For a man famously nicknamed ‘Psycho’, Stuart Pearce speaks with a softness that is a stark contrast to the experience of those he tackled.
When talking to the former England and Nottingham Forest left-back, you know in the back of your mind he’d fold you in two if there were a ball at your feet, yet when the topic of conversation is the plight of the national team, Pearce is both articulate and astute.
Indeed, there are few things the 78-capped England legend speaks with more ardour about than the Three Lions. After all, his reputation as a fearless defender for club and country, one as capable of thundering left-footed 30-yard free-kicks as he was sending rivals a similar distance, earned him the affection of football diehards.
But it wasn’t just the fan in the stand who admired Pearce. His fellow professionals held him in high esteem and one man to lean on his wisdom is new Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate.
Team-mates for England, the infamous ‘dentist’s chair’ tale from a pre-Euro ‘96 trip to Hong Kong had the interesting sidebar of elder statesman Pearce advising the younger Southgate against joining “the lads” on the night out which caused so much controversy before the tournament kicked off.
Pearce, as the only member of the squad to have experienced the same depths of despair, was also the first to console the defender when his missed spot-kick saw England eliminated by Germany at the semi-final stage.
A shared emotion which also led to them paired, along with Chris Waddle, in a self-deprecating [and cringeworthy] Pizza Hut advert. Southgate’s international playing career could have taken a different path were it not for Pearce and the same was true when coaching called.
Fast forward to 2013 and Pearce was sacked as England Under-21 boss with Southgate on the Football Association’s shortlist. Before succeeding his close friend, Southgate sought the blessing of Pearce who convinced him to take up the role, with his success there eventually landing him the senior job last week.
After a four-game audition in temporary charge following Sam Allardyce’s departure, Southgate has been handed a four-year deal by the FA, charged with guiding England to the 2018 World Cup in Russia as well as banishing the wretched memories of Euro 2016.
The consensus is that in Southgate, England have a manager far from the finished article, but one malleable enough to be shaped into what is needed. And that’s a narrative Pearce agrees with.
“I always felt as though Gareth had leadership qualities about him, there’s no doubt about that,” the 54-year-old told Sport360 at the SoccerEx Forum in Doha this week.
“He’s very professional in his outlook and he’s a real student of the game. I think as things fell this summer, Gareth was perfectly-positioned to take the job on.
“He also had those four games to look at it from a closer view for himself and then decide if it was something he wanted to do or not.
“I think he’s a coach who sits in front of you and actually turns around and says ‘you know what, I don’t know all the answers but I’m going to find them out’. I like that about him.
“Sometimes I think when we put a manager in charge of a team, we think, ‘that’s it they’re not getting any better’ and maybe sometimes as managers as well they think they can’t develop and improve. With Gareth he’s so opened-minded and I think the players enjoy working with him from what I can gather both at under-21s and with the seniors.”
The story of England in the modern era has been one of a team stuck on a merry-go-round. Qualification for major tournaments are achieved with relative ease, but when the competition proper comes around, the wheels fall off.
A tournament post-mortem ends with another manager booted from the ride and the perpetual process begins again. England’s destitute displays on the big stage form the main axis of the conundrum Southgate must now attempt to solve.
But Pearce believes his background in working with the youth teams at St George’s Park gives him a crucial clue in finding the solution.
“For major tournaments we qualify extremely well but when we go to the tournaments we don’t show up. We need to rectify that and that’s one of the most important things,” adds the former Manchester City and Nottingham Forest manager.
“For me, one of the ways of tackling that is getting the youth teams winning consistently.
“That’s got to be our starting block with English football. Success will come to the seniors if the youth teams are winning, we’ve seen that be the case around the world.
“He’s [Southgate] got an eye what’s going on below the senior squad with the 21s and under-20s and the nature of Gareth he’ll have made it his business to look at the younger age groups as well.
“I think this tournament coming up will be too soon for England to have any impact at all. But I honestly feel we have to get off the hamster’s wheel internationally and have a plan that goes beyond the next tournament.
“We’re forever planning for two years and you’ve got to develop young players, give them time and probably with the manager as well, with Gareth.
“If I was in charge at the FA and I thought he was the right man to put in place, I’d have given him an eight-year contract, four tournaments.By the time you’ve fallen into one tournament and been unsuccessful, you’re under pressure for the next one.
“All those lessons you learn in four years go out the door because they sack you and a new manager comes in.”
One player Pearce wants to see patience with is Manchester City’s John Stones. The England centre-back has had to fight criticism this season with his development punctured by the magnification of errors which should be expected from a player aged just 22.
“He’s got a vast amount of talent, there’s no doubt about that,” he adds. “He’s just maturing as a young player and especially as a central defender it’s a position normally occupied by an older more experienced player.
“We need a modicum of patience with him and let him develop. The Premier League is a tough place to do that because every mistake you make is under scrutiny but he’s certainly one of the brightest talents we’ve had for a number of years.”
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