Jim White

Pearce rejuvenating his reputation

Jim White

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There have been some unexpected moments of British success at these Olympics. Take Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie, two men who considered packing in their sport after failing to be selected for Beijing, winning gold at the canoe slalom. Or Peter Wilson, stripped of funding by UK Sport in 2009 because he was not deemed good enough, shooting his way to gold in the double trap.

But the one we really didn't see coming has been mapped out on the football field: Stuart Pearce's emergence as a coach of thought and substance. His Great Britain team play a quarter-final tomorrow in the Millennium Stadium against South Korea (or Nice Korea as the Australian press denote them). Win that and a semi against Brazil is the probable reward.

They have arrived at this point by doing two things nobody really anticipated. First they beat Uruguay in the group stage, a Uruguay stuffed with seasoned internationals. And secondly, they did so playing some fluid, creative, intelligent football. Where did that come from?

Pearce's reputation has been in the descendant for some time now. Already evicted from league management, he was overlooked for the England job and when Roy Hodgson was employed in his stead he was summarily removed from the inner circle of coaches.

He was criticised for his over-aggressive touchline demeanour during an Under-21 tournament. And most of all he was dismissed as an advocate of old-fashioned, stick-it-in-the-mixer, they-don't-like-it-up-em football. He was not a man to whom we should entrust anything important was the wide consensus.

But Pearce has done a thoroughly commendable job so far. And it has not been easy. If Hodgson was given substantial leeway for the hurriedness with which he was obliged to scrape together a response to the Euros, Pearce has been faced with constructing an entirely new entity in less than a month. You only have to look at the business of the anthems to recognise that it can't have been the easiest thing.

Personally, I have no gripe with the Welsh players refusing to sing "God Save The Queen". I'm not sure patriotism can be properly measured by the loudness with which you belt out the national song. But it was a minor pointer to the unnatural manner in which the Team GB concept has been squeezed into the football landscape. If you're Welsh you play for Wales, if you're English you play for England: this GB thing is new, tricky and pretty nebulous.

But Pearce has done a good job at melding his team. His senior players have bought into the Olympic concept and the sense of excitement has filtered down through the squad. The crowds have been amazing, the sense of something important growing.

More significant, though, has been the football. Pearce has played an intelligent, progressive 4-3-3. His midfield of Tom Cleverley, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey have been comfortable in possession and seldom overwhelmed in the middle in the way Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard were against Italy in the Euros. Plus, Cleverley's ball to Daniel Sturridge to chip a delicious goal against Senegal was the pass of the tournament.

Pearce is showing the way, getting his team to demonstrate that British footballers can keep the ball, can move into space, can counter an opponent's superior technique. True, the better players in this Team GB are Welsh rather than English. But there is no reason England cannot play like this. None at all. Even if, as demonstrated in the first half against Uruguay, it means boring for Britain.

Though whether Pearce can take it further and gift his country the most unlikely of medals is less a matter of fluidity in the middle of the park as dead-eyed shooting from the penalty spot. Progress in any competition is more than likely to be determined by efficacy in a shoot-out.

In which case, Pearce will surely come into his own. This is a man whose own playing career was largely defined by two shoot-outs: the one against Germany in 1990 in which he missed the crucial kick, and the one against Spain in 1996 in which he achieved a degree of redemption by nailing his effort. Knowing what it means, he has been schooling his charges at every training session, making them repeat the process as often as possible, so that when it happens, the knowledge of what to do is ingrained. That is sharp management.

And if he does deliver, what then for Pearce? As he showed from the penalty spot, he is clearly a man who learns from his previous displays of weakness. Standing on the touchline in this tournament, he has looked restrained, calm, dignified, the polar opposite of his frantic, sweary behaviour at the helm of the Under-21s.

A coach's demeanour is important. It communicates itself to the players. By showing his willingness to adapt, Pearce deserves his moment. And — without wishing to offer too much hostage to fortune — it could be coming his way.

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