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Tom Ince: The Nearly Man


Three hundred and eighty five days after joining for a then club-record transfer fee, it was announced today that Tom Ince has left Huddersfield Town.

It is a move which sees the 26-year-old winger reunited with former manager Gary Rowett. Town have also recouped the transfer fee they paid for Ince in full to acquire him for their debut season in the Premier League.

Whilst his single-season stint in the Premier League with Town will quickly become a forgettable one, for many, Tom Ince will live long in the memory of Town fans as the nearly man.

This long read looks at the numerous nearly moments Tom Ince has encountered, the mitigating factors which may offer an explanation as to why this is the case and finally looking back at how Ince was so close and yet so far from being a success for Town.

The Beginning

From the beginning, it quickly became apparent that the relationship between Tom Ince and his father Paul would be heavily influential throughout the decisions and the subsequent misjudgments that have been made throughout his career.

The first sign of this came in 2008 when he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Liverpool. In spite of being in possession of a household name, in his own right, there were high hopes for Tom Ince.

At the beginning of the 2010/11 season, Tom Ince was given a clear indication that he was part of Roy Hodgson’s plans as he was given a squad number.

Shortly afterwards, Tom Ince made his debut for Liverpool as a substitute in the shock third round League Cup defeat to Northampton Town.

Despite the result, this was Tom Ince’s first nearly moment; highly regarded in the higher echelons of Liverpool’s hierarchy and with international recognition at under 17, 19 and 21 level, the projected trajectory of Ince at that stage was to become a Premier League mainstay and a future England international.

Nearly moment #1 – The Notts County loan and the subsequent fall-out

In December 2010, we saw the first signs of a fractured relationship between Tom/Paul Ince and Liverpool. Whilst on loan at Notts County, a club that at the time was being managed by Paul Ince, Tom Ince gave an interview explaining how the loan spell was benefiting him.

“Being at Liverpool changed my style of play a little bit and I got a bit lost,” Ince told BBC Radio Nottingham. But he [his dad] said he wanted me to be the player that I was. Coming here has given me a fresher life”.

Whilst, of course, I am writing this with the benefit of hindsight that does not negate the fact that Tom Ince with the advice of his father was turning his back on Liverpool despite there being no indication that his stock had fallen at the Premier League giants.

In fact, at the end of the 2010-11 season, the fractured relationship was clear to see, as was how highly regarded Tom Ince was. A heated discussion ensued regarding Tom Ince’s future as Liverpool refused to allow Tom Ince to be reunited with his father at Notts County unless the England Under 21 international signed a new long-term contract.

Again, following the advice of his father, Tom Ince turned down what Paul Ince described as a ‘derisory’ contract offer from Liverpool and at the end of the season, he was released.

Nearly moment #2 – Playoff heartbreak with the Tangerines

Despite a wide array of offers, the decision was made that Tom Ince would join Ian Holloway’s recently relegated Blackpool with the drop down to the Championship being one that Tom Ince took in his stride.

The defining moment, however, came at the end of the 2011-2012 season. Ince, having played a major role in the run-in, was quickly becoming Blackpool’s talisman.

Four goals and six assists in the final two months of the Championship season were followed by Ince scoring the all-important winner in a tight Play-off semi-final against Birmingham City.

With Blackpool squeezing past Birmingham City, as the Play-off final approached, all eyes turned to Tom Ince and the question was posed, could Blackpool’s new-found talisman fire them back to the Premier League?

Despite the uphill struggle of facing Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United, Tom Ince did everything in his power to help Blackpool defy the odds including scoring the equaliser at Wembley.

However, Ince and Blackpool fell just short and it felt like another nearly moment for Tom Ince as he missed the chance not only to return to the Premier League but legitimise his return by gaining promotion.

Nearly moment #3 – a season of nearly moves as the Premier League continued to come calling

After an impressive end to the 2011-12 season, Tom Ince took his fine goal-scoring form into the new season and it did not take long for the Premier League to come calling.

Just a week into the new season, Ian Holloway confirmed that an unnamed club had made a substantial offer to sign the England Under 21 international.

However, Holloway revealed that “there was interest in Tom last week. No one has heard about it but I’ll share it with you. His dad wants him to stay with us.”

Once again, we can see how Paul Ince had swayed Tom’s decision to dismiss a move away and instead double down and commit to the Seasiders.

Despite Tom Ince seemingly remaining unmoved, Ince’s performances which had seen him score thirteen times as well as providing ten assists by the turn of the year had drawn the interest of the Premier League yet again, this time it was his former club, Liverpool.

However, despite negotiations being opened between the two clubs, due to unforeseen circumstances the move fell through and Reading’s late move for Ince was subsequently rejected by Blackpool.

Ince finished a remarkable season in the Championship with his goal contributions for Blackpool surpassing thirty goals (eighteen goals and fourteen assists). This drew the attention of even more Premier League sides but reported moves to either Everton or Aston Villa didn’t materialise like many thought it would.

It meant that following what was undoubtedly Ince’s most productive season of his career, a return to the Premier League which looked destined and nearly happened on a number of occasions, didn’t.

#Nearly moment 4 – wrong place, wrong time

Having dropped out of the Premier League at an early age and taken the lower league route to prove that he was worthy of playing at the top flight, the return did eventually come.

In January 2014, Paul Ince who had previously advised that Tom remained at Blackpool was now looking to accelerate his son’s move away following his own departure from the club.

The compromise between the Ince entourage and Karl Oyston, Blackpool’s chairman, was a domestic loan and despite seemingly half of the Premier League chasing the highly-coveted Blackpool winger, it was Crystal Palace who won the race to sign Ince temporarily.

Notably, Ince turned down a return to Liverpool offering the explanation that he was not ready for a club of that stature and subsequently giving one of the very first indications that in the Premier League, Ince simply lacked self-belief.

This potential lack of self-belief was conflicting with the uncompromising weight of expectation from his father who previously stated that if Wilfried Zaha, who had just moved to Manchester United from Championship side Crystal Palace, was worth £15 million that Tom Ince was worthy of a £25 million price-tag.

However, what truly undermined Tom Ince was Crystal Palace. Under Tony Pulis, a rigid tactician who showed a preference towards hard-working players on the flanks who could contribute as much defensively as they could going forward, Tom Ince simply didn’t fit.

The move has subsequently been a stick to beat Tom Ince with as a means of lamenting his Premier League track record. However, it was simply the wrong place at the wrong time.

Under a different manager at a different club which allowed him to express himself freely, Ince’s first return back to the Premier League could’ve been all so different.

#Nearly moment 5 – Inter Milan to Derby County via Hull 

Following a short spell with Crystal Palace offering a small taste Premier League action, once again Tom Ince was faced with a major decision to make.

A number of European sides were circling around Ince, infamously Inter Milan. However, citing “lengthy discussions with his family”, he decided to remain in the Premier League.

The decision saw him join Hull City. However, the move to join Steve Bruce at Hull City proved to be a misjudgment. After a somewhat promising start, Ince describes below why he fell out of favour:

“I started the first few games, but then things changed. Managers make decisions as they want to stay in the Premier League, with more experience and a defensive set up and that didn’t suit me. At the time, it was the right move [for] me, but it just didn’t work out. One of those things.”

Soon afterward, Ince was sent on loan to Nottingham Forest and Derby County with the latter proving to be the better fit. At Derby County, he was allowed to develop into a talisman, similar to what happened the last time he was in the Championship with Blackpool.

Under Steve McClaren’s management, in particular, Ince played in his preferred position. In a system and role where attacking responsibilities were prioritised, Ince was given the freedom to express himself and with thirty-eight goals and seventeen assists in a hundred and fifteen appearances for Derby County, he repaid the trust that had been shown in him.

Whilst Tom Ince had become a talismanic figure with Derby County, the one thing he hadn’t been able to do was help Derby return to the top flight.

There had been many nearly moments, from playoff heartbreak to automatic promotion challenges that eventually fell away each time with there being something of a mental block which prevented them from crossing the line.

A season with Town: so close and yet so far

This brings us to last summer when newly-promoted Huddersfield Town came calling. At the first opportunity Tom Ince jumped at the chance to return to the Premier League.

Unlike in previous seasons where there had been speculation linking him with the Premier League, there was a sense that this time it was different and he was slowly beginning to run out of chances to prove himself in the Premier League.

As one of the intriguing moves of the summer, this line of thought was reflected in the media analysis of the move and if Ince had any self-doubt, it was now emanating to the surface.

From the very beginning of his time with Town, there was a feeling that Tom Ince was weighed down by expectation and the growing pressure for him to make this work.

The pressure was not only self-inflicted.

There are countless examples of how Paul Ince has influenced Tom Ince’s footballing career, not only his decisions but also how he developed mentally with the intense scrutiny of his father.

The case could easily be made that the pressure to perform comes not only from within but also from his father. A pressure which he struggles to deal with in the Premier League; a struggle to wrestle free from the weight of the Ince name and the expectation that brings.

The effects of this were there to see – a lack of composure or confidence, often a blend of both saw him tighten up in good positions and lack the finishing touch that he had shown on such a consistent basis in the Championship, both with Blackpool and Derby County.

Having said that, there was a sense that Tom Ince was just one good game, or even one good goal or assist away from all that pressure being released. A process which would have allowed Ince to be his own man and by design see everything fall into place but it wasn’t to be.

Seemingly, the more he tried, the harder it became and already having to deal with the weight of expectation, he then had the statistic, of being the Premier League player with the most shots without a goal, to deal with.

Each week, we watched the tireless effort that he put in but a combination of misfortune, superb goalkeeping and the woodwork continued to deny him.

One thousand five hundred and ten minutes passed over the span of twenty games culminating in Ince taking forty-five shots before finally, he scored.

A goal which every Town fan up and down the country celebrated overzealously, forget the opposition or how crucial the goal was (by the end of the season, it proved to be a vital one), at the very least he deserved that.

What was telling was the interview he gave afterwards in which he described his search for his first Premier League goal with Town as a looming cloud, a slight insight into the pressure and expectation that he was having to deal with.

After breaking the duck and finally scoring, it seemed that it may be the perfect catalyst for him to kick on and finally prove himself on the Premier League stage.

However, just seventeen days later, the arrival of Alex Pritchard from Norwich City saw Tom Ince lose his spot as Town’s number 10 and instead, he was asked to revert to an unfamiliar role as a disciplined wide midfielder.

It was almost a carbon copy of his difficulties at Crystal Palace and Hull City. As we all know, David Wagner’s rigidly structured 4-2-3-1 is dependent on Town’s attacking midfield trio tracking back and working tirelessly as a cohesive defensive unit.

The issue for Tom Ince was that he was at his most effective when he was afforded a free role to take up positions intelligently on the counter-attack. We did see him be given this opportunity once in the victory over Brighton at home and arguably, it was his most effective performance for Town, despite not scoring.

Whilst Ince was customary to playing on the wing and his deliveries from out wide could’ve proved useful, it was simply not a position that he was suited to as he struggled to deal with the defensive responsibilities, principally due to a lack of pace. Inevitably, he fell out of favour and dropped to the bench.

What is a real testament to Tom Ince and what is a showing of his mental fortitude is that he did not give up and he was rewarded with a champagne moment in the Premier League.

In what would prove to be the goal that saved Huddersfield Town’s Premier League status, it was Tom Ince, the unlikeliest of heroes, who scored the last minute winner against Watford.

For that split second, as the stadium erupted and every player clambered on top of Ince to celebrate, he had proven himself. He had released the shackles and his ghost-like movement and his never say die attitude had been rewarded.

After such a huge moment, it was bound to give him the confidence to really make his mark even if it had taken until the month of April for him to do so.

However, as cruel as football often is, Tom Ince tweaked his hamstring and with Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal to come, he was sacrificed for the sake of the team.

Aside from a final showing in the defeat to Arsenal, it seemed fitting that his last-minute winner against Watford which has already gone down in folklore also proved to be his final crescendo in a Town shirt.

As football now is, Tom Ince will go down as a failure at Huddersfield Town.

It will be cited as a further illustration that Ince is simply too good for the Championship but when tasked with bridging the divide to the Premier League, it is a task that is too much for him to overcome.

However, what I’ve outlined above is how the influence of his father and a number of misjudgments and bad decisions are what underpins so many of these nearly moments.

Specifically at Town, if any of those previous forty-five shots had found the back of the net or if one of those crucial moments had a different outcome, perhaps it could have changed the direction that his short Huddersfield career went. 

Instead, we see Tom leave as the ‘nearly man’, someone that was so close and yet so far from being a success for Town. The question on the pursed lips of Town fans including myself is one of, what might have been?