Stuart Pearce has been here before, though never quite like this. As he takes his seat in the home dugout on Wednesday night, his team picked and prepared to face Holland, the interim England head coach might just glance fleetingly around Wembley Stadium and pinch himself. His association with this arena extends back further than the caps he accrued under the twin towers of old, or the major cup finals he graced with Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United. For the bar worker turned national manager, this is a home from home.
It has been for almost 36 years now, ever since the local lad used to trundle up on match nights for an evening spent collecting glasses and pulling the odd pint on the sticky-floored concourse bars while the football kicked off out of view. The teenage Pearce could never have envisaged one day sending his own England team out on to the turf. "The course your life takes changes very quickly," the former full-back reflected. "I've probably got more connections with this area than any other person who'll be at the stadium on Wednesday. I was an electrician in this borough for five years. I've packed boxes in Stonebridge, just down the road. I worked in the bar here as a 14-year-old schoolboy on England occasions. I even saw Evel Knievel jump over buses on his motorbike here, so I have a real connection with the place."
The daredevil's attempt to vault 13 single-deckers ended with him lying battered and bruised on what would normally have been the gravel just behind the goal. "But, like all true men, he got up," said Pearce, who will hope his team fare better against 11 Dutchmen this week. His is a recognition that this just might be his only opportunity to enjoy this role. For some outsiders, the 49-year-old might appear the ideal candidate to take on the "impossible job". His playing career encompassed 78 caps, two of which were in semi-finals at major tournaments. As a coach he oversaw Manchester City in the top flight and has enjoyed five years with the England Under-21s, leading them to three European Championships, together with four years working alongside Fabio Capello.
In many countries, after such an apprenticeship, the candidate would be considered complete, the time ripe for elevation. But from Pearce there is only an insistence that, even now, he is not ready. The education must instead be prolonged, even if the World Cup runners-up are swept aside on their first return to Wembley since the balmy summer of Euro 96. "I know where I am in my progression as a coach and a manager," said Pearce. "The pressure and everything that goes with this job are for a man with more experience than myself. A lot of people in my position would have let speculation run but it's right and proper to lay my cards on the table.
"I do think every national side should involve their Under-21s manager in the senior set-up, though, because it's natural for progression: you are bringing a clutch of players through who know your face and are comfortable around you. The education you get, as I've discovered over the last four years, is also fundamental. Just sitting with Fabio and talking tactics has been fantastic. I would pay money to go on a course and listen to a man with his record. It would have been folly not to pick his brains every minute I could. That's common sense.
"I look with envy at Fabio Capello's CV. I look with envy at Harry Redknapp, the games he's managed and how well Tottenham Hotspur are playing. When will I be ready? I don't know. I'm more experienced today than I was nine months ago. I'll be more experienced again after the summer, whatever happens. And on Wednesday night I'll experience what it's like to stand in the technical area as the England senior manager. But even if we win this game comfortably with a great performance, it will not change my mentality."
At present he is juggling the duties of three positions. Pearce, the Under-21 manager, recognised the value in delaying Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's elevation to the senior squad. He will be tempted to press Phil Jones into central defensive duties on Wednesday – the Manchester United youngster has featured at right-back and in midfield for his country to date – and use Daniel Sturridge, another of his protégés, in the central role he so craves at Chelsea. He knows Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley from the juniors, while he had handed Micah Richards, exiled under Capello, a first-team debut at City. All will play some part.
Pearce, as senior stand-in, will seek to experiment for the benefit of whoever is in charge against France in Donetsk in 106 days' time. Steven Gerrard, for the first time since November 2010, and Wayne Rooney will both feature. Beyond that this is a further opportunity to work with candidates for his Great Britain Olympic team to be selected for London 2012. He described the excitement among players quizzed about Team GB as "off the Richter scale", and seven of the 25-man England party would be eligible for inclusion if they do not make the cut for Poland and Ukraine.
"If you are not picked for the seniors in the summer, the opportunity as a fall-back to go to the Olympics may be even a better cushion," he said. That might apply to Jack Wilshere, who has not played this season with ankle problems, if the Arsenal midfielder returns to fitness but is not deemed ready for the European Championships. "A judgment call will be made. We just hope he gets fit and his club form going."
Yet the manager's immediate priority is to coax out a performance on Wednesday that has a restorative effect after a month of untimely upheaval. This may prove a one-off occasion, a mere taster of life in what he would consider the ultimate role, but it is one to relish. "It's a fantastic honour to be given this chance," he added. "The people in the Football Association think I can do a job in the interim. I just hope I can deliver a result that makes everyone proud."