ENGLAND v CZECH REPUBLIC
"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards'"
- Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855
No one wore his heart on his sleeve quite like he did as a player.
Some said he embodied 'England' more than anyone since Bobby Moore.
Before a UEFA cup tie with Nottingham Forest, in the 'going over the top' military speak which English manhood has always drawn on, Stuart Pearce told his troops, who included the Dutch maestro Bryan Roy and the elegant Norwegian playmaker Lars Bohinen,
"Your hearts are bigger than theirs - that's why you were born English!"
Blond locks and a bulldog spirit, rippling muscles and at the base of a tree-trunk leg a cannon of a left foot which billowed many a net and sent several right-wingers to casualty.
Pearce of England, or should that be Ing-ger-lund.
When the beleaguered Graham Taylor needed a boost, he recalled the out-of-form left-back and made him England captain, demoting his former star pupil David Platt in confident hope that the Wealdstone-born defender's warrior cult would inspire his struggling team; Pearce would not have been out of place in Beowulf.
He skippered his country but fell short of honours, reaching nothing beyond the European Championship and World Cup semi-finals. But physical retirement only meant a transfer of ambition to the other side of the touchline.
There the similarity with his success as a player began to wane, as it has with so many great footballers. A brief spell with a disintegrating Forest led to an assistant managership spell at Manchester City alongside another English lionheart Kevin Keegan.
Pearce assumed Keegan's role eventually but City performed without flair or success and he was fired in 2007. Luckily a few months before then he had entered the England set-up despite a relative lack of coaching experience. Pearce quietly slipped into being the No.2 to Fabio Capello in 2008, as well remaining in charge of the Under 21s.
He is unlikely to take over from the Italian in 2012, but surely has his eyes on the prize as any Englishman so close to the top job would. At the very least he wants Under 21 glory in Europe and to coach the UK's Olympic Team next autumn.
But after a humiliating drubbing by Germany's youngsters in Euro 2009 in Sweden, and two disappointing draws in Euro 2011, now 'Psycho' maybe only has 90 minutes to save his bacon tonight in Viborg.
His England U21s are clearly pining for the enlightened feet of Jack Wilshere and the marauding forward play of Andy Carroll, but still have no excuses for the moribund fare they have served up in Denmark so far.
A sterling defence is about the only laurel wreath on Pearce's head right now. Frank Fielding is a talented goalkeeper and in the raiding full-back Kyle Walker and the old head on young shoulders that is Phil Jones, England have some of the best players in the competition.
But a clueless midfield and insipid attack, apart from the mis-employed Dean Sturridge, mean England are failing to impose themselves on opponents. They were lucky to snatch a draw from a more talented Spain, and while the Swiss are looking a class apart in Group A, it is hard to feel confident that Pearce's young lions will get the result they crave against the able Czechs. A draw is not enough and sooner or later England's lack of firepower will be found out.
Perhaps he is too much like Keegan - all Henry V and no Hamlet. So what can he do?
He could look to his current locality to find inspiration. Now it is unlikely Pearce has been sitting up reading Soren Kierkegaard but given two lacklustre showings by his team he really could do worse than plunder Denmark's great philosopher for ideas.
'Psycho' might baulk and some of the thinker's bestselling titles - 'Fear & Trembling', 'The Concept of Anxiety' and 'The Sickness unto Death' as too close to the knuckle of his England undertaking, but would surely relate to some of the maxims Kierkegaard devised while trudging the gentle sands of the Zealand coast.
Like Pearce, Kierkegaard believed that "It is impossible to exist without passion" and that passion should translate into an undying and invisible belief in what you are doing. So far so similar.
"Faith is the highest passion in a human being," he wrote, adding crucially, "but only after reflection."
At times it seems Pearce still believes, as he did as a player, that passion alone can carry you to victory, an Anglo-Saxon masculine tenet that sustained its football for years but seems wholly obsolete amid the age of tiki-taka.
"Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts...Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are."
Pearce was a limited player and it appears a limited manager, but honest introspection should show him the way forward as the U21 coach. England's midfield and attack do not play in tandem and revert to hopeful balls instead of possession and getting rid of it instead of passing it out of danger, in a throwback to the past. Pearce needs to admit they are failing, even if he does not tell it to the press, and alter their teamwork.
"It seems essential, in relationships and all tasks, that we concentrate only on what is most significant and important."
So win at all costs? Perhaps that is the whole point of a football match. And maybe Pearce believes his boys are so limited it is too late to re-educate them tactically and technically, and that a backs-to-the-wall English approach is all he can muster.
"Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living. Patience is necessary, and one cannot reap immediately where one has sown."
True enough, but Pearce has been in charge of England U21 since early 2007 and if anything the team has regressed since Euro 2009. Yet something, whether tonight, in the knock-out stages in Denmark or at next summer's Olympic Games, has to change in order for England to achieve. And Pearce should be prepared to re-evaluate his core beliefs and be bold enough to change them:
"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself."
After had his tears at fluffing the crucial penalty at Italia '90 were replayed around the world, followed by his equally public self-exorcism at Euro '96 when he successfully converted penalties against Germany and Spain, the former Forest favourite does not fear public failure. He is still a hard man, inside and outside, though perhaps that is part of the problem.
"Trouble is the common denominator of living. It is the great equalizer."
If reading Kierkegaard, Pearce would get depressed and disillusioned that he had taken the thinker's best-known maxim too literally - "The most noble thing in life is to die for an idea" - then he should at least console himself at the height of battle that no one questions his pride in wearing the three lions.
That much respect for his devotion will remain even if England are eliminated tonight. With the wolves of Fleet Street snapping at your heels and the expectations of a nation on top of you, managing England is no walk in the park. Or as Kierkegaard said,
"Only the noble of heart are called to difficulty."
And if at the end of the day, Kierkegaard is too much for Pearce, then there is always Hans Christian Andersen.
Spain pts 4 GD +2
Czech Rep pts 3 GD -1
England pts 2 GD -
Ukraine pts 1 GD -1
Tonight (both 20:45) - England v Czech Republic (Viborg), Spain v Ukraine (Herning).
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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