Plasterer's mate on the way to greatness

Jim White salutes Stuart Pearce, the England left-back whose spirit and bravery lifted a nation and silenced his many doubters
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The Independent Online
To celebrate his 50th birthday, George Best was invited by BBC 2 to select his all-time fantasy football XI made up of players from the British Isles. Denis Law was in there, Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Charlton too, the XI was full of the kind of names standard in that type of in-the-pub exercise. But there at left-back was an unexpected inclusion, proof positive, for some commentators, of the debilitating effects of alcohol. Never mind his appearance on Wogan, nothing confirmed that old Bestie's brain had finally addled quite as conclusively as his selection, in his best team of all time, of Stuart Pearce.

Until last Saturday afternoon, Pearce was, for many commentators, a metaphor for the limitations of English football. Unquestionably wholehearted, committed, steel-lunged, he nevertheless lacked the technical capabilities required to make a difference at the highest level. The cut of his shorts seemed to say it all. Hitched up higher than is strictly necessary, they expose yards of thick thigh, the pistons to make this machine run and run all day. It was those legs that were, in several quarters, blamed for the disappointing international career of John Barnes. Instead of the clever ball-to-feet he was used to at Liverpool, when he played for England Barnes spent most of his time receiving atomic-powered trajectories drilled by the left-back at his shins. There was nothing deliberate in Pearce's bad passes, it was just that those body-builder thighs were too muscular to undertake any of the finer subtleties of the game. England would get nowhere with plasterers' mates like him in the side, it was reckoned: the moniker Psycho said it all.

Since Saturday, those of us who held such views have, like the television critic who suggested Alan Partridge lacked daring, been getting out a large dish, a knife and fork and have been eating our words. A door-to- door delivery business has been required to service the critical need for humble pie. On Saturday, Pearce proved us wrong. He gave ample demonstration that the qualities he possesses in abundance - those of courage, commitment and strength of character - are as valuable in the nerve-searing atmosphere of an international football tournament as any amount of subtlety and technique. The Spaniards may have worn beautifully cut shorts, but thanks to Pearce, they, like the football, are going home.

"If you were in the trenches with this man you'd want him to go over with you first," said Alan Hansen immediately after Pearce's penalty buried itself into the corner of the Spanish net. Hyperbolic it may seem in the cold light of reflection, but Hansen, as usual, had a point: at times football, like warfare, is advanced by acts of individual determination and courage rather than broader visions of tactics and strategy.

But there was more to Pearce's penalty than its execution. Gascoigne, Platt and Shearer all took theirs with equal precision and purpose; all of them stood four-square when volunteers were called for; all of them would have been aware of the consequences of missing as they stepped up to address the ball. None of them, however, had, on 4 July 1990, in the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, missed a penalty in the shoot-out of the World Cup semi-final. None of them had experienced what Pete Davies memorably described in All Played Out as "the black pit of loss opened wide." Platt had even scored that evening.

Pearce's miss against West Germany in 1990 was all the more awful because it was not what you expected of him. Reliability was his game, that and power, the two pre-requisites for a penalty-taker, you would have thought. As he stepped up to face Bodo Illgner, the nation believed it had a banker. Instead the lionheart fluffed it.

The miss haunted Pearce. It was the great if-only, he couldn't be comforted about it, not at the time or later. This man you would want beside you in the trenches, this man who reckons that the best Christmas present he has ever received was the flag-pole and Union Jack his wife once gave him, felt he had let his country down.

For six years he couldn't escape it: everywhere he went people reminded him of it, he watched videos of the shoot-out time and again at home. When the play An Evening With Gary Lineker opened in the West End, Pearce, along with a number of other England players, was invited along. The play centres on that night in Turin and includes a fantasy sequence in which Pearce doesn't miss. Chris England, the playwright, was worried how the player might react, down there in the stalls, watching what might have been. England recalls watching him, nervous about the pain he was about to re-inflict and remembers that when the moment came, and the dream penalty went in on stage, Pearce leapt to his feet, yelled "Yeeeess!" and brought the house down.

On Saturday, Pearce brought the house down again.

"I think you could call Stuart the bravest man on the planet to take that penalty after what happened before," said his team-mate Paul Ince, his recollection erased by the euphoria of triumph of the memory that the two of them had once clashed in a Premiership match over alleged racist taunts. Pearce himself said he had no doubts. He needed to take a penalty in a shoot-out, he said he'd wanted to from the day he'd missed. His face, a rictus of square-jawed pride and relief, suggested what a release it was. And rightly so. On Sunday he went to Finsbury Park to introduce his favourite group, The Sex Pistols, up on stage: the tumultuous greeting he received made it clear the nation (or at least its crustier representatives) had forgiven him for Turin.

In a way Pearce is lucky to have been able to exorcise his penalty ghost. Had Graeme Le Saux not broken a leg, had Terry Venables done what most critics implored and replaced him after two poor early performances in the tournament with Phil Neville, Alex Ferguson's Maldini-in-the-making, Pearce wouldn't even have been on the pitch at Wembley. But if it was lucky for Pearce that he was, it was even luckier for his team-mates and the ever-growing England following. After he scored, he turned to the crowd and bellowed "come on." This was not an instruction to applaud him, but to get behind the team, to lift them to even greater heights, to take collective responsibility. With that goal Pearce suggested to us all that it was now possible. That if everyone followed him and displayed his guts and attitude it will be enough to defeat even a team as skilful, committed and determined as the Germans.

At that moment Stuart Pearce proved his worth. He might not be able to pass as well as Neville, he might not be be able to read the game like Maldini, he might not be capable of as devastating an overlap as Sergi, but when it comes to lifting a nation's heart, he has no equal. We should have trusted Bestie all along: he of all people should be capable of recognising a great full-back.