Stuart Pearce meant the world to thousands of Nottingham Forest fans during his 12-year playing career at the City Ground. But despite things not working out in his second stint as manager, Jonathan Stevenson still carries a torch for Psycho
I’ve never written about a broken heart before. I was sort of assuming a career in sports journalism would mean I’d never have to.
But when Stuart Pearce’s short-lived reign at the City Ground came to a painful end on 1 February, I thought I’d try and explain how many Forest fans of my age (and I do mean almost EXACTLY my age) were feeling.
I’m sort of hoping the next few hundred words will help make sense of what’s happened in the last few days, weeks and months. I’m sort of hoping it’ll be a cathartic experience, maybe for reader as well as writer, though there’s obviously a big chance this will just make me look like a drama queen.
Let’s start at the beginning. Forest signed Pearce in June 1985, a summer in which I turned five years old, an age when kids are just starting to become properly conscious of football.
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This is a difficult bit to summarise, but for the next 12 years, as I embarked on the first real love affair of my life, with my team, Pearce came to embody every single thing I most adored about the team I supported and the game I was infatuated by.
He was more than a player, more than a captain, more than just an idol. Everything he did, everything he said, everything he stood for somehow just seemed like more.
And for over a decade, Forest and their brilliant captain Pearce were inextricably linked; it was impossible to love one without having at least a fondness for the other.
Together, they were my world.
Everyone has a favourite player when they’re a kid, and he was mine. But looking back, it was a bit more than that.
There are the things every football fan knows about Pearce: that he missed a penalty at Italia 90 and cried; that he scored at Euro 96 and roared; that he struck a stunning FA Cup final goal; that he was one of the best left-backs in the world; that he’s a qualified electrician.
Then there are the things every Forest fan knows about Pearce: that he only joined as a makeweight in the Ian Butterworth deal; that he scored 88 goals for the club (11th top scorer of all time!); that, when he was captain, he would come over to the Trent End after leading the team out and present himself in front of his adoring fans, raising his arms, clenching his fists – a visual, visceral exhibition of what it meant to him to wear the armband.
Then there were the things that made my relationship with Pearce more personal: naturally right-footed, I worked relentlessly on my left as a kid because I wanted to take free-kicks like him; my bedroom walls were covered with posters of him; my favourite number was (still is) three; I once asked mum, when I was about seven, if there was any chance Pearce could be my real dad (my dad is one of the greatest living people, but, you know… He’s not Psycho).
He made us happy. There were too many brilliant goals to mention (after all, Pearce is undeniably one of the greatest free-kick takers football has ever seen), but the 20-yard thunderbolt that flew in off the bar against Coventry at home in the League Cup semi-final in 1990 gives me goosebumps every time I see it.
He made us laugh, too. Pearce finally lost patience with Boro striker Fabrizio Ravanelli’s constant moaning, play-acting and imaginary card-waving during a Premier League game in 1996, so much so that he raced up to referee Mike Riley in mock fury, waving an imaginary card himself, a comical moment. Riley ruined it by booking Pearce, but guess who got Forest’s 68th-minute equaliser?
He was braver, more fearless than other footballers. He tackled as though his life depended on it and time and again lifted his team out of the mire when they needed him. After the devastation of Italia 90, he scored 16 goals (sixteen!) from left-back in the top flight without netting a single penalty, smashing one glorious 30-yard free-kick into the Man Utd net at the Stretford End to silence the home fans who had been serenading him with ‘Who missed in Italy? Stuart Pearce, Stuart Pearce …’
And he was loyal. We always knew bigger clubs coveted Pearce. Man Utd kept sniffing around, various Italians were mentioned; in 1995 there was even an offer from Kobe in Japan, who threatened to make Pearce a very rich man weeks after a devastating earthquake had hit the region.
Two years previously, Pearce had taken a decision that should have earned him the freedom of the city of Nottingham there and then. England captain at the time, he decided to shun clubs once again playing in Europe to stay at newly relegated Forest, risking not just his country’s armband but his very place in the national team and, potentially at 31 years old, a last chance to play for a bigger club.
Reason enough to love someone so far?
It almost felt like he would never leave. I couldn’t remember what Forest without Pearce was like, and I didn’t want to find out. He was like a member of the family, except we loved him all the time. Once, when East Midlands Today did a feature on a female fan who had a cardboard cut-out of Pearce in her front room, my mum (a fan of those thighs) asked dad (half-jokingly) if we could get one.
He got us promoted, kept his England place, helped us into the UEFA Cup, enjoyed some of the magical European nights he must have thought he’d never see, and then, when it all started to go wrong again, tried – and failed – as caretaker-player-manager to stop us sliding into the second tier for a second time.
He’d stayed the first time, and I convinced myself he’d stick around this time, too.
I was in our garden, one day before my 17th birthday in the summer of 1997, probably still trying (failing) to smash left-foot free-kicks in-off the bar, when dad brought the paper over to me.
Psycho was leaving for Newcastle. I’d never see him play for Forest again. My first broken heart.
To try and make sense of it, I did then what I’m doing now: I wrote. The Nottingham Evening Post wanted fans’ tributes to Pearce, and I obliged. If there’s any chance that he’s going to read it, I thought, I’ll make sure he knows exactly how I (we) feel about him, how proud we were to have him as ours for 12 memorable years.
Back in the garden a few days later, dad raced over with the paper again. The Post had printed my letter – the first time I’d ever had anything published. Best of all, they’d given it top billing among all the tributes, even taking a phrase I’d used to describe Pearce as their headline for a double-page spread of eulogising: ‘Shining light in dark times’.
It took a while to get over Pearce leaving, but he deserved every minute of the Indian summer he gave his career, playing for Newcastle, West Ham and Man City, winning promotion again, scoring goals again, giving fans of another club a cult hero story by trying to play on with a broken leg while at Upton Park.
All the while, we knew he’d end up back at the City Ground one day.
Similar to Diego Maradona with the Argentina national team, for what he’d done in his time as a player, Pearce was always going to be owed a proper crack at the Forest job. Whether he turned into a good manager or not was irrelevant – for all his failings, and we could see them at Man City and with the England Under-21s, he had earned the chance to succeed or fail in the East Midlands on his own terms.
(Incidentally, in 2004, after Paul Hart was sacked, in my role as a football journalist on the BBC Sport website, I called up Stan Collymore and asked him who he thought should be Forest manager. “Pearce, with Nigel Clough as his assistant,” Collymore told me. The ‘exclusive’ went top of the site and I secretly hoped it might convince the Forest hierarchy to give him the job. I smiled like an idiot for two days until Joe Kinnear’s arrival promptly wiped it off my face.)
Every time we sacked a manager, I harboured hopes he’d get it. Finally, in April last year, after the horrific mess of the second Billy Davies era, Pearce was ours again. Almost half my life had passed since the last time he belonged to us, and whatever the doom-mongers said, it felt euphoric.
He said all the right things and he seemed to be doing the right things. To begin with, anyway. The sound as he emerged from the tunnel on the opening day of the season against Blackpool was the loudest I have ever heard at the City Ground – a rawer, more emotive crescendo of noise than any last-minute winner, any promotion-winning goal (v Reading) I’d experienced. Those of us of a certain age had our hero back; and the younger generations were beginning to realise what this man meant to us.
So much of football now is emotionless. It almost feels incongruous to tell people how much a player or a club means to you, especially as you get older. It’s supposed to fade as other things – life – become more important. Maybe I’m more exposed to cynicism having worked in football journalism, but the dreamers are drowned out by the pragmatics. I was asked ‘Pearce is rubbish. Do you really want him?’ on more than one occasion, by people I thought knew me better.
I believe in fairytales in football as I do in life, for the same reason – take away the dreaming, and you’re left with nothing but reality. That’s fine most of the time, but it never hurt anyone to dream a little bigger. I might not have quite convinced myself that Pearce would take Forest back to the Premier League, but I was happy to accept it was a definite possibility. Isn’t that the bare minimum the seven-year-old me would have wanted?
Pearce, an emotional man himself, will understand this: I cried my eyes out as a nine-year-old when my hero missed his penalty in the World Cup in 1990; at 15, six years later, my eyes welled up once more as he banished the ghosts of Turin with Euro 96 redemption.
And on that glorious Saturday in August, when he stepped out of the tunnel and an entire city bellowed its approval, I had tears in my eyes again. If football isn’t for moments like that, why do we bother?
The start of the season was briefly fun, but there was just one more moment to come. A dream start soon turned into a nightmare run, and Pearce might have been sacked had a last-gasp 2-1 win over Norwich not ended a 10-game winless run in November. But another awful sequence was just around the corner, and when he took Forest to his and their arch-rivals Derby on 17 January, even the most optimistic of us thought the end was nigh.
It proved only a stay of execution, but wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute if Pearce’s brief reign could be remembered for what happened on that extraordinary day? Against all odds, on the back of a horrific three months, playing against a team – THAT team – full of confidence who would have gone top of the table had they won, and falling behind early on in the first half…
When Ben Osborn smashed in the unlikeliest of stoppage-time winners, he gave us all, Pearce included, a memory we will cherish forever. This is a man who loathes Derby as much as we do, who once said he would rather be unemployed than work for them, and you could see it in the fullness of his celebration as did his famous salute to the travelling fans one last time.
For everything he has ever done for Nottingham Forest, it was the least Psycho deserved.
It was destined to be his final win. Pearce had many faults as a manager, but this doesn’t feel like the place to talk about them. If he wasn’t a great boss, then neither were Platt, Kinnear, Megson, Calderwood, McClaren, Cotterill, McLeish or Davies II, who had all tried and failed before him.
The difference with Pearce was that he was a rubbish manager who completely belonged to us. We hung on his every word without ever wondering whether he was telling us the truth, we sang his name when we were getting stuffed, and we worried almost more about him when we lost than what it meant for the team.
He cared so deeply about the club it probably ended up overwhelming him. Every time we did lose, it hit him like a ton of bricks. We all hate to see Forest struggling, and we suffer when they do. For the first time, our manager suffered in the same way we did, and we knew he felt every goal conceded, every missed chance, every decision that didn’t go our way with the same anguish as we did a few yards further away.
None of us were surprised when Pearce was sacked, but it still felt numb. I probably asked the same questions he did: What if he’d just had a couple more games? What if Andy Reid and Chris Cohen hadn’t been out since September? What if we hadn’t been under a transfer embargo in January? What if, what if, what if…
What if: the classic start to a break-up question.
Half my life after dealing with Pearce’s first departure, I’m now doing it all over again. I’m not particularly proud of writing on a Forest site (that will probably be read by 99% of Reds fans) that I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate the goals against Brighton, but these things take a little time to heal.
It might not have worked out, but the sublime ecstasy of Blackpool and Derby only add to his legacy, give us more Psycho stories to bore our kids and grandkids with long into the future. It was worth trying, worth failing, just for those two perfect moments in time.
After all, it’s better to have loved and lost (that loving feeling) than never to have loved at all.