James Lawton: Passage of time means to pillory Pearce for old failings is unfair


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The Independent Football

If we want to pillory Stuart Pearce over the racist abuse he allegedly once threw at Paul Ince we might as well take a thousand other old crimes out of the embalming fluid and expose them to the mores of today.

Where to start? Right here is convenient enough. I attended the game in question, a rugged encounter at Old Trafford which saw Pearce's Nottingham Forest beat United, and I do not remember being enveloped in rage when Ince complained of the abuse.

I don't recall anyone with the exception of Ince hitting a red-alert button.

Of course it was wrong, but our antennae were different then, infinitely less sensitive. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the players' union, intervened swiftly and Frank Clark, the manager of Forest, acknowledged the implications right from the start. If anyone had been slow to get off the fence it was, fortunately, a short sitting.

Pearce's apology was quick and complete. He said he deeply regretted the incident and the words that had flown from his mouth. More recently he has dealt with questions about his sibling's enthusiastic support for the British National Party, saying he had different politics and that in this case he certainly wasn't his brother's keeper.

So does this put England's interim coach in the clear before taking up his duties in the friendly against the Netherlands, does it keep him out of the maelstrom occupied by deposed captain John Terry as he awaits trial on the charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand?

A rational understanding of how it was then and is now says that it does. Time brings a little wisdom to most of us, a point made with typical eloquence by Muhammad Ali when he declared: "A man who thinks the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life."

Pearce is a year short of Ali's dividing line between enlightenment and recidivism but it is reasonable to believe that in many years of working with some of the nation's most talented young players, many of them black, he has emerged on the right side. Certainly, there has been no hint of any further blemishes beyond the two raised at Wembley on Thursday – one of them relatively ancient (the Old Trafford game was 18 years ago) and the other outside of his control.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with the Terry furore but Pearce might reasonably claim the help of a statute of limitations and point out that while he promptly pleaded guilty as charged, and offered his contrition, the case of the former England captain will remain live and extremely contentious – and, we are told, divisive in the dressing room – right up to the moment a verdict is delivered after the European Championship finals.

Terry is also operating in a game much more heavily populated with black players, some of whom, and certainly not least Anton Ferdinand's elder brother, Rio, are among the more voluble and followed operators on the social network.

Pearce's mistake might have been seen more readily as a serious warning about the need for increased vigilance, the possibility that the venom of the terraces was in danger of polluting the field of play along with a volley of bananas, but it was an individual problem that was dealt with quite surely.

The one confronting the FA elders last week was not so easily contained, a fact which is hardly in need of underlining now with Fabio Capello back in his Alpine villa and England minus both a manager and a captain just a few months before the start of a major tournament.

A catastrophe, we may say, but surely not in moral terms. The FA might have paid more deference to Capello's injured dignity but the manager rather took the edge off that criticism when he displayed, for the benefit of Italian television, a complete failure to understand the position of his employers. They were, all in all, bosses who could not be said to have been quite so intolerant of his own failings down the four years of accumulating disappointment.

Now they face charges of hypocrisy, not to mention negligence, in turning to Pearce. It is the kind of judgement which ignores the passage of time while in pursuit of another brick to throw at today's defendants. Then when you think of the barrage the FA has received over the years, usually for the most impeccable reasons, there has to be the suspicion that this is one missile too many.

Yes, maybe they should have conferred with Capello before announcing the Terry decision, but, no, it did not have to be a matter of debate. They had a firm and admirable position. Capello was still rooted in his earlier and surely misguided resolve to reinstate his captain – and his desire to maintain a position that was both bad for the image of the English game and the mood of a team facing another formidable challenge.

Some may say that the eruption of Pearce's past has indeed made a nonsense of the attempt to find a way through football's moral maze. It is a claim that might make a glimmering of sense if the incident had not been so quickly and satisfactorily consigned to history. The facts have been in the open for nearly two decades now and all the questions have been answered.

This leaves us not with any meaningful investigation, just a superannuated smear.

Tribute to Doughty with sting in the tail

Nigel Doughty, the former chairman of Nottingham Forest who died last weekend at the age of 54 after sinking around £100m into the club he supported as a boy, is being somewhat re-assessed by all but the most vociferous of his many critics on the terraces of the City Ground.

Doughty acknowledged his mistakes when he resigned the chairmanship but said, with a track record to prove it, that he had always tried to do his best for the football team which had so coloured his youth.

Among the tributes, one of the more haunting has come from his friend Jon Holmes, the super-agent who has guided so skilfully the broadcasting and journalistic careers of such as Gary Lineker and Michael Atherton. Holmes, who was briefly chairman of Leicester City, writes, "Both he and I had become chairman of the clubs we supported as kids. I lost a few thousand quid doing it and stayed in the role but a few months. Nigel lost a hundred million quid and was booed off and out of the job by the crowd. This is the game and its values we have all wasted slabs of our life on. But I shall be there on Saturday."

It is a commitment, the game must understand, which is shared with such increasing ambivalence by so many.

Ashton must beware Italy's cold revenge

Chris Ashton says that he will keep half an eye on the possibilities of an Italian reaction today to some of his more excessive celebration during last year's four-try rampage.

However, he may be better off – after consigning the "AshSplash" to that place where it always belonged, the junk pile of adolescent foibles – getting on with the job of focusing entirely on building on a more mature contribution to the launching of a new England at Murrayfield last Saturday.

There were certainly a few inklings at the Stade de France last weekend that England's hosts might just be sniffing the possibility of a new Italy in the hands of the impressively single-minded French coach Jacques Brunel and the sublime No 8 and captain Sergio Parisse. Raking up retaliation for a dent in Italian pride may be considered less of a priority than hitting some new levels of concentrated ambition.

There may also be a feeling that Fabio Capello probably used up the Italian ration of revenge for at least a few weeks.