: (Paul) Scholes, (Ryan) Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Nevilles.

"At Liverpool, there was Robbie (Fowler), Macca (McManaman) and Jason McAteer. They were fired up. You didn't want to lose. If you did, it felt as though you'd let the whole city down. Maybe there's a more pragmatic reaction now."

Ince speaks from a unique position in modern times. Before him, Phil Chisnall was the last player to represent both United and Liverpool. Chisnall moved to Anfield directly from Old Trafford in 1964. There was John Gidman too, who was brought up in Garston and played for Liverpool's youth teams before joining United from Everton in 1981.

"It would have been difficult to go from Man United straight to Liverpool," Ince admits.

"The fact I had two years at Inter Milan made it easier. That's not to say that I wouldn't have considered joining Liverpool from Man United. It just didn't pan out that way.

"I wanted to stay at Inter. I had three years left on my contract there and the club had just signed Ronaldo. I'd loved to have played with him. Because of family, I decided to return to England. If it was just down to football, I'd probably still be living in Italy today.

"What you must remember is, I never wanted to leave United in the first place. I'd been there for six years. I was negotiating another four-year contract. But then United agreed a fee with Inter. It wasn't me pushing for a move. I was happy at United.

"When I came back from Inter, United had the first option on me. But they didn't take it. So, when another great club like Liverpool comes in, what do you do?

"I'm not going to say, 'I'm not going to join Liverpool because of what some United fans will say…' You can't live your life like that. I'm stronger than that. Turning Liverpool down never even entered my mind. I had six wonderful years at United. But they didn't want me. So I had to move on."

Ince concedes he did not foresee United's domination under Sir Alex Ferguson after he was sold in the summer of 1995, a second rise with new younger players who were able to hold off the challenge from Roy Evans' Liverpool.

"United had lost to Everton in the FA Cup final, we missed out on the title to Blackburn on the final day at West Ham and the manager decided to sell other senior players as well," he explains.

"The mood was turning because the most experienced lads like Brucey and Mark Hughes were being phased out. We knew the club hadn't won the title in 26 years. Sir Alex knew he had to find the players to deal with the monkey on our backs.

"That's why I think the analysis of modern football sometimes focuses too much on ability alone and statistics. There has to be a balance for everything. Great players aren't just talented technically. It is hard to measure mental toughness. You need to have desire and determination."

He believes that the demand for success at both United and Liverpool remains as aggressive as ever.

"Being a Man United player is hard because it's not just about playing, it's the demands every single week to perform. United have had good players, but if you can't deal with expectation, the club will flatten you. It's both the toughest thing to deal with and the greatest thing about it. It's absolutely the same situation at Liverpool," he says.

"They've made a good start I love watching them. Jurgen Klopp has them pressing from the front. It's like seeing 11 Kevin Keegans. The approach is something the fans will be able to relate to because that's what Liverpool people are about.

"There isn't quite the same momentum at United. But it takes time.

"No disrespect to Louis van Gaal, but the football under him was too slow and methodical. It's going to take time for Jose Mourinho to bring a bit of style back. United are capable of being up there this season but I don't think they can win the title. There's a lot of work to be done but he's one of the greatest managers of all time."

The money United have spent, Ince believes, has increased expectations to an unreasonable level. Finding a position for Paul Pogba, the £89m midfielder, will be a problem until he is settled.

"He's had the same issue with the French national team. You've got to remember that Pogba's played the last four years at Juventus in a 3-5-2 formation. It's a very different system. It's not just about going forward.

"His best position at the moment is probably as an attacking midfielder. But United have (Wayne) Rooney, (Juan) Mata and (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan in that area. And you only get so long before you're sussed you out. Whether that's at United or Liverpool."


Man Utd

Premier League:

Anfield, Monday, 8.00pm

Belfast Telegraph

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