Ferguson: my regrets over Ince feud
Alex Ferguson sought to make amends for arguably the biggest put-down in Premier League history yesterday when he said he regretted calling Paul Ince a "big-time Charlie". It is 10 years since Ferguson was caught on camera deriding his former Manchester United midfielder before a game against Liverpool, with a phrase that encapsulated the Scot's loathing for a rampant ego and has stuck limpet-like to Ince ever since.
This evening, master and apprentice will oppose each other for the first time in management when the reigning European and Premier League champions travel to Ince's Blackburn Rovers. It is a short journey which contrasts greatly with the road that Ferguson and Ince's relationship has taken since 1998.
"I regret saying that. That was a mistake," admitted Ferguson in a rare show of contrition. "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."
Ferguson's confession is almost as surprising as the health of his current friendship with the Blackburn manager, who has made a confident start to life in the Premier League after launching his second career at Macclesfield and MK Dons.
It was on the Granada documentary The Alex Ferguson Story that the United manager's lack of regard for the self-styled "Guv'nor" was confirmed before a 1-1 draw in April 1998 with Liverpool, whom Ince had joined from Internazionale. "If he tries to bully you he will fucking enjoy it. Don't ever let him bully you. Right?"
Ferguson orders his players. "You just make sure you are ready for him. That's all you need to worry about. He's a fucking big-time Charlie."
Their relationship had soured long before Ince signed for United's fiercest rivals, however, with Ferguson blaming the former England captain for a 4-0 Champions League defeat at Barcelona in 1994 and inviting the wrath of the Old Trafford faithful when he controversially accepted a £7m bid from Inter the following summer. "It wasn't an easy one but I felt it was good business for the club at the time," Ferguson added yesterday.
A decade after the "big-time Charlie" episode the pair have buried the hatchet remarkably deep. Ferguson was among the first to congratulate Ince on becoming Macclesfield manager in October 2006, where he subsequently preserved the Silkmen's league status against the odds, and the Rovers manager reciprocated yesterday when he acclaimed his former adversary as the greatest coach of all time. As for the personal slight, Ince insisted it was never hurtful and long forgotten.
"People say things in the heat of the moment but you grow up," said Ince. "It never bothered me but ever since I came back from Italy things have been fine between us. He always invites me to his charity golf day but I can never go because I'm always on holiday in Portugal when it takes place. But the relationship between us is fine. He loaned Danny Simpson to me this season for a start."
Ince's memory that their relationship improved on his return from Italy may have become blurred over time, given that he returned with Liverpool, yet Ferguson has become a confidant since the 40-year-old followed the Scot into management. "The last time we met was in my office at Milton Keynes," he recalled. "We played [his son] Darren's team Peterborough on a Friday night and he drank all my red wine, which I wasn't too pleased about, but we sat there for an hour talking about football. I can always give him a call."
Perhaps the most telling indicator of their rapport is Ince's graduation into the Premier League without the necessary Uefa coaching qualifications, and Ferguson's lack of opposition to it. The United manager was an outspoken critic of Gareth Southgate's and Glenn Roeder's rise under similar circumstances, but yesterday he was prepared to make an exception for his former student.
Ferguson said: "There is good reason for Paul to get his badges and I think he should be given that chance. Under the precedent set by the Newcastle-Roeder situation he should have the job. But what has to happen now is that the loophole has to close. The criteria have to be laid down very firmly by the Premier League, which hasn't been the case."
As the Scot made allowances for Ince in Manchester, so Ince made allowances both for his former manager and himself in Blackburn, insisting personality clashes were inevitable in what he believes was the greatest United side of the Ferguson era. "In our 93-94 team you had a lot of big egos and Fergie could rollick us and know he would get a response. [Roy] Keane and [Eric] Cantona are arrogant people who believe in their ability and you need that to be a Manchester United player. I look at Fergie's team today and I get the impression that what he says goes. That wasn't always the case when we were playing. We would chip back.
"That 93-94 team was Fergie's best because there were so many opinionated people, we had rows but we came together on the pitch. The greatness of the man is in how he dealt with big strong characters, and to win the league for the first time in 26 years with that group shows how great he is. For me, he is miles at the top when it comes to the greatest manager. He is the best manager of all time."
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