It would be easy to get the wrong idea about Tom Ince. In a career in which he has amassed 31,986 senior minutes, around one sixth of those (5,172) have come with his father, Paul, as manager. Under no other coach has he played more. In Ince Sr’s Reading team this season, Tom is one of only four players to play 90 minutes in every league game so far.
It is therefore no surprise that cries of nepotism have never been far away throughout his career and as recently as the summer when he signed for Reading on a permanent deal. But that is simplistic, ignorant and bordering on disrespectful to a player who is talented in his own right.
Tom was signed on loan by Paul at Notts County in 2010, but at the other two clubs where they have worked together – Blackpool and Reading – it has been father who has followed son. With regards to this season, Tom has fully merited his spot in Reading’s team this season. He has a landslide victory in the (very prestigious) Tilehurst End Player of the Month award for July/August to prove it.
Plus, it’s not always a good thing being managed by your dad. “He doesn’t get any privileges, that’s for sure,” Paul said in March, two weeks after taking the Reading job on an interim basis.
“Sometimes I’m probably even harder on him than I would be on most because you don’t want people to think there’s any favouritism going on. If he doesn’t do his job, he doesn’t perform, I’ll tell him.”
That was evidenced by one moment in particular during Reading’s 2-1 win over Stoke City on Sunday. Tom had the ball on the near touchline, right next to his father. He tried to play a through ball to Lucas Joao, but severely overhit it and it went out for a goal kick. Ince Sr was absolutely incensed, screaming at his son and gesturing furiously. Certainly no special treatment involved.
Sons of footballers always get compared to their parents, particularly when they were as successful as two-time Premier League winner Paul was. Like the nepotism accusations, that is something Tom has had to get used to over his career. But it is fair to say that he has established himself as his own player after over a decade in the professional game.
For starters - unlike Peter and Kasper Schmeichel or Cesare and Paolo Maldini – they play in different positions. Paul was a tough-tackling central midfielder; Tom, more attacking, made his name as a winger but has largely played a central role for Reading this season, whether that be as a number 10 or a striker. But they do share one attribute: bucketloads of hard work.
Paul was a tireless runner in his prime, leaving nothing out of the pitch. A particular image of him playing for England, with a bandage around his head and blood soaked onto his shirt, typifies that.
“When I was growing up, it was me and my mates on the street corner, having to fight, scrap for everything,” he told The Times earlier this year. “That gives you a tough mentality.”
While no blood has been shed in Tom’s time as a Reading player so far, there has been plenty of sweat. In a team of hard workers, he is the most relentless of all. Pressing harder, running further, battling for every ball.
Against Stoke on Sunday, he made the most tackles (six), blocks (four) and joint-most interceptions (two). Those are remarkable statistics for an attacking player. Then there was the crucial stoppage-time tackle that stopped a potentially fatal Stoke counter attack in its tracks.
Hard work is perhaps the defining quality of Reading’s team this season. Not only is it vital in Paul Ince’s approach, but it also enables a cobbled-together squad to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Tom, now 30, is no longer the young prospect that Inter Milan wanted to sign. He is an experienced head – no player in Reading’s squad has made more appearances in the Championship – and that means setting the standard. He does that expertly.
If you want to level one criticism at the forward it is that his end product is lacking. Ince scored 18 goals in one season for Blackpool a decade ago, but that finishing touch has deserted him in recent years. Just three of his nine shots this season have been on target and only one has been a goal (albeit an absolute belter against Cardiff City). How does a player so wasteful still manage to establish himself as a fans’ favourite? Hard work, determination and passion.
It would be fair to say that before he joined Reading on loan in January, Tom’s career was floundering. He had not been a regular at Stoke for nearly two years – starting just six league games in a season and a half – and an underwhelming loan spell at Luton Town had done more harm than good to his reputation. Some questioned whether he was still of Championship standard.
He still has to fight against those inevitable nepotism accusations too and those could certainly be two motivating factors for Ince’s consistent hard work as he perhaps feels he has a point to prove. He has silenced the critics on both fronts.
As, for that matter, has his father. Huge questions were asked of Paul when he took the Reading job in February, least of all because he hadn’t been in management for eight years.
Many pundits and fans, myself included, believed he was destined to fail. But he kept the club up and now has inspired a hard-working, mentally resilient team to third in the table after six weeks of the season.
“We just want to keep proving people wrong,” Tom said after beating his former club Stoke on Sunday. Long may that continue.