Profile: Of menace and monosyllables: Stuart Pearce

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PERMANENT captaincy of the England football team is about to change. By all accounts it will move from the ambassadorial, opera-going Gary Lineker to a player who motivates himself by playing the punk rock of The Stranglers and is known as 'Psycho'. It seems reasonable to ask whether Stuart Pearce is a suitable candidate to succeed such men as Billy Wright, Bobby Moore, Jimmy Armfield and Bryan Robson.

Captaincy in professional football is not usually a responsibility of any great consequence. The arm band is thrown from player to player with the nonchalance of a cook tossing a pancake. Often these days it gets hurled to the ground in a gesture of defiance and childish temper. Unlike cricket, football does not expect its captains to make significant decisions or even move men from position to position. In recent seasons there has been only one captain in England who would ignore his manager and alter the pre-planned tactics, and he is the man Pearce is expected to succeed.

Lineker's vast experience at top international level made it inevitable that on many occasions he was better qualified to make tactical changes than his England manager, Graham Taylor, whose personal involvement as a player was limited to the lower divisions. That in itself must have caused some friction and one cannot help feeling that Taylor will be happier when he appoints his new man. Pearce, now 30, is tailor- made for a manager who prizes commitment, and after failure in the summer's European Championship promises more directness.

Taylor sees the taciturn Pearce as a leader by example. 'Whatever the challenge, it certainly ain't going to frighten him.' Significantly, too, Taylor points to Pearce's absences from the left back position he now owns like a Lonsdale Belt and rues the results, notably the 1-0 defeat by Germany at Wembley a year ago, where the new manager's 12-match unbeaten record came to an end. Curiously, Pearce missed the game against Germany because he talked to much to the referee in a League game for Nottingham Forest against Tottenham and was sent off. He was surprisingly contrite. He may have a formidable reputation for being iron-hard but he says: 'I've never gone over the top in my life'. These days it is fashionable to talk about being comfortable on the ball and treating it like a friend. He likes to crush it against his opponents shins and blast it with one of the hardest shots in world football.

All that is asked of football captains is that they are the last to be accused of shrinking from a challenge. Over several months before this summer's European Championship it became clear that Taylor was having reservations about Lineker's total commitment. He will never have such doubts about Pearce's resolve. He knows that by appointing this hero of the terraces he will instantly lift his own popularity. Pearce is a man of the fans. When he surges from defence across the halfway line and into the opposition's penalty area he chills the blood of the men who should be capable of doing the same thing but have neither the pace nor the power. When he stands ready to light the touchpaper of his cannon-shot free-kicks, the atmoshpere is breathless. There is no more menacing player in England.

The whole image is not one that displeases Pearce, but in recent months, when the permanent captaincy of England came into his reckoning, he was advised, probably by Taylor, to soften the edges of his off-the-field attitude to those outside his circle of friends and other players. Nonetheless, even in the comfortable safety of a lift in a smart hotel, he can look you deep in the eye and you feel like the condemned being weighed and measured through the keyhole of a prison cell.

He has the confidence of the self-made man. He is less dependent on being appreciated than is the average footballer. It comes of times when appreciation came not in the roars of the Forest or Wembley crowds but from the frail cheers and groans of the few hundred faithful who watched him playing for Wealdstone. He was a late starter in the professional ranks. He was born in Shepherd's Bush and in spite of his years in the Midlands at Coventry and Nottingham, he retains his Shepherd's Market accent. His father, who worked in the hotel business, and mother, who was a school dinner lady, eventually saved enough to move the family to the more salubrious Kingsbury area of suburban north-west London.

As a schoolboy ('always half decent at things, never special, the sort of kid nobody noticed . . . that suited me fine') he played almost within sight of Wembley but without much hope of ever appearing there, let alone leading out an England team. He was keen but not impressive. Indeed, he was 21 before Bobby Gould took him on at Coventry City. Until then he spent three years battling for Wealdstone, where he took a realistic attitude to his ability. 'I knew that if I didn't tackle hard they would drop me.' There was not a lot else to his game.

These days he combines a high standard of defending with outstanding pace and seeming invulnerability going forward, qualities that have kept him in the England side since he took over from Kenny Sansom after the disappointing 1988 European Championship in West Germany. The biggest threat to his international career came early on when his fiery tackling, accepted as all part of a day's work in the League, was frowned upon by Continental referees. He was giving away more free-kicks than he was taking. The fault is not so much cured as minimized.

The only time he has been left out when available was for the 1990 World Cup third place play-off in Bari. Bobby Robson thought he was being considerate. He assumed Pearce would appreciate a rest. Pearce thought he had been dropped. 'Shall we say he was a little put out,' Robson said. In the following season the determination grew even firmer. He became Forest's leading scorer in the FA Cup and achieved 11 goals in the League, none from the penalty spot. His free-kick against Spurs in last year's FA Cup final was almost as remarkable as Paul Gascoigne's shot in the semi-final, but it was not enough to give Brian Clough the trinket that had long eluded him.

When Clough signed Pearce in 1986 he would talk about him warmly, cosily, as if innocently unaware that the 'boy' was one of the most feared men in the game. You can hear him even now: 'Nice young man. He's got a proper job you know. He's had an apprenticeship. He's an electrician. If you want anything done at home, you telephone him'. Silly old Brian? Of course not. He knew that for all of the compliments he had received about the 'nice' way Forest played they needed a toughie at the back.

These days it would be difficult to get Pearce to mend a fuse. He gets about pounds 3,500 a week and wants more, otherwise he might go to Manchester United or even abroad (which would probably cost him the England captaincy as, presumably, it has with David Platt). In any case, in those early days Clough's familiar invitation to journalists to 'talk to the young man' would not have led to a sparkling conversation.

Even by the standards of a team not given to warm relations with the press, Pearce was notoriously inaccessible. It stemmed, he said later, from one inaccurate headline which suggested that he was too confident for his own good. He is keen to let Clough remain the only self-confessed 'big head' in the club. The 'inner quietness' that still impresses Taylor was interpreted in one of two ways: either he was so thick he had nothing to say or he had the hardened professional players' familiar disdain for anyone who had not played football at his level. Neither interpretation matched the man. He was inordinately wary of the media as a whole and even when journalists from the 'quality' end of the business approached him he was supicious.

Only in the last year, after it was made clear to him that if he had any aspirations to the England captaincy it might be in his interest to be less off hand with the press, has he opened up a little and proved to be less of the strong, silent type. He says that if a journalists wants to say he played 'like crap' that's fine, probably because he did. But putting words into people's mouths is what he always fears. His interviews remain guarded, full of 'difficult to say' and 'don't get me wrong' replies.

Whatever he may withhold off stage, his determination on the field is almost frightening and his critics feel that sooner or later he will let imprudence take over, with troubling consequences for England. During the European Championship his clenched fist encouragement of the Union Jack-draped, straight-arm saluting fans was, to say the least, unappealing. These were the yobs who shouted down the opposition's national anthems. And his intimidation of the opposition even before the kick-off in one game was overlooked because later he was undoubtedly the victim of similar abuse. But Taylor would prefer all that to being let down. An earlier candidate for the captaincy, Mark Wright, now seems far out of the running. The question is whether giving Pearce the captaincy would slightly mellow his attitude and if it did whether that could take the edge from his style of play. With Des Walker gone to Italy, both England and Forest will be depending on his reliability even more than last season.

He says he would be honoured to captain England, and proud. His pride is not in question. When England lost to West Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, everyone talked about Gascoigne. Few people actually blamed Pearce for missing his penalty but he said it was the most shattering experience of his life. He said he could hardly live with himself. He is genuine to a fault and is probably no more evil than Lineker was all nice. And the nickname 'Psycho'? 'Just a term of affection'.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments