This article first appeared in the Crystal Palace v West Bromwich Albion matchday programme – 8th February 2014.
For the third transfer window in a row, Thomas Ince was one of the hottest commodities in British football. Over the past 18 months a host of clubs from these shores and further afield were chasing his signature but with minutes to spare on deadline day he pledged his immediate future to Palace. With his spot in the Premier League assured, he explains why he is now aiming to help the Eagles keep theirs.
Inter Milan. Liverpool. Swansea City. Manchester United. Sunderland. Juventus. Tottenham Hotspur. Monaco. As the Sky Sports News countdown clock ticked by and the transfer gossip columns were scrapped and re-written on a daily basis it seemed everyone wanted a piece of a 22-year-old talent plying his trade at Blackpool.
Having watched Thomas Ince over the past couple of seasons the reason is crystal clear. An eye for a pass, the ability to beat players, a lethal left foot and composure in front of goal are just some of the attributes that he’s ready to display on the big stage. The Seasiders seemed destined to lose a player with just six months left on his contract.
Having assessed his options thoroughly, his mind was made up before the final day of the window. The Eagles had swooped in to secure his services but Ince still had to endure an anxious wait to complete the move he really craved. Having lived with the now-seemingly endless media hype, hullabaloo and speculation that clings onto the January window for so long it’s something he’s glad to see the back off.
“It’s been like that throughout the last few transfer windows but I’m over the moon to be in the Premier League and at Crystal Palace,” he said. “We’re in the situation where we are in the table and everyone is pulling in the right direction to make sure we stay up, and to be part of that and be successful would be fantastic for me.
“There was a lot made of my “tour” around the country but in reality I went to Swansea on the Tuesday and then met Tony Pulis in London and that was as far as it went. As soon as I met Tony and Steve Parish my mind was made up as I thought Palace was the right platform for me to come and enjoy myself and work under Tony. On the way back up north I also spoke to Stoke, but Hull and Sunderland were never really options for me.
“It’s fantastic to have had lots of options, it shows that what you’re doing on the pitch is good and people are noticing it. I just try to go out there and enjoy myself and play my game, excite people and score goals and I guess that’s what attracted Crystal Palace to come and get me.
“Deadline day wasn’t nice, it was a long day on Friday and myself and Steve Parish sat there from 11 in the morning to 11 at night. It wasn’t easy, the deal was off at one stage and then it was back on again so it wasn’t a nice feeling as you want to be settled and know where you’re going but the major thing is that it got over the line and I’m able to play for Crystal Palace.”
Capturing such a highly sought-after player is a great coup for Palace, albeit only until the end of the season. The aim will be to tempt the Liverpool academy graduate to prolong his stay in south London once his Blackpool contract expires, and it’s so far so good for the Eagles as Ince is full of praise for all things red and blue.
“All round it’s been fantastic so far. The management and staff have been very welcoming and there’s a great bunch of lads here. I had a chance to watch them play at the Emirates against Arsenal last Sunday and while it’s always difficult to go there and impose the style of play you want I thought the lads worked tremendously well as up until the first goal they didn’t cause us many problems. The fans were also unbelievable, it was the first time I’ve really noticed them and at times I found myself watching them rather than the game!
“Before coming here I spoke to Wilfried Zaha who I’ve played with for England under-21s and Kevin Phillips, plus I know Jason Puncheon too and I got a sense that the club are going in the right direction and it was the one for me. The gaffer has come in and turned things around, got them working hard and making them hard to beat while allowing the front players to use their pace and ability to catch teams on the counter-attack, so the way they play suits me down to the ground.
“Meeting the people trying to get the deal done gave me a gut feeling that this is where I should be until the end of the season. The main objective is to work hard, build myself up progressively in the gym and getting used to training with Premier League players and playing in games.
“Every boy’s dream is to play at the top level of the English game and for me to be in the Premier League is fantastic. Now I need to change my game and focus on the difference between this league and the Championship, it’s not as hectic but you have to be tactically aware and develop physically to be able to cope. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks I’ll be able to do that.”
Ince’s pedigree is second to none. Throughout this career the elephant in the room has been his surname thanks to the career his father Paul enjoyed playing at some of the biggest clubs in the world. Having watched his dad from the stands starring for Manchester United, Inter Milan, Liverpool and featuring at the 1998 World Cup for England he was already streets ahead of most kids when he first arrived at Liverpool’s academy as a 10-year-old.
He is also as strong mentally as his dad’s tackles could be. Instead of dreaming of being the once in a generation player who breaks through at Anfield and has a stellar career with the Reds he was more than content to swap the pampered academy lifestyle for life in the lower leagues with Notts County, where his father was manager, and Blackpool to earn his apprenticeship. The an all-encompassing footballing education seems unfashionable in the English game these days but has once again proved fruitful.
“I’ve had a good schooling. To be at Liverpool from when I was 10-years-old until I was 18 was fantastic for me, and when you approach Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres you’re in awe of them and can’t believe you’re on the same training pitch as them but you can learn little bits. Not only are they world stars but they’re great guys for young kids to look up to.
“I could have stayed there for three or four years and just played reserve team football or may have got a chance in the first-team, you just don’t know. At that time I felt it was the right time to head off and go and play for Notts County in League One, which benefited me massively.
“We all know what League One football is like, it’s all up in the air and you get kicked but you have to learn that when you’re a youngster. There are many kids now who sit in reserve teams until they’re 21 and don’t know what it’s like to go out there and play so I’ve always had a plan of what I want to do, and now I’ve reached the next step by getting to the Premier League with Crystal Palace.
“When I first went to Blackpool I didn’t play for the first few months and I thought “what am I going to do now?” Then I came on in a cameo role in a game against Doncaster Rovers and scored twice to help us win 2-1 and from then Ian Holloway decided that I had some talent and I kicked on from there. It was great to go to Wembley (in the 2010 Championship Play-Off final) and score but it was disappointing to not go up after the way we played there.
“Last year was my breakout year, scoring 18 goals and finishing top of the assists chart helped project me up to where I wanted to be. But I can’t rest on that, I don’t want to be a one-season-wonder, I want to keeping progressing year in, year out as that’s what makes good players. Playing in the Premier League you can’t afford to slack off, I have to be on my game as there’s plenty of good players in this team that want a shirt.
“People will always label me as Paul Ince’s son but it’s good and bad pressure. I know I’ve got the right guidance behind me from someone who knows what’s best for me and played at the top level but because I’m a totally different player who plays in a different position so that sort of helps. Gradually I’m beginning to make my own name in the game and I’m still only 22 with a lot more learning and developing to do.”
Exposure to the Premier League will only enhance the rate of that progress, and that looks likely to start today with Ince expected to make his top-flight bow against West Bromwich Albion. As excited as he is to fulfil a boyhood dream, he knows the afternoon is solely about pushing Palace further away from the drop zone now the transfer window distraction is in the rear-view mirror.
“The last two days has helped me get a feel for things and I’m starting to get amongst the lads in training and work out what the gaffer wants me to do. I’ve got to keep working hard the rest of the week and if I play some part in the game then fantastic, and if I manage to get a start then great.
“No matter what, just to be at Selhurst Park with these lads and listen out for that crowd will be fantastic. It’s a massive game, a six pointer, so I have to make sure I’m ready to go if needed with winning the game the aim.”