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Football: The caretaker of destiny

Ian Ridley assesses the qualities of a master motivator carrying Forest's hopes
He has says the man who was briefly his assistant, "the aura of Brian Clough about him". So it appears: Nottingham Forest had three days off from training last week and Stuart Pearce was doggedly avoiding all media contact.

Compare and contrast with Newcastle United, Forest's opponents at St James' Park in the fourth round of the FA Cup today. A week earlier Kevin Keegan departed and Kenny Dalglish arrived in high-profile hullabaloo. An announcement that Pearce had agreed to remain player-manager at the City Ground at least until the end of the season was accompanied by, well, nothing very much.

Pearce, we were informed, was concentrating on team matters - though he did manage a television appearance on TFI Friday with another well- paid figure who likes Fridays off, Chris Evans. It has to be admitted, though, that so far Pearce's way of dealing with the demands of both playing and managing by eschewing administrative or press work has been vindicated. Under the former electrician, believed to be the only Premiership manager with a tattoo, Forest have sparked into life by winning five of seven matches, making today's encounter by no means the foregone conclusion it might have been six weeks ago.

All this against a backdrop of turmoil by the Trent, with the Forest takeover growing more tedious and tortuous by the week. One consortium has already been spurned, accusing shareholders of greed - imagine that, coming from prospective owners of a Premiership club - and another which has tabled a pounds 24m offer is now complaining about the Forest board ignoring its 13 February deadline and scheduling a meeting for the 24th.

Quietly in public but vociferously in private, Pearce has been seeking assurances about his own future and that of the club. Meanwhile, he has managed to galvanise a team previously wearied by a potential relegation struggle under the frustrated Frank Clark.

"As you'd expect, Stuart has good motivational and leadership qualities," said Alan Hill, who briefly became general manager and Pearce's right- hand man before going on to join Clark at Manchester City. "But I am sure he wants to get the right people around him, a couple of old friends." It could be that Nigel Clough's permanent transfer and entry into coaching is one of Pearce's aims.

Hill recalled the day of the instant result Pearce achieved, a 2-1 win over Arsenal four days before Christmas. "There was a lot of choice language in his team talk but there is no doubt he lifted the players. He told them they had to knuckle down, think of their families and bring some pride back into their lives. He said he knew all about the nights out - and he was probably the leader - but wouldn't worry as long as they were performing on the pitch. It was basically `don't mess me about, do it for me'." The punk rock that Pearce insists on in the dressing-room was doubtless drowned out.

Hill was surprised that Pearce was prepared to take on management, though clearly the captain, now in his 35th year, was the best and easiest option for the Forest board. "I always thought he would go into the horse-breeding business he is already involved in," said Hill. "It was only a few months ago that he told me he fancied the idea. I think he felt `I can do that'. No, he doesn't have a coaching badge and whether he can put on a training session I don't know but I'm sure he'll sort all that out."

By contrast, Pearce's former team-mate Neil Webb always believed that he was destined to manage Forest. "When I mentioned it to some of the players they laughed but I always thought he had it in him and he's taken to it like a duck to water. We all know about his motivational qualities but I think there is a technical side to him, too. I spoke to him before Forest played Chelsea and he told me he was going to put Des Lyttle on Zola and it worked, so he obviously knows what he is doing, even if he does talk about picking 12 players in the team and forgetting the goalkeeper."

Pearce has absorbed information from some of the game's finest tacticians such as Brian Clough, Bobby Robson, Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle. "Under Mr Clough, coaching was more a case of sowing seeds in your mind," Pearce once said. "When I first came to Forest, he would come into the dressing- room and say `You're always on your arse, son.' I'd go away and think `What did he mean by that?' Then I'd dive into a tackle, someone would skip by me and I'd know."

It will be interesting to see how Pearce counters Newcastle's attacking array. His first tactical move has been to play with three at the back, including himself as with England. Hoddle has assured him that his move into management will not affect his squad place.

Vital elements of Clark's team who finished third in the Premiership two seasons ago, in Stan Collymore and Lars Bohinen, are long gone but enough raw material remains to bring Pearce comfort.

The club has yet to see the best of the talented Croatian defender Nikola Jerkan and though Bryan Roy, in true Dutch fashion, has been voicing his disgruntlement, he is still a potent and pacey attacking threat when his mind is set correctly. One senses that his, and the rest of the Forest team's, had better be.