Ince relishing cup clash with old pal Bruce

NOTTINGHAM - Paul Ince and Steve Bruce were best friends at Manchester United and, 20 years on, their families still holiday in Portugal together. On Saturday they will be fierce rivals as their teams meet in the FA Cup.

Former England and United midfielder Ince takes Notts County - the club he now manages from England's third tier - to Bruce's Sunderland, who have soared to sixth in the Premier League.

"It's a tough game as they are flying," Ince, who also played for Inter Milan and Liverpool, told Reuters. "But we go up there with no fear and no pressure.

"We will enjoy the occasion and hope to do ourselves justice. We have seen over the years there are cup upsets, so why can't it be us?"

After Ince joined Manchester United from West Ham United for one million pounds in 1989, he struck up a strong friendship with Bruce.

Ince joked that he only gravitated to him "because he liked a beer", but in all seriousness has the utmost respect for him.

That friendship even extended to Saturday's cup game. Ince called Bruce to see if County could use Sunderland's training facilities. Bruce not only agreed but said he would arrange lunch for them.

MIXED TOGETHER

"That shows the quality of the man," Ince said. "When I went to United, we lived about 200 yards away from each other, we mixed together socially with our families and we see each other in Portugal every year when we go back to the Algarve."

Their neighbours include Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard.

"We are very close as he is someone who looked after me when I went to United. I get pleasure from seeing him do well and he deserves his success. I hope he will be the next England manager as he has respect from players."

Bruce and Ince were equals as players but their predicaments are very different now. While Bruce was able to sign strikers Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan for a collective 23 million pounds, Ince has had to box clever with free transfers and loans.

Ince, 43, has seen enough soccer at the top level to know how to manage footballers. He spent five years at United under the tutelage of Alex Ferguson.

"I have learned a lot after working with so many good people and I've discovered this job is about man management more than anything," Ince said.

"Fergie never took a coaching session until Thursday afternoon when we had 11 versus 11. He just sat upstairs with a coffee, looking out of the window at us and we'd all be too frightened to put a foot wrong.

"I had an illustrious career and I'm comfortable in life and have some great memories," Ince added. "I don't have to do this, but I want to do it. I want to show people that I can manage at the highest level."

His ultimate aim is to manage Inter. When he achieves that, he said, he will quit. Should he reach the San Siro he will have done it the hard way.

His management career began in 2006 at little known Macclesfield, who were last in England's fourth tier. He overcame a 12-point deficit to stave off relegation.

He moved on to MK Dons and won promotion after losing his two top scorers.

His success earned him a Premier League opportunity at Blackburn Rovers, but that lasted just six months. His dismissal there still rankles, yet fuels his determination to return to top-level management.

"Blackburn probably was a bit too early for me but I didn't have the support there," Ince said.

"Straight away I lost my best players Brad Friedel, David Bentley and Roque Santa Cruz - we just didn't have the finances. We were fifth from bottom when I was sacked and I feel a bit aggrieved by that."

County are now recovered from a controversial period that saw Sven-Goran Eriksson in charge, under a mysteriously anonymous regime that promised much and delivered little.

Ince's team has won six of their last seven games and are mid-table and eyeing the play-offs. Before that, Ince does not rule out a cup shock that may sour his friendship with Bruce, if only for a day.

"It's great to get to the third round along with the likes of Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea," Ince said. "Sunderland is just as big a club. We will get 50 percent of the gate receipts which will benefit our club and pay a few bills."