Paul Ince finds it hard to criticise Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to break up the Manchester United side he was a part of, but he remains certain they were a better side than the Red Devils’ Treble winners of 1999.
United paid West Ham £1million to sign Ince in 1989, and the midfielder went on to become an integral part of the first truly successful side under Ferguson at Old Trafford.
With Ince in the middle of the park, United ended their 26-year wait for a league title in 1992-93, added a second the following year, and also won two FA Cups, the League Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup.
But after a disappointing 1994-95 campaign in which United finished as runners-up in the Premier League and FA Cup, Ferguson decided to shake things up, with Ince one of a number of senior players allowed to leave in order to blood the Class of ’92 youngsters who went on to win the Treble in 1998-99.
Despite their success, Ince insists the side he was a part of still had plenty left in the tank, and he’s unequivocal when it comes to who would come out on top in a game between the two sides.
“This is a great debate and I’m telling you now that the 1994 team would have beaten the 1999 team,” he says. “I’m not just saying that because I was in the ’94 team. We had power, pace, experience, a winning mentality…we had it all.
“If you go player by player and compare the ’99 team that won the Treble and our Double-winning team of ’94, you would say that we had the edge.
“The characters, the leaders, the class players in every position, it was just a great team. I might be biased as I was in it, but I look at that team as one of the best we have seen in the Premier League.
“There was a great balance, and once we got Eric Cantona into the team, it was complete. He added that little bit of magic that took us away from the opposition and we could have gone on and won a lot more.
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“We missed out on the title to Blackburn in 1995 and then lost the FA Cup final to Everton, and the gaffer decided to change things, but I feel that team was good enough to win a lot more if we stayed together.
“The stupid rule saying we were not allowed to play a certain number of foreigners in the Champions League hurt us because the Irish and Scottish lads in the squad and Ryan Giggs were classed as foreigners, so they couldn’t all play in the European games.
“If that rule wasn’t there, we’d have won the Champions League in my view.”
Ince was sold to Inter Milan in 1995, while the likes of Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, Steve Bruce and Paul Parker were all moved on over the following 12 months.
But the former England captain believes the team was broken up too soon, although he is not going to criticise Ferguson.
“Andrei Kanchelskis could have gone on for a while longer there and I certainly could have done, but the manager had a different idea,” he says.
“What made Sir Alex so great was his ability to change the team, shake things up and continue to win things, so we can’t sit here now and say he was wrong to break up that 1994 United team because look at what they went on to win after that.
“That is why what we are seeing at United now is worrying. Ferguson had plenty of transitional periods during his time as manager there, but he always found a way to continue the success and the wait for the next trophy was never too far away.”
Ince spent two years at the San Siro with Inter, reaching the UEFA Cup final but failing to win any silverware, and he insists it was not his decision to leave Old Trafford.
“I could have gone on for another few years at United, but they made the decision to accept an offer from Inter Milan and that was it for me.
When the manager made a decision on a player, there was no going back on it and while I would have been quite happy to stay at United for the rest of my career, it wasn’t my choice in the end.
“I had only been at United for six years. I sat down with Martin Edwards and we negotiated a new four-year contract that would have taken me up to my testimonial.
“I was happy as Larry and there is no reason why I would have wanted to leave the biggest club in the world when I was playing week in, week out.
“It was at the time when the club wanted to build a new training ground and Inter Milan offered £7.5million for me and suddenly things started to happen.
“They looked at it, thought that money will pay for the new training ground and they had Nicky Butt coming through to take my place in the team. Nicky was a very good player, so they decided to take the money and build the new training ground.
“It was not my decision to leave Manchester United. When a club accepts an offer for you and the manager comes to tell you the deal is there and you can go, the decision is made for you. If they say they don’t want you, what can you do?
“The manager had that power and while I had a great time at Inter Milan, I would have been quite happy to stay at United for the rest of my career.”
In 1997, Ince decided to return to England, joining Liverpool in a £4million deal which raised plenty of eyebrows given the Merseysiders’ fierce rivalry with Manchester United.
“It was a good move for me to a big club, but I did wonder how the United fans would view it. You also question how Liverpool fans will look at it when you have a history with United, but I can’t thank the Liverpool supporters enough as they were always fantastic towards me.
“I gave my all to every club I played for in my career, but my only loyalty in life in general is to my family. So as a footballer, you have to detach yourself from the emotion of playing for this club or that club, the rivalry that might be there, and just do what is right for you at the time.
“My allegiances were to West Ham in many ways because that is where I grew up, but once your career takes on and you are playing for the biggest clubs in the world, you lose some of that.”
Michael Owen later followed a similar path, joining Manchester United after establishing himself as a hero at Anfield, and is now often the subject of ire from both sets of supporters.
Ince, however, insists he has always had a good relationship with fans from the two clubs.
“It’s always been fine. I think if I went from United and joined Liverpool it may have been different. We saw how that went for Sol Campbell when he moved from Tottenham to Arsenal and people have never forgotten it.
“Because I had a spell at Inter Milan before going to Liverpool, it took the sting out of it. I live on the Wirral now and I can walk down a street in Liverpool or Manchester without anyone having a go at me for my time at United or Liverpool.
“I have no regrets about my career…just that maybe I could have won a few more trophies.”
Paul Ince is a Paddy Power ambassador and you can read his views at news.paddypower.com.
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