Euro 2020: Stuart Pearce full of pride in England boss Gareth Southgate ahead of final Italy showdown
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As someone who wore the jersey himself with such honour and affection, on 78 occasions no less, the legendary former Three Lions left-back has always espoused his love of his country.
However, like every generation (until now) since 1966, Pearce never managed to reach a major international final.
He suffered when famously missing a spot kick in the 1990 World Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out against West Germany and – although scoring this time – also lost at the same stage against Germany in similar circumstances at Euro 96.
Gareth Southgate, of course, missed the crucial penalty on that night but, as the national manager who has now taken England to the final against Italy at Wembley tomorrow, he has already earned hero status.
The unassuming and articulate Southgate, always so calmly authoritative, has won plaudits for the way he has managed the side and brought the squad closer to the public.
In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Pearce said: “Gareth is a friend of mine and just the team – and the togetherness of it – is there for all to see.
“They have been built on solid foundations – over a number of years by the way – and Gareth has played a massive part in that process.
“I had real pride when we won the semi – real pride for him. And now we have the final we all wanted at the start of the week.
“If I put my hand on heart, I’d say the Italians have probably looked the strongest team arguably over this tournament.
“But we have shown a real maturity in our football; there is ability all over the team and also impact from the substitutes.
“We’ve got a manager who’s every judgement call he’s made – whether on formation or personnel – has been correct. There’s grounds for optimism.”
After England defeated Germany 2-0 in the quarter-finals, Southgate helped gain some form of redemption for what happened 25 years ago.
Tellingly, though, he said: “I can’t change the fact that the guys I played with in ’96 didn’t get to play in a final. That will always live with me.”
But Pearce maintains that need not be an issue.
“If you’re involved in a decent team, by the time you get to a semi-final, you have built up great team camaraderie, working together over a certain number of weeks, enjoying each other’s company,” said the 59-year-old.
“Win, lose or draw you are a united group. We were definitely like that in ’96.
“If you’re successful in a penalty shoot-out or not, at the end of games you have got to do it in a united manner. Gareth’s used all of his experience – the good and bad over a number of years – to impart that professionalism, that know-how in a group of young players.
“I’m just pleased to see that group of young players that are out there enjoying their football, they have a real togetherness and from my point of view I know the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes.
“I’ve worked in the FA. I know a number of these people. I have a real pride in it and, as well, to see Gareth as a figurehead of our national game and know he’s an individual who really cares about the whole England process not just this team here; he cares about the whole process and developing young players and the FA and passing on a legacy.
“He really cares in that manner which gives me great pride. That shows great leadership.”
Pearce was England Under-21s manager from 2007 to 2013 and worked with the senior team when Fabio Capello was in charge, managing England on a caretaker basis for a solitary game against Holland following the Italian’s resignation in 2012.
He always knew Southgate – nine years his junior – would recover from his penalty miss.
Pearce, who now works on West Ham’s coaching staff, recalled that night after the 1996 loss to Germany.
“When someone sits over a dinner table and says ‘I know how you feel’, quite often they probably don’t,” he said.
“On this occasion, Gareth knew exactly that he was speaking with someone who had been through exactly the same experience that he had.
“But he was young into the England fold at the time. He’d not long broken into it. And he did just go on from strength to strength. You knew his strength of character from that moment on and he would only ever use that experience as a positive on his life journey. He’s shown that.
“This group of players have broken a glass ceiling by getting to a European Championship final.
“No team has ever done that in an England shirt so straight away they have made history.
“But I’m pretty sure the only message coming out of those players and management staff now is ‘we need to win it.’”
The Broad Acres has played a big part in England’s success thus far with Leeds United’s homegrown Kalvin Phillips proving inspirational in midfield and Sheffield-born duo Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire plus Barnsley-born John Stones proving rock-solid in defence.
Pearce admitted: “Phillips has been unbelievable. Behind (Raheem) Sterling arguably he’s been England’s best player.
“His energy levels have been absolutely phenomenal. He’s had a brilliant season for Leeds and taken that and gone up a couple of notches performance wise.
“I’ve not seen him have a bad game yet. He plays with a maturity way above his years and he’s come – like we see at major tournaments – with a late run into the team and established himself as a real world star that people are looking at.
“And the defensive performance of the team has been outstanding. It’s probably the one thing that has pleased us the most – the few chances that we’ve seen on our goal.
“I’m fortunate enough to have given Harry Maguire his first Under-21s cap, so I’ve worked with him, and Kyle Walker as well at the Under-21s.
“Harry shows great leadership and maturity. Kyle has probably had the best tournament he’s ever had in an England shirt. His pace just gets us out of trouble on occasions.
“Listen, with John Stones as well, I think Yorkshire can be rightly pleased with what they have given to us in the England team at this tournament!”
And, if England do lift a major trophy for the first time since the 1966 World Cup tomorrow, what will Pearce say to his friend Southgate when they meet?
“I’d say that my luck is going so well this year that there’s every chance that Warrington Wolves will win the Grand Final!”
Pearce has a long affinity with the rugby league club who have not won the league since 1955.
Maybe England have not had it so bad after all ...