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Pearce can be interesting company, a real thinker about the game as well as a prickly loner. There’s hinterland aplenty to Stuart Pearce.
So many pictures of Pearce hang in the national team gallery. There is the tear-stained illustration of England’s spot-kick misery at Italia 90. Alongside in the public collection is the photograph of the bloodied England warrior at Euro 92, his cheek split open by a Basile Boli butt.
There is the iconic image from Euro 96 of Pearce’s cathartic release from that penalty penury, six years of hurt exorcised in a scream of joy and relief. Portraits of Pearce capture the emotions that constitute the England story over recent decades.
Turning 50 in April, Pearce’s moods can be difficult to read. Following an article in this newspaper that stirred the then Manchester City manager’s wrath, this reporter was dispatched on a peace mission to Eastlands. Waiting outside his office, I felt certain kindly City staff looking like they wanted to offer me the last rites rather than coffee.
Inside Pearce’s lair, the man himself was utterly charming, refusing to acknowledge any concerns about the offending article, preferring to talk about football and music.
One of the many pleasures of life on the road as a football correspondent is encountering Pearce at airports for a chat, although he moves on quickly if there is a group of journalists about. He has had his run-ins with the media and was reminded recently by the press of an unsavoury past incident with Paul Ince. During his international playing days, Pearce was hardly famed for his co-operation with the press. Suspicion lingers.
So the public view of Pearce is partly shaped by a lack of knowledge. He actually has a great curiosity about life outside football, whether going on safari and tracking animals with his camera or studying events from history. When his England Under-21s were based at Arnhem for the 2007 Euros, Pearce visited the famous Airborne Museum housed in the building used by Allied paratroopers in 1944.
This is a man who has always pushed himself, coming late to the professional game after working as an electrician, recovering from broken legs, that Turin penalty miss and gifting San Marino a back-pass that allowed the minnows to take a shock lead in USA 94 qualifying. Pearce is very driven.
During the 2009 Euros in Sweden, Pearce could be seen on his early-morning run in Varberg, pounding the coastal path into submission. There would be a cheery smile and then his face would lock back into that gritty demeanour with which he used to greet opposing wingers.
His moodiness around the under-21 camp is well known. One minute Pearce can be opening up eloquently on the myriad problems bedevilling English football and the next he can be behaving like a truculent teenager as when sitting alongside the German coach, Horst Hrubesch, at the pre-final press conference in Malmo in 2009. England got thumped 4-0 and Pearce received a similar whacking in the following morning’s headlines.
The jury is out on whether the individual placed in temporary charge of England is actually a particularly good manager. For all the emotion associated with Pearce during his playing career, management requires less fire and more ice. Curate’s egg should be on the menu at Wembley today. His club record is modest. City did well for a while under Pearce, even challenging for a European place, but then laboured badly, leading to his sacking.
Yet this is also the England Under-21s manager who coaxed one of Theo Walcott’s finest performances out of the inconsistent flier, unleashing him through the middle against Germany in a play-off for the 2007 European Championship. The teenager ran riot.
The oft-booked midfielder Lee Cattermole was a disciplinary liability when coming under Pearce’s sway at the 2009 Euros yet the coach sat him down, calmed him down and discussed how to avoid the rash challenges and stupid cautions. For a while, Cattermole was a model of restraint under Pearce. He can have a significant impact on players.
England were humiliated at the 2011 Euros in Denmark, going out in the group stage, yet Pearce organised the defence superbly, putting together a sound back-four of Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ryan Bertrand.
Pearce’s men also held an outstanding Spanish side containing stars like Juan Mata and Javi Martínez in Herning. England were outpassed relentlessly but they never folded and Danny Welbeck equalised.
Pearce has helped Welbeck develop as a centre-forward, teaching the youngster an early lesson about the importance of unstinting concentration and application against Greece in 2009. Pearce had sent him into the game from the bench but, feeling Welbeck was not working hard enough, subbed him, a huge professional embarrassment. Pearce pointed out that representing England required supreme effort. “He’s really motivational,’’ Welbeck reflected subsequently.
Many of those named in his squad today, like Welbeck, have good reason to be grateful to Pearce, who gave them games when their clubs often didn’t. Pearce elicited some strong performances from Daniel Sturridge (out wide) yet he persisted too long with Michael Mancienne in central midfield. Stubborn is an adjective easily applied to Pearce.
Caretakers are in charge of some of London’s most famous buildings. Pearce at Wembley carries echoes of Stuart Lancaster at Twickenham. Both are products of their national coaching system and both are sticklers for discipline. Just as Lancaster demanded higher standards of England’s rugby union stars after the World Cup so Pearce is unlikely to tolerate any nonsense.
Like Lancaster, Pearce will demand pride in the shirt, a quality that Wembley’s many critics will appreciate next week. Pearce’s passion for England runs deep. He will stand up to clubs who do not release their England players. No one will sing the National Anthem louder. But England need so much more than heart. They need brains too.
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