No one ever reads to the bottom of a club statement. It’s a bit like the terms and conditions.
When that club statement is ‘Royals part company with Veljko Paunovic by mutual consent’, you can usually assume you’ve got all the information you need to know in the headline. Give or take a brief overview of his time in charge, complemented by a well-wishing quote from the CEO, the main message is ‘Pauno has left’.
Not at Reading. This isn’t a club that does things the ordinary way. Buried at the bottom of this particular club statement, almost as a footnote, there was a second wind to the news of Paunovic’s departure.
“Former England captain Paul Ince, father to Royals loanee Tom Ince, has been appointed to take charge of first team affairs on an interim basis alongside Academy Manager Michael Gilkes, while we embark on the thorough search for a new permanent manager.”
It was widely expected that Gilkes would take interim charge if and when Paunovic exited, but his co-manager came as a significant surprise. There was a hint of laughter from Jeff Stelling as he read out Paul Ince’s name on Soccer Saturday. Jem Karacan called it a “disgrace” as he heard the news on BBC Radio Berkshire.
Ince’s appointment has certainly raised eyebrows. Given he is not an internal hire like Gilkes but was confirmed as an immediate replacement of Paunovic, questions will be asked about how long this has been in the pipeline. A reunion with his son Tom (at a third separate club) and whispers of a certain Iranian advisor being involved muddy the water further. Then there is the fact that Ince has not been in managerial work since the beginning of 2014.
To get a better understanding of Paul Ince the manager, we have gone back through his career in the dugout with the help of those who have watched his teams closely and also taken a look at his struggles to find work in the last eight years.
Tenacious and hard-working, Ince was one of the best midfielders of his generation, playing for Manchester United, Liverpool and Inter Milan in the 1990s. A two-time Premier League winner at Old Trafford, he is in good company among ex-Red Devils who have managed Reading - promotion-winning legend Steve Coppell and playoff finalist Jaap Stam. He was capped 53 times by England, seven of which as captain, and played at three major tournaments.
He began his managerial career at Macclesfield Town, taking over in October 2006 with the club bottom of League Two and seven points adrift of safety. He guided the Silkmen to survival with a win ratio of 40% - albeit over a greater period of time (35 games) than he will have to save Reading from the drop.
His reward was a move to fellow fourth-tier side MK Dons, where he became one of the most coveted young managers in England throughout a sensational season. Ince won the League Two manager-of-the-month award three times on the way to the Dons being crowned champions and guided the club to Football League Trophy glory at Wembley. Chairman Pete Winkleman tipped him to manage England one day.
“At League Two level his knowledge and experience of the game shone through,” says Franco Volpe from the MK Dons Supporters’ Association. “He had an aura about him that created a buzz at the club. The players thought ‘wow we’ve got this guy’ and they responded. I was at the press conference to announce him, and you could feel the buzz as he came out of the tunnel.
“He didn’t make us free-scoring but made us hard to beat with lots of wins by one goal, playing on the counter attack. We had 18 away wins, a league record. His approach was to stop the opposition scoring and nick a goal. Basically relegation-prevention tactics that won us two trophies.”
Ince made the rare step from League Two to the Premier League as he was appointed Blackburn Rovers manager in 2008, and it is perhaps his short, ill-fated tenure at Ewood Park that has shaped the way he is viewed as a coach. Ultimately, Ince was managing in the top flight far too soon - he didn’t even have a UEFA Pro Licence at the time - and was considerably out of his depth.
He lasted just last six months at Rovers, winning only three out of 17 matches. He had fans chanting for his dismissal by the end of his tenure and left with the club five points adrift of safety after a seventh-place finish the year before.
“Seeing Reading appoint Ince dredged up some painful memories,” Rovers fan Mikey Delap says. “It’s over a decade ago now but his appointment was a mini-disaster. He’s viewed as a rare mistake by [then-Blackburn chairman] John Williams.
“He just couldn’t seem to command the respect and consistency needed to manage at the level required. Ince wanted the side to open up, be forward-thinking and express themselves, but without a stoic rearguard the goals-conceded column soon started to bloat the goals-scored one. A stubbornness to correct this when things went from bad to worse didn’t help either.”
Away from the pitch, Ince is remembered as being not the brightest spark at Ewood Park.
“The day before the match we always had small-court games, and we never stopped until he had won or got a draw,” cult midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen recalled in 2020. “So it ended with 30-40 minutes of extra training the day before the game. He looked red and couldn’t stop. He and the family were really incredibly nice, but I don’t think the managerial profession suited him completely.”
“Ince famously joked Rovers ‘weren’t in the bottom three yet’ at his press unveiling, which was a haunting bit of banter if ever there was one,” says Delap. “He is mainly remembered for writing ‘shoot’ on the back of a notepad and inadvertently displaying it from the dugout at Upton Park.”
Remember Paul Ince’s incisive tactical notes ready for the half-time team-talk at Upton Park whilst manager of Blackburn?— HLTCO (@HLTCO) August 18, 2020
Ince would return to MK Dons in the summer of 2009, but lasted just a season before resigning due to his transfer budget being cut. He was expected to mount another promotion push with the Dons but they finished 12th in League One, while his tenure finished with a five-match touchline ban for improper conduct towards a referee.
“I’ve never been a fan of returners,” says Volpe. “It is set up to fail and this blew spectacularly. It was a different group dynamic and we’d moved on a bit. A bit of an ‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again no problem’ attitude. We had in our minds of the glory being repeated and the natives became restless very quickly. For me it was much more basic. He didn’t have [assistant manager] Ray Mathias to help him like the previous time. Ray was the brains to a large extent for me.”
In October 2010, Notts County came calling - a club in the midst of financial rule-breaking claims and which had been sold for a £1 eight months earlier, with chairman Ray Trew inheriting £7m worth of debt. Ince was the club’s sixth manager in the space of a year and lasted little more than five months himself; he departed following a run of seven defeats in eight league games which left County two points above the League One relegation zone.
“Paul was a little unfortunate in the timing of his appointment,” Notts County fan and former club director Paul Mace says. “He became the fifth manager in succession at the club to not last six months, which tells its own story. A lot was expected after the club had won League Two the previous season and Paul started reasonably well, he played neat, tidy and combative football. But it all went sour quite quickly.
“That said, he delivered one of the club’s most successful FA Cup runs in the past 30 years, reaching a fourth-round replay with Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City galacticos. We had a great win at Sunderland [then of the Premier League] and should have beaten City in the first game after leading.”
After nearly two years out of the game, Ince walked into another cyclone at Karl Oyston’s Blackpool as he became the Tangerines’ third manager of the 2012/13 season, having been watching on from the stands to support son Tom at Bloomfield Road.
Ince actually led the Lancashire club to their best-ever start to a league campaign when he won five of the first six Championship matches in 2013/14, but that faded into insignificance amid more ill-advised moments off the pitch. In the summer of 2013, the former England captain failed to turn up for the first week of pre-season training and three months later was fined £40,000 and given another five-match stadium ban for threatening to knock out a match official.
“Ince is remembered as one of the worst managers in our history,” says Blackpool fan Tom Johnson from Up The Mighty Pool. “Perhaps his hands were tied in terms of the state the club was in at the time, but he wasn’t particularly astute tactically. He played very defensive football and would try to nick games 1-0.
“Ince liked to come up with excuses and stand up to this ‘guvnor’ persona he gave himself, but seemingly couldn’t control or inspire his players in the same way. Neither him or Tom will get a good reception on Saturday [when Reading travel to Bloomfield Road].”
The Tangerines’ form nosedived following Ince’s FA charge and he left Bloomfield Road after less than a year, having taken just one point from his final nine matches.
Since then, nothing. January 21 marked eight years since Ince took charge of his last game at Blackpool, a 2-0 defeat to bottom-of-the-league Barnsley. It’s fair to say that once you have been out of the game that long, it is presumed your coaching days are over and very few managers have returned to the dugout after such a long spell away.
Other bosses who have been out of work since 2014 include Billy Davies, Lawrie Sanchez and Nigel Worthington. It is now almost a different era and the game has moved on. When Ince last managed, Royston Drenthe was playing for Reading, Alen Halilovic was the most exciting young talent in Europe and Jahmari Clarke was taking his SATs.
All of this said, it has not been for the want of trying on Ince’s part. In 2016, he made clear his burning desire to take the Wolves job after the sacking of Walter Zenga. The following year he was interviewed by the FA for the England under-21 manager’s role. Hartlepool considered appointing him in 2018, the same year he held discussions with Morecambe about becoming director of football. There will likely have been other potential jobs that never made the press.
Regarding his interview with England, Ince told the Daily Star in 2020: “I was asked to do a four-hour presentation, but the night before I got a phone call from someone well known in the game.
“They said: ‘Paul don’t bother going down, they’ve already given the job to Aidy Boothroyd. I went anyway, because I wanted to enjoy the process. It took the full four hours. That’s always a bit hard when you know you haven’t got the job.
“Two weeks later, I get the phone call and I knew what was coming. They said: ‘Paul the interview was great, but we think you’re overqualified for the under-21 job and we’d like you to work on your IT skills.
“Whether that was down to colour or politics, I don’t know. If it had been Gareth Southgate’s decision, I think I’d have got the job. I honestly believe that.”
Ince has often been loathe to bring up the issue of race when discussing his struggle to find work, but he has acknowledged it is a possible factor. He has questioned why managers such as himself and Sol Campbell have had to start their dugout careers at the bottom of the Football League when the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have begun higher up.
“I just think that black people, not just black managers, have to work extra, extra hard,” Ince told The Times in 2015. “We have to climb over more obstacles to get jobs. We don’t really get time to work, and are judged straight away.”
Ince - the first black English manager in Premier League history - and Gilkes (who are both of Barbadian heritage) will take the tally of BAME managers currently in the top four divisions of English football to just six. The pair will become the first-ever black coaches to lead Reading. Perhaps Ince’s touchline absence has been down to ability, but it is worth considering that other elements may have contributed.
There is certainly a sense that the 54-year-old, who has turned to punditry in the last eight years, has not stopped looking for another bite at the managerial cherry.
“I wouldn’t say it’s done,” he said when asked by YouTuber Mark Goldbridge about his touchline career. “I still feel there’s a kind of void. If I thought to myself that I had a torrid time as a manager then it’s not for me.
“But I’ve managed in all four leagues, my winning ratio is around plus 40 (per cent). These have been teams where I’ve been firefighting. I’ve not been given a load of cash and been told ‘it’s down to you now’. I know I can manage. I know I can get a team promoted, I know I can save a team from relegation.
“If you’re an owner and you said to me: ‘listen Paul, you’ve got three years to get this team where I want to get to. Don’t worry about year one, year two. This is where I want to be in after three years. If you haven’t done that, you lose your job.’ Then I’d take that. If not, then I’ve got no interest.”
If Ince wants to move away from “firefighting” jobs where he has no money to spend, then it raises questions as to why he has rocked up at Reading. His sole task in the coming months will be to save the Royals from relegation and even if he stays into the summer and beyond, then he will be restricted in the transfer market. Like at Notts County and Blackpool, he is walking into a club where there is unrest and uncertainty behind the scenes.
Perhaps being familiar with turbulent circumstances will help Ince, perhaps it is another disaster waiting to happen. Ultimately, this is his chance to prove he can save a team from relegation as per his belief, with very few other managerial roles forthcoming. Likewise for Reading, there may not have been too many immediate alternative options available - word will have got round that it is not a happy camp in Berkshire.
Unlike four of the last five Reading managers, Ince has previously managed in the Championship. His dugout experience, albeit most of it over a decade ago, complements Michael Gilkes’s deep understanding of the club. Both men bring stature - Ince with his 20-year playing career at the highest level and Gilkes as a club legend - into a dressing room that had by all accounts lost faith in the previous incumbent.
And it may be as simple as that. Perhaps it is the case that anyone but Veljko Paunovic can inspire this team into getting over the line and securing safety. Questions remain over Ince’s suitability for the role, how he came to get it and how long he will be here, but if he can replicate his managerial win percentage of 41.2% over the next 14 games, then we will end up with at least 43 points. That has been enough for survival in three of the last four seasons. That would be job done.