Liverpool as soon as the January transfer window opens again, serving as the perfect example for all young footballers at big clubs across the country resting on their laurels rather than going out and taking risks for the benefit of their long-term future.
Before we label the 20-year-old as some sort of trailblazer, he could just as easily be cast in a negative light for overconfidence for the way that he originally left Anfield back in 2011. After being thrown on as a late substitute in the club’s humiliating League Cup loss at home to Northampton by Roy Hodgson, when Kenny Dalglish replaced him at the helm and noticed his potential, he was offered a new four-year deal which was subsequently turned down by the player, who was seeking assurances over a regular first-team role – quite the bold move by a raw, untested then 18-year-old.
This led to a compensation agreement being agreed with Blackpool for the sum of £250,000 or risk losing him for nothing at the end of the season in a switch which saw Ince back his ability above the prestige of playing only occasionally in games of little importance for a top flight club. It’s been labelled ‘amazing’ that Liverpool ‘allowed’ Ince to leave for a nominal fee just 18 months ago, when really, the situation was entirely of the player’s making, he wanted it this way, not the club.
The England under-21 international refuses to fade into the shadow of his famous father and former national team skipper Paul, though, refusing to be anything like a bit-part player when he does eventually return to Merseyside: “It’s always hard to step out of the shadow but you can only do that by playing football. I think by me keeping my head down, playing football and scoring goals, I’ve quietly been under the radar.
“It’s nice that people notice me for me and not just as ‘son of’. It’s been down to me to make my own reputation. At the moment it’s going well but hopefully in the years to come it will still be Tom Ince. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for me in the last 12-18 months. There have been massive changes without me really knowing it. This whole club has brought me on leaps and bounds and allowed me to excite people.”
There’s no denying his impact since dropping down to the Championship to play with the Seasiders and after 8 goals in 41 games last season, Ince has started this campaign in exceptional form to the tune of 13 in 22 games – a fantastic return for a wide-man and much better than the heavily touted and seemingly far more pricey Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace fame.
In reality, Ince has been helped by circumstance in that the Liverpool that he left and the one that he looks set to return to are two completely different clubs. Departing in the same summer that saw the club fork out over £56m on the likes of Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique, it’s in stark contrast to the sensible fiscal constraints of the Brendan Rodgers era, during which he has had to ship out several players on large wages such as Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez.
The culture of the club has changed dramatically too, with the 39-year-old former Swansea boss, partly due to the reigning in of the transfer budget, choosing to throw youngsters such as Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom straight into the starting eleven. Who knows, had Ince bided his time a little more, he may have been playing more regular football at the club this season anyway.
Due to Liverpool agreeing a 35% sell-on clause as part of his compensation agreement, the club will effectively be in the bizarre situation of paying themselves, thus reducing the overall fee, thought to be around £6m, to a much more affordable and respectable total of £4m approximately, which considering his form is a fair price. The club have come in for criticism for targeting a player they let go under two years ago, yet when Barcelona do it, bringing back the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba for huge amounts, nobody even bats an eyelid. Strange, that.
You only have to look at the career trajectory of the club’s other main transfer target in January, Chelsea forward Daniel Sturridge, to realise that Ince has more than made his mark and picked the right, somewhat unusual and rarely trodden path. The 23-year-old has been shunted out on loan, he’s moved for money and been played out of position, yet he’s never fully settled anywhere yet in his career, in search of a role at a club that will believe in him and he’s never enjoyed quite the same status in any side as Ince has enjoyed at Blackpool.
Nevertheless, we should applaud Ince for backing his abilities, his talent and his skill to go and prove himself elsewhere first before coming back to the big time. Moving to Blackpool was a switch fraught with risk and yet it looks like it’s about to pay off big time for the future England star. Youngsters at Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham take note, there is more than one route to the top.