Football: Pearce just grateful for the chance

Newcastle thought he was past it, but the 37-year-old defender has a new club and a place in Kevin Keegan's squad for England's Euro challenge.

THE PRESENCE of 37-year-old Stuart Pearce in the England squad for the first time since Le Tournoi two years ago owes much to Kevin Keegan's faith in him, a great deal to his own professionalism but perhaps, most of all to sheer luck.

Just over a year ago, when Pearce was preparing to start his second season as a Newcastle player after giving such sterling service to Nottingham Forest for over 12 years, he survived a horrific accident when his Rover car, with him in it, was crushed by a seven-ton lorry.

"It was a bit of a blow," he told his audience at England's Buckinghamshire hotel yesterday with amusing understatement. "But I'm not really the sort to sit back and fall into religion and wonder what could have been, and why I was saved. I am very practical minded and it was just a case of getting out of the car and getting on with it."

Which is precisely what Pearce has had to do ever since being informed by Ruud Gullit in the summer that he was no longer young enough to feature in Newcastle's first team. At an age when many players might be thinking that their time had finally come, Pearce was determined to carry on.

"I thought I had a little bit more to offer the club, actually," he said. "But I suppose every footballer who is not in the team thinks that. There was no animosity, I hunted around about four or five Premiership clubs and had no real takers until Harry Redknapp took a gamble on me, for which I am very grateful.

"I had not played in the Premiership for eight months so it would have been quite easy for me to jack it in, say `I am going to see my time out at Newcastle', but I kept myself fit and I always enjoyed training and it's probably fair to say that professionalism is what's pulled me through at this end of my career.

"I don't know what Harry saw in me. To be fair I think Rio [Ferdinand] is helping me at my age a lot more than I am helping him. The majority of teams would probably say: `He's too old'. So I am just pleased to be there. When you know you haven't got much time on your hands as a player you savour the moments."

But although Pearce never doubted his ability to perform in the Premiership, even he was taken by surprise by Keegan's invitation to rejoin the England squad for the last two European Championship qualifying games. Pearce was so taken aback that he needed a couple of hours to think about it.

"When he said he might select me in the squad I did have to remind him I had retired on two occasions," Pearce said. "I didn't know whether he was aware of that or not. It just came as a bolt out of the blue, really. But as soon as I put the phone down I knew what my decision would be. At my stage of life, you have got nothing to lose and it is an honour to be involved at this level again.

"Probably a month or two ago I didn't think I would be playing professional football again, really, I couldn't see where my next game was coming from. I had only played three games at the time for West Ham, and I'd had quite a lay-off. But I was excited. I have kept myself quite fit, even in the six or eight months at Newcastle when there wasn't anything at the end of the week for me."

Keegan himself has few doubts about the significance of including Pearce in a squad that has already lost an influential defender in Sol Campbell. "Stuart does become more important now," Keegan said. "He also gives you options. He can play left-sided centre-back, left-back in a back four and, if you asked him to play left wing-back or central midfield holding, he would play it. You know one thing: he might not be the best player on the park that day but he'll be the one who will give it 100 per cent effort and try to do what you asked of him."

Although Pearce nowadays is becoming more and more of an establishment figure through his work with the England Under-18 side, one thing that has not changed is his taste in music. "The music in the West Ham dressing room is an absolute shambles at the moment," said the renowned Sex Pistols fan. "[Samassi] Abou walks past with some form of African music on, one record later Steve Lomas will put Queen on. There's a power struggle musically but that possibly might be remedied in the next few months."

As for Pearce's international future beyond next week, he said: "This might be a short-term situation. There are one or two injuries here that have given me this chance and if it's a one-or-two-games situation, so be it. I will do everything in my power to make it last longer than that but if it is just the two games, I will give it my best shot and do as much as I can for Kevin and thank him at the end of the trip."

Whether Pearce will be thanking Keegan or the other way round remains to be seen.

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