‘I knew Pearce would go hard and straight’, wrote Stuart Pearce’s ex-England and Nottingham Forest teammate Steve Hodge in his memoirs. It wasn’t just Steve Hodge. The whole world knew. The finesse shot wasn’t a feature known to this left-back. What nobody expected, though, was that the ball would strike the trailing leg of Germany’s giant keeper, Bodo Illgner.
Chris Waddle compounded the misery and Pearce’s “world collapsed.” He was a proud Englishman, competing in his first World Cup, and his miss stopped them from reaching the final. Covering his head with a blue towel, he crouched down, stared at his feet and held back the tears. He “felt as though he had let the whole country down.”
Stuart Pearce has remained fairly tight-lipped about that night in Italy. He normally speaks of sharing a room with three polite and respectful German players for two hours whilst doing a drug test after the match, “crying all the way back on the coach to the team hotel” and “learning lessons” from his ordeal. Few footballers can utilise such a devastating experience in order to improve their career. But, when it comes to mentality, not many other players in the history of the game can match a peak 90s Pearce.
Italia 90 wasn’t the first time Pearce had dealt with a setback. Overcoming disappointment and returning stronger seemed to be in his DNA. As a 13-year-old he was let go by QPR. He then joined local non-league side Wealdstone, where he combined his playing duties with becoming a qualified electrician. He received an offer from Hull whilst turning out for Wealdstone, but he rejected it on account of Hull being “so far from home” and having just begun his vocational training.
Coventry manager Bobby Gould happened to be attending a Wealdstone game one evening with his wife when Pearce caught his eye. The young left-back’s determination and unforgiving style impressed him. According to Gould, the decision to sign Pearce was made within ten minutes: “He put in a thundering tackle and the winger landed on my wife’s lap, I said to her: ‘That’s it I’ve seen enough.’” He paid Wealdstone £30,000, a fair fee for an amateur player back then. After two years at Coventry, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest accepted the no-nonsense defender as part of the £300,000 deal that took Ian Butterworth to the Sky Blues. It turned out to be quite the bargain for Forest.
Despite Pearce’s own self-doubt – he asked to advertise his electrician’s skills in the Forest programmes, just in case the whole football thing didn’t work out – he was an instant success in the East Midlands. His aggressive approach endeared him to the fans, who named him ‘Psycho’. In a 2003 interview with FourFourTwo, he admitted that the nickname got him “going at times” but it was never something he “really tried to live up to.”
By the time the 1990 World Cup beckoned, Pearce captained his club, had won the League Cup twice and was the best left-back in the country. In addition to his ruthless tackling and natural leadership, he also had an absolute hammer of a left peg and was prone to a top corner screamer from his left flank. The penalty failure aside, the World Cup was a triumph for Pearce. He pitted himself against the best in the world and more often than not he came out on top.
Pearce used the disappointment of the penalty miss, and some choice words from Clough, to spur himself on. According to the left-back, the 1990/91 season turned out to be the “best of his career.” In the beginning, the taunts were vicious but he used them as a form of motivation. He scored an astonishing 18 goals in all competitions as Forest finished eighth in the league and reached the FA Cup final, in which he scored the opening goal in a surprise 2-1 loss to Tottenham.
The next summer, his England’s woes deepened as the side failed to progress from the group stages in Euro 92. Pearce’s stand-out tournament moment was being headbutted by Basile Boli. It was an act of retaliation for Pearce’s earlier crunching challenge on Jocelyn Angloma. The Englishman was floored by the attack but quickly sprang back to his feet. With blood seeping from his cheek, he set about exacting revenge.
Some minutes later, England were awarded a free-kick just in range for a Stuart Pearce thunderbolt. The ref ordered him to go clean the blood off his face. “Don’t take this till I get back!” he barked at his teammates. On his return Lineker instructed him, in rather uncompromising style, to “fucking smash it!” He unleashed all his rage on the ball and it lashed off the underside of the crossbar but unfortunately didn’t cross the line.
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After the free-kick, he knew he wouldn’t get anywhere near Boli again, so he turned his attention to Angloma. “I put my blood on his doorstep,” said Pearce in Channel 4’s 2001 Football Stories. Pointing at the cut, he turned to the Frenchman and remarked: “You done that, and I’m gonna sort you out for doing it.” Angloma, in “sheer terror”, protested his innocence. Pearce didn’t care.
This exemplified Pearce’s unique form of calculated aggression. He could easily have lost his cool, given Boli his just desserts, and got himself sent off in the process. Instead, he bided his time, waited for his opportunity and channelled his anger in a more appropriate way. What’s more, if the ball had come back down on the right side of the white line, England might have progressed beyond the group stages.
There were high hopes in Nottingham for the inaugural Premier League season. However, the early losses of key striker Teddy Sheringham and club stalwart Des Walker left Forest in a dire state. Matters were made worse in February when injury ruled out Pearce and the influential midfielder Neil Webb for the rest of the season. A catastrophic meltdown ensued. Scandals, votes of confidences, and a shocking loss of form lead to relegation. The fallout was monumental, iconic manager Clough retired, and his replacement ex-player Frank Clark was plucked from relative obscurity at Leyton Orient.
The relegation put Pearce in a sticky situation. He had only recently been appointed as England captain, and he worried that playing in the second tier would put his international career at risk. In Pearce’s eyes, playing for England and captaining the side came above all else. In an interview with Jim White for talkSPORT, Pearce confirmed that the first thing he did after Forest’s relegation was ring Graham Taylor to see if his place in the national team would remain safe: “If he would have said no, I would have put in a transfer request in to Nottingham Forest that day,” and said, “I have to leave because I want to play for my country.”
In November 1993, Pearce took another plunge into despair. In a cruel twist of fate, it would also occur on the Italian peninsula, this time in Bologna against international minnows San Marino. An underwhelming qualifying campaign meant England needed to score seven more goals than San Marino, and hope that Poland could defeat Holland, in order to win a place in the 1994 World Cup.
Within eight seconds of kick-off, San Marino striker Davide Gualtieri pounced on a feeble back pass from the experienced left-back and slotted the ball under David Seaman. At the time it was the quickest goal in the history of international football. England recovered to win the game 7-1 but ultimately it was worthless. Holland’s victory over Poland ensured England would not be going to the USA. Pearce was left bemoaning his lapse in concentration and pondering over more “lessons” to be learnt. After the dust of the qualifying campaign had settled, Taylor resigned, Terry Venables replaced him, and Stuart Pearce’s international future looked bleak.
In Nottingham, Pearce and Frank Clark inspired Forest to instant promotion back to the Premiership. By finishing third upon their return in 1994/95, Forest qualified for Europe for the first time since Heysel in 1985. The following season saw their domestic form stabilise with a ninth-place finish. But Pearce and his cohorts did delight the City Ground faithful with a spectacular European run that was only put to a halt by eventual tournament winners Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.
Pearce now faced serious competition for his England place in the forms of Julian Dicks, Alan Wright and, most of all, Graeme Le Saux. In fact, in one of Venables first phone calls to Pearce, he told him: “Le Saux is going to be my left-back.” Pearce’s response: “Fine, but if you think I’m good enough, I’ll stay with the squad and help him.”
Pearce was 34, had more than 60 caps to his name, and was an England hero. Most players would have taken the plaudits and gone into international retirement. For Pearce, however, playing for England was “something above playing for his club.” For him, losing his place in the starting XI wasn’t a necessarily a negative, he could still make an impact. The way he saw it, if he could help Le Saux, he would help England, and perhaps help himself at the same time.
During an interview with talkSPORT, Le Saux mentioned the complete professionalism and respectful attitude of Pearce who, in a small training ground ceremony, even presented Le Saux with the number 3 shirt before his debut. “It’s fair to say that he is pretty intimidating,” said Le Saux, “but he told me that I deserved it on merit and he was really gracious.”
Pearce sat on the bench and watched Le Saux play at left-back until December ‘95, when a broken leg and dislocated ankle ended Le Saux’s Euro hopes. Pearce made the most of his opportunity. His return to form was so impressive that Venables even considered making him captain for the tournament, while Tony Adams looked to be an injury doubt. His international revival continued well into the Euros. His experience was essential as England reached the semi-finals in their first home tournament since 1966. He also vanquished some past demons on the way.
In the quarter-final against Spain, neither side managed to break the deadlock within 120 minutes. So, for the first time since 1990, England would need to go through on penalties. When Venables was deciding the takers and order, Pearce made a beeline for the manager: he knew “if it was left to chance he wouldn’t have been picked given his history.” “I’ll take the third one,” he said. Venables looked at him in shock: “Are you fucking sure?”
Pearce stepped up, placed the ball on the spot and walked to the edge of the area, his eyes fixated on the ball. “Nobody really wants to see him miss it,” muttered commentator Barry Davies. Pearce walloped it into the bottom right corner. Andoni Zubizarreta dived the right way but the shot had far too much pace.
In the most visceral releases of emotion, Pearce ran towards the touchline whilst punching the air and shouting to the crowds. That was “more than just another goal for England, that means everything for Pearce,” shouted the commentator. It was arguably the defining moment of his entire career; his redemption was complete. In the midst of all the pandemonium that followed Miguel Ángel Nadal’s saved penalty, Pearce found a moment to console his rival. He, more than anybody else in that stadium, understood the Spaniard’s pain.
In the semi-finals against his old foes Germany, Pearce was called upon to take another penalty. He theorised that German keeper Andreas Köpke would dive the same way in which the penalties had gone against Spain. Shearer’s and Platt’s efforts proving his theory, he decided to shoot to the left this time. It worked. Unfortunately, the fairytale ending of winning a home tournament wasn’t to be. Gareth Southgate’s shot was saved by Köpke and Andreas Möller sent Germany through to the final.
The significance of scoring against Spain and Germany was not lost on Pearce. He fully understood its importance, not just for himself but also for its role in the sporting history of England. A man of little vanity, he admitted that one of the only pieces of memorabilia from his career that has any pride of place in his home is a simple photo. It shows him leaning over to place the ball on the spot before his penalty against Spain, his face is hidden but his name and number are on full display.
He puts it best himself in the aforementioned interview: “Maybe when I look at that picture, it symbolises a lot more than just ‘oh it’s a penalty for England.’” He continues: “Probably the only reason I put that picture on my wall, is because I know the hardship the year before and the sacrifice … that symbolises that moment of me putting the ball on the penalty spot. That’s the story behind it for me, in my world. For everybody else it’s not, it’s scoring a penalty against Spain, for me it’s the journey.”
Of course, Euro 96 wasn’t the end of Pearce’s career. He retired from international football immediately after the tournament but enjoyed a brief comeback at Glenn Hoddle’s behest. History repeated itself at Forest as the loss of key players and a lack of quality replacements saw them relegated again. At the end of the 1997 season, Pearce left for Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle, where he would compete in two more FA Cup finals. After his stint in the north-east, he returned to London and saw out the 90s with West Ham, before finishing his playing career at Manchester City in 2001.
In all the interviews with, speeches from, and articles about Pearce, three words seem to be constantly repeated: learning, lessons and mentality. That is the mark of the man, though he could, too, justifiably look back on his career that equally earned terms like trophies, glory or winning.
Pearce left an indelible mark on the psychological side of the game, and on English football in general. Alan Hansen once said, “If you were in the trenches, you would want him over the top right away, and if you were fighting against him, the white flag would come up right away.” If somebody wrote a version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War for football, the first page should surely show Pearce placing the ball on the spot before his penalty against Spain in 1996. Football has had few true warriors but Stuart Pearce is, in every sense of the word, a warrior.
By Dan Parry @DanParry_