Pearce: Venables said ‘Are you f*cking sure?’ before my Spain pen
Italia 90. Euro 96. Euro 2004. The 2006 World Cup. Euro 2012. The 2018 World Cup. Euro 2020.
The post-1966 history of England at major tournaments is defined by penalty shootouts, and perhaps no player sums that up better than Stuart Pearce.
As a Three Lions player, nobody was able to experience both the agony and the ecstasy of trying to beat just the goalkeeper from 12 yards out with the weight of expectation of a whole country resting on your shoulders better than the man nicknamed Psycho.
In 1990, he was the fall guy, the one you couldn’t look in the eye, the one who suffered taunts at every opposition stadium the following season.
But Pearce describes his crucial miss in the semi-final shootout defeat to Germany as “the greatest lesson of my career”.
“I look back and view [Italia 90] with greater good than bad,” he told the Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? podcast.
“It was the only World Cup I ever featured in over 12 years of international football. It gave me fantastic memories – for good and bad.
“Missing the penalty gave me probably the greatest lesson of my career. It probably inspired me in many ways.
“When we came back from the World Cup we finished on July 4. I rang Brian Clough (his Nottingham Forest manager) up on July 5 when I got home and said, ‘Is it alright if I have a couple of weeks off? He said, ‘No. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
“I came back under a cloud. I’d missed a penalty at a World Cup. A lot of the squad came back with the media saying how tired they would be and they believed the hype.
“I had the best season I ever had because I had something to prove. Every crowd I went to there was a rousing chorus of Stuart Pearce is a German, which inspired me a touch more.”
A lasting impression
While he went on to score 16 goals in all competitions for Forest in 1990-91, it also left a more lasting impression on Pearce.
Whereas there was no serious preparation for the possibility of a penalty shootout in the build-up to Italia 90, when he took over as England Under-21 manager in 2007, he made sure that would not be the case for his players.
In the two years leading up to the 2009 European Under-21 Championships, his England side practised penalties at every chance.
Come the tournament, Joe Hart had faced 350 spot-kicks. Pearce knew the goalkeeper’s save ratio was 17%. He knew James Milner’s conversion ratio was 82%.
When England’s semi-final against Sweden went all the way to a shoot-out, nothing was left to chance, and the Three Lions triumphed 5-4.
“We’d done the stats to the Nth degree and then we’d win a penalty shootout and you look back and think the only reason I’ve done that is because I missed a penalty 19 seasons ago and drew the positive from the negative.”
But Pearce’s real redemption had come 13 years earlier at Euro 96. With country gripped by ‘It’s Coming Home’ fever for the first time – Pearce, a boyhood punk, originally thought the song was “a load of shite” – England’s campaign threatened to fizzle out against Spain in the quarter-finals.
It is often forgotten that Pearce almost never played in that tournament, with Terry Venables preferring Graeme Le Saux at left-back until the Blackburn man suffered a broken ankle.
But after England were perhaps lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw over 120 minutes against a tricky Spanish outfit, there was never any doubt in Pearce’s mind whether he would step up to the spot once again.
“If you miss a penalty you’ve got to stand up and take another one, do you know what I mean? All of a sudden do I become a bad penalty taker because I missed a penalty?”
He adds: “It was just a matter of fact: if there’s penalties to be taken I’m going to volunteer myself to do so.”
‘Are you fucking sure?!’
Venables was less convinced.
“We got to the end of extra-time, we all come together in the centre circle and I went over to Terry and I thought, ‘If I leave this to chance he’s not going to pick me to take a penalty because of my history.’ I just said to him, ‘I’ll take the third penalty.’
“He looked at me and went, ‘Are you fucking sure?!’
“I went, Yeah, I think I am. I was before you said that!
“You get to penalties and think, Listen, there’s no way I’m going to stand on the halfway line and let a team-mate go up that has not got a recognised penalty-taking record. It’s just not right.”
Watch it back now and you’ll suddenly find yourself thinking it’s getting dusty in here.
Pearce, the sporting manifestation of the English stiff upper lip, walks to the spot with the demons of Italia 90 circling Wembley. He turns, takes a breath, a six-yard run-up, then absolutely fucking leathers it into the bottom corner. No careful placement. No waiting to see which way the goalkeeper dives. Just a through-the-laces, get-in-the-fucking-net thwack.
The emotion with which he erupts vanquishes any demons brave enough to remain in the vicinity.
“It was just an emotion. When I look back now I think, Bloody hell, what’s going on there?!”
“When I walked up to take that penalty I could feel the nervousness in the crowd. Everyone to a person was more nervous than I was, which is nice because you know they’re with you.
“It was as though, ‘What choice have I got? I’ve got to take a penalty because I’m one of the better penalty takers, so get on with it!’
“That cleared a ghost of the past if you like. It wasn’t thought out, but maybe it did.”