"I’ll have a quiet word with him," Ferguson said on Friday when asked about the presence of his former captain Paul Ince in the Molineux midfield this afternoon. It was said with a chuckle, but the Manchester United boss knows the unwritten laws that former players still harbour feelings of being cast aside, they are still capable of summoning up a performance of venom in a one-off tournament like the FA Cup and they still seek one more chance to turn back the clock and bite the hand that once fed them.
So how much pleasure would it give Ince to knock Manchester United out of the biggest trophy still available to them this season? "No pleasure whatsoever," he insisted. He lied. You could see it in the eyes, sense it in the soul of a player who, at 38, knows the legs are not what they were, yet refuses to yield to the possibility that the desire, hunger, knowhow have nothing to offer this season and, possibly, even next.
"Obviously, I want to win," Ince added, after a brief pause. "There’s belief in our team, don’t think that there isn’t. The gap’s not as big as it looks."
Ince has not yet grown diplomatic airs or retreated out of the toughness bred into him in east London, born in Ilford and raised by an aunt in Dagenham. So when he speaks with respect of "Sir Alex" you know that it is genuine and deeply felt. He describes Ferguson as the best manager he has worked with, despite the internal combustion that they triggered in each other. Furthermore, he tends to consult Ferguson when he in turn aims for management and coaching — and Ince is more than willing to say what no current England player dares to utter in public about Sven-Göran Eriksson.
He’s back on today’s theme, the meeting of minds with a manager Ince believes will tough out any situation, even with the changes happening apace around Old Trafford. He was a team leader in the middle of Ferguson’s reign and continued: "You never knew where you stood with Sir Alex. I came into the side after Bryan Robson, who was my hero when I was a kid at West Ham. I took over from him and Roy Keane took my place.
"I had six great years, played in the 1993-94 United which was the best (side) that Sir Alex put together. We won a lot and had plenty of hairdryer moments. But I know this: he’s the best manager I’ve worked with and that was the best United team."
Better than the 1999 European champions? "Certainly." Better than the present day? "No danger. Wayne Rooney would get into any side but in the spine of the team I played in, we had Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Andrei Kanchelskis, Steve Bruce and Denis Irwin."
Ince’s eyes light up with the familiar competitive glint when he thinks of that golden year. He has a slightly more rounded face today and admits to carrying an extra pound or two around the stomach, but he believes that he retains the leadership quality Ferguson is finding hard to come across after calling time on Keane.
"My days of running box-to-box are in the past," Ince admitted. "But the desire and hunger are there. It’s down to me, as an experienced player, to give the others something."
He pauses again and narrows his eyes as if fixing United in his sights before saying: "Sir Alex will know that if there’s a 50-50 ball, I still expect to win that tackle. I probably will still want to win it when I’m 65.
"I don’t think I could play in the Premiership every week, but the way Glenn wants to play it, I’m the pivotal man, the holding player in a 4-3-3. I make my tackles, I can afford to make that little surge late in the game if I’ve saved something physically. And because I’ve been out with a thigh muscle injury for four months, I’m feeling very fresh at the moment.
Ince, of course, does not think he will lose control of his motivation or emotions in the tunnel or on the field. Reflecting again on his parting with Ferguson, he insisted: "I’m a man, I could take it. I was upset at the time, but hey, I was going to Inter Milan, wasn’t I? It was a great thing in my life and you have to look forward."
He says that the ructions between himself and Fergie never lasted more than a few days. "He never held grudges longer than it took to reach the next game," recalled Ince. "Some players would go away and sulk, I could take it and give it. Usually the hairdryer stuff was about standards and not results. I remember when we were three goals up against Norwich at Carrow Road, and I took off on a little mazy run. He came in the dressing room screaming and shouting. I was also fuming because if you’re three up you’re entitled to take things on. I couldn’t see his reasoning, but I do now."