Ian Herbert: Pearce must now face the curse of great expectations
His passion plays a big part. He's been there and done it, so he knows how it feels
After Barrygate, prepare for Harrygate. Such is the feverish expectation of England's tournament football success that Gareth Barry's ankle became as much of a hot topic two summers ago as the fractured metatarsals of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney had in previous campaigns. "Barry preying on Fabio's mind" ran one headline at the time. "Not a prayer without crocked Barry" was another.
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So we can only begin to imagine the drama that will surround Harry Redknapp if he signs off from Tottenham after their final Premier League fixture at home to Fulham and heads into a new career as England manager, 29 days before the opening fixture with France. To borrow from Niall Edworthy's book on England managers, the position is the second-most important job in the country – in the face of fairly incontrovertible evidence that the country will not win.
The economist Stefan Szymanksi has calculated that England win two- thirds of their matches and have a win percentage which is the 10th best in the world. Those are not the kind of numbers that beget silver.
The events of Stuart Pearce's opening night as caretaker manager reveal that even Redknapp is unlikely to change the course of this history, even if he started work today, 101 days before England kick off in Donetsk's Donbass Arena. It was not so much England who revealed this as Arjen Robben, who exposed the gap between his nation and the hosts in the 20 seconds it took him to run through Pearce's team to score.
"Maybe we could have used a bit more know-how to bring Robben down on his way through," Joe Hart reflected yesterday, which pretty much said it all. Minus Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, the two players most likely to produce a Robben effect, a part of Redknapp will surely reflect that the omens aren't good. "Everyone who's had the job has been slaughtered at some stage, haven't they?" he said, pointedly, a few weeks ago.
All of which points to the wisdom of him sitting tight until the tournament is over and taking a clear run at the job next September. His reputation will remain intact and England might actually enter the new and liberating world of low expectations.
Joe Mercer, another England caretaker, experienced the value of this when he took over from Sir Alf Ramsey in 1974, losing only one in seven matches during his happy-go-lucky interregnum. There was something similar about the way Ron Greenwood, a caretaker who lasted five years, took his side to the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain. The torrid qualification campaign started so unconvincingly that on the flight home from Hungary, after a 3-1 win, he drew the curtains that separated the players at the front from the journalists at the back and told them he was resigning.
Kevin Keegan talked him around – then came the defeat to Norway and the "Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill..." commentary. But when England did actually manage to get through to the finals and Greenwood had announced he would retire after the tournament, he seemed to relax – in the same way that Bobby Robson and Terry Venables looked a lot calmer when they knew that this purgatory was finite.
England's opening game of that 1982 tournament offers a deeply encouraging precedent, given that it was France who were defeated 3-1 on an afternoon of immense humidity. The two-goal win required over the Spanish to make the semis was not forthcoming.
Sir Alex Ferguson was less blessed as a caretaker, when he took Scotland to Mexico four years later after the death of Jock Stein, and was promptly eliminated with one point from three matches. But the unmistakable impression in Wednesday night's player-press mixed zone was that the respect which the players say they have for Pearce is not affected. In Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Adam Johnson and now Scott Parker, Pearce has a core of players who feel a genuine bond with him.
Richards put it best when he said: "His passion [makes the difference]. His passion plays a big part. He's been a player. He's been there and done it so he knows what it feels like. I think he's good at giving players confidence. When he speaks to the players he says 'You're the best, that's why you're here with England. Get out there and show everyone why you're with the squad'."
Pearce just might be with them, if he can learn from the curse of great expectations felt by his predecessors. It was Greenwood who reflected after the 1982 tournament: "I honestly thought we could have won it."
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