Names of the Nineties: Stuart Pearce

Names of the Nineties: Stuart Pearce

‘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 confide