Just a couple of weeks. That was the plan. Hold the fort until they can find someone else. “That old old man,” smiles Paul Ince from behind the desk in the manager’s office at Reading training ground.
He is in his eighth month in charge. He returns to his natural habitat after eight years out of football. The competitive fire is back in his belly and his team is 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 way happily,” Ince says. “I was thinking, steady the ship, get some standards in the building, get back to having fun in the building, it’s never easy when you’re not winning, and change the culture a little bit.”
Paul Ince loves his return to managerial life with Reading after eight years off the bench.
When Reading lost their fourth game 4–0 at Nottingham Forest, Ince searched the newspapers for work-related names but found nothing. The football vine was silent, so he continued, on a losing streak of just one loss in seven games. The threat of relegation subsided and when owner Dai Yongge asked him to stay until the summer, he agreed.
“One of my greatest achievements as a person,” Ince says, reflecting on last season. “You hear people criticizing, hesitating, gamblers coming out and saying it’s a big risk, and I get it.
“When you’ve been out that long, it’s a risk, but I know I can lift players who are down and need guidance.” That’s something I’ve always done, going to clubs like Macclesfield and Blackpool.
The former Manchester United and his England midfielder have Reading flying in the Championship
“It felt good to keep them because this was a Premier League club not too long ago. You look at the stadium, the training ground and the staff and you know that if you go down to League One you will 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 was taking on a family feel. Little by little, he was drawn back. “That little nervous excited feeling in his stomach before a game, like he used to get when he was playing,” says Ince. ‘It’s funny, because if I had been asked at the beginning to be a permanent manager, I probably would have said no.
‘Eight beautiful years without stress and suddenly everyone has an opinion about you: “Don’t do this, do this, you’re a piece of crap, put it on, take it off.” Why would you go back into the pressure cooker?
Sir Alex Ferguson is not his main source of inspiration, he revealed, with his wife Claire taking up that mantle.
“There was no director of football, no scouting system, the club was not how it should be. He knew that the budget would have to be severely cut.
‘We can’t buy players. We are putting together a team on loans and free transfers because we are under this embargo, but we know that if we can stay in the league this year, we could have two or three years to build something special.
‘Coaches always talk about projects when they know they could be out in six games, but I feel like with this owner I have a better chance of getting this project done than anywhere else.
“He is receptive, he has invested a lot of money in the club and he wants to do well.”
Reading, after a few difficult years in which they flirted with relegation, fly to the top of the division
This couldn’t be further from his previous managerial experience at Blackpool, when he was sacked by chairman Karl Oyston while at St George’s Park getting his UEFA Pro license.
“I went out and found about 50 missed calls from my wife,” says Ince. “I called him back, worried that something had happened to one of the children. She said, “You haven’t heard, Karl Oyston fired you.” She hadn’t even told me face to face.
‘That was disappointing. We were mid-table with one of the lowest budgets in the Championship and he left me despondent, wondering if he could keep bothering me about all this.’
Ince, 54, may have won the biggest prizes in the game and captained his country, but his managerial career started from the bottom. Macclesfield were seven points behind in League Two without a win in 15 games when he was awarded the place in October 2006.
Players like Lucas Joao make Reading fans believe in better days under Ince management
“After all the big games, cup finals and England internationals I’ve played in, I’ve never been more nervous than before the first-team talk at Macclesfield,” he says.
‘I couldn’t sleep the night before. In a small locker room with all the players looking at me, hanging on every word, taking it all in, and I was shaking. It was terrifying.
Having kept them, 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 was playing in the Premier League. You had to be nicer to some of them, hold their hands. Some of them weren’t even that good.
‘It was hard but nice, and I was devastated when I lost my job, because I was learning so much. But in the Premier League, if you dive in and it doesn’t change quickly, they have to make changes.
Although the club has struggled for funds and players, the current group seems united.
‘Tom Finn was the secretary there and he was devastated when he called me to tell me, because he knew he didn’t have a good whip.
“I made mistakes, but I learned a lot and I promised myself that if I had the opportunity 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 term, followed by brief unsatisfying spells at Notts County and Blackpool.
Ince admitted his time at Blackburn in the Premier League came too soon for him as manager.
The former midfielder said he had problems with some of the players during his time at the club because of how different he and his teammates were back in the day.
Eight years out of football followed. Initially, he resisted ‘firefighter’ jobs that didn’t appeal to him. He toyed with the idea of training abroad. And he settled into a rhythm that combined television work with family life.
He was watching his son Thomas play and play golf with his other son Daniel, who is playing from scratch and is about to turn pro. He also spent time with his daughter Ria, who is in college studying international business and Mandarin and, he admits, getting used to his wife Claire.
They were at school together in Dagenham and have been married for 32 years. Ince says: “When people ask me if my inspiration is Sir Alex Ferguson or John Lyall, I’ll tell them it’s my wife Claire.
“She went through a lot in the ’80s, when whites and blacks weren’t often seen together as a couple. She sacrificed her job to move with me to Manchester, away from her family.
Wife Claire is the inspiration in the former player’s life, even if he got under her skin at times.
“We have been married for 32 years and she is used to me not being there. Having me back in the house every minute of the day was a headache for her.
“I’d come downstairs in the morning and find a list on the table: do this, do that, go to the bin, change a light bulb, a package is coming.”
Then came the call to fix Reading. Once Ince agreed to stay on permanently, they installed Mark Bowen as head of football operations and Brian Carey as hiring director.
“We are trying to move forward,” he adds. ‘There is a lot of work to be done here and I realized that I wanted to be a part of it.
Reading continue to aim for survival this season with their foot on the gas until they reach the 45-point mark.
‘Reading is a wonderful club with a wonderful owner. My energy is not exhausted worrying about what I might do. We all understand where we are. The followers understand.
They are behind the team and the players are a great group. No egos, no rotten eggs. They keep fighting like they showed last year because they know that if they don’t keep fighting they are going to lose.
‘That’s not to say it’s not under pressure, but in a perverse way the embargo and the small team could help us.
‘It’s a good start, but it’s only 10 games and we have to move on. We need to stay in the league, that’s priority number one. Until we reach 45 points, we will step on the accelerator.’ Ince is firmly back in the groove.