Soccer

Sir Alex Ferguson left with egg on his face after Paul Ince’s "perfect" response

By the summer of 1997 it had been seven years since Liverpool had won the league title. Imagine that? Seven years. That’s a lot isn’t it? Surely that wouldn’t last much longer.

And twenty-three-and-a-half years ago the answer to ending that seven-year wait lay in recruiting a bit of bite. More steel. A dominating force in midfield.

It lay in Paul Ince.

The self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ had had an impressive couple of seasons at Inter Milan, but the lure of being Liverpool’s missing piece of the jigsaw proved too difficult to resist, and eyebrows were raised when then former Manchester United midfielder moved to Anfield in a £4m deal to play under Roy Evans, a skilled manager but one whose teams were often accused of being too nice. You’ve all seen the white suits.

Ince’s Old Trafford history meant that his arrival was met with skepticism on Merseyside, but frankly anything would be tolerated if it meant a better chance at winning the league. It had been seven years after all, no-one could take much more.

But once again Liverpool weren’t good enough.

The season opened with them failing to beat any of Wimbledon, Leicester and Blackburn, and they’d lose at home to Barnsley, Southampton and yes, Manchester United, to fade from the title picture.

Arsenal would end up winning that league by a point from United, with the points (not yet a Sir) Alex Ferguson’s men dropped in a 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool on Good Friday proving crucial in the title race.

An 18-year-old Michael Owen had hogged the headlines after that game after both scoring and getting sent off within three minutes of each other in the first half, but in the months to come it was something that happened before the match which would be remembered.

Granada TV had been granted unprecedented access to Ferguson for a behind the scenes documentary that season, and when it came to be broadcast it was the legendary Scot’s pre-match team talk about Ince which served as one of the highlights.

"If he tries to bully you he will f***ing enjoy it,” Ferguson is shown telling his players.

“Don't ever let him bully you. Right? You just make sure you are ready for him. That's all you need to worry about. He's a f***ing big-time Charlie."

And yep, that stuck.

Ince’s status as Liverpool’s steely, determined driving force was already bruised by inconsistent results, and Ferguson’s take on him in addition to the often grating ‘Guv’nor’ persona just raised eyebrows of suspicion even further among Liverpool fans. 

When the 1998/99 season started, fans had decided that young talents Owen, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Danny Murphy and David Thompson were the players to believe in, in addition to Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman ahead of the latter’s final season at Anfield.

Gerard Houllier had arrived now too, and Liverpool’s approach was hugely modernised with a man who would come to take key place in the club’s history and hearts.

It all meant that Ince ended up feeling a little like the odd man out already, and with Liverpool slipping as low as 12th in the table by mid-December the notion that the sometime England captain would be the man to help nurture the club’s talented young players was fading fast.

A month later, and with Liverpool leading 1-0 at Manchester United in the FA Cup fourth round, Ince was being looked to to shepherd his side through and get one over on Ferguson after the documentary.

However, he left the Old Trafford pitch midway through the second half.

Whatever Ince’s injury was he was fine to start in a defeat at Coventry six days later, and when United scored twice in the last two minutes to win the game there were plenty of Liverpool fans left pointing the finger at the club captain. For many it is the lasting memory they have of him.

But Ince would end up getting some level of revenge on Ferguson.

As United's Treble season reached its crescendo, they knew that a trip to an underachieving, eighth-placed Liverpool in early May was a fairly big hurdle to pass as they sought to hold off Arsenal's challenge.

At 2-0 up on the hour that hurdle appeared to have been cleared, only for Liverpool to come back into the game through a Jamie Redknapp penalty and then a soft red card for Denis Irwin.

Liverpool poured forward now, and in the 89th minute Karl-Heinz Riedle turned in the box and there was Ince bounding and sliding and scoring in front of the Kop.

Bedlam ensued.

“I remember the ball going into the box and I just ran forward. In front of the Kop, last minute, it was perfect," Ince told the Evening Standard in 2018.

“I’d always wanted to score in front of the Kop, and with Fergie and what he’d said, I just enjoyed it so much – and rightly so.

“I never understand not celebrating because you’re playing against your former club. You play for these fans now. They pay your wages. It was an unbelievable feeling to do that.”

Liverpool could even have won the game from there, but after the 2-2 draw Ince could be seen cupping his ear towards the visiting United fans who had turned on him for making the move to Anfield.

It hadn't been a switch that had gone smoothly, but at least he would have this. And United would eventually still have their treble.

"I regret saying that. That was a mistake," Ferguson admitted before a game against a Blackburn side managed by Ince in 2008.

"We let a camera into our dressing room, which we had never done before, and it won't happen again.

"It wasn't a personality issue with Paul. With Paul you could not have a honeymoon all the time, because he was such a volatile character, but he never let us down."

He's also a character forever associated with this rivalry.

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