As Michael Owen prepares to go back to Anfield as a United player, another player to break the unwritten rule, Paul Ince, has reflected on his respect for Sir Alex Ferguson, their fallings out and why he left the club.
“I was playing golf with Ryan Giggs in 1995 when the phone rang. It was Fergie telling me he was at the clubhouse,” said Ince. “I walked in and before I could say anything, he said: ‘We’ve accepted an offer from Inter Milan, you’re off. I’ve got Nicky Butt coming through and I want to give him a chance.’ That was it, my United career was over. I was stunned, not to mention gutted, and it was difficult to forgive him even though I did have a great time in Italy and it made me a better player. Then when I came back to England with Liverpool, he called me a ‘Big-time Charlie’ in the papers and that really hurt me. I had the scars to show how much I’d given for United and to tar me with that brush was unforgiveable. It also meant I had to take crap from United fans which also hurt.”
It’s hard to believe Ince’s version of events, given that he was a player who had previously talked about his dream of one day playing in Spain. Managers don’t tend to sell English players to European teams without at least having a chat about it first.
Ince admits they did have their fallings out though, namely after United beat title rivals 3-0 and Ince chose to go on a mazy run, before losing possession and seeing the ball go straight back towards his own goal. Despite United not conceding, the manager was not impressed with Ince’s attitude.
“Back in the dressing room, the boys were buzzing,” Ince retold. “Three-nil against one of our nearest rivals and, honestly, we cruised it. Cue lots of laughter, jokes, congratulations, until you-know-who walked in. He went ballistic, called me all the names under the sun, asking me who the fuck I thought I was, hammering me into the ground. I was astonished, then I grew angrier and angrier and I started giving him some back, asking him what the fuck he was going on about and giving as good as I got. We didn’t talk to each other for three days. He was fuming, I was sulking and we avoided each other at the training ground until the Friday before the next game when it was a head tennis competition. Fergie appointed himself umpire – and gave every bloody decision against me! The worst thing was, I couldn’t call him on it because I wasn’t talking to him! At the end, he caught my eye and smiled. He then pulled me to one side, told me I’d been out of order against Norwich and pointed out that you treat every game properly until the final whistle blows. You know what? The old sod was right, too. It’s a lesson he taught me as a manager – never let players get away with anything.”