Uncompromising but unorthodox, Stuart Pearce now wants nuance not noise and football not flare-ups to reign at Forest
The young Stuart Pearce is sitting in a slightly scruffy lounge at the City Ground demolishing a series of sacred cows with the sort of clinical ruthlessness he customarily reserves for right-wingers. Assorted received wisdoms are given short shrift. Take the convention that all young footballers should be married off at the earliest possible opportunity. Nottingham Forest’s formidable left-back is happily paired up with a girl called Liz – who would later become his wife – but feels irritated by those stereotypes that suggest unattached footballers are automatically wild and irresponsible and those with wedding rings inevitably nailed-on, solid family men.
The defender destined to become one of England’s finest full-backs tells the reporter interviewing him on a dark winter morning back in the late 1980s that Friday nights during his own single days routinely involved visiting a bar at Wembley’s dog track. But the then electrician cum non-league footballer drank only orange juice before heading home at 9pm in order to be in peak condition to play for Wealdstone the next day.
During his early professional days with Coventry he befriended a married couple, the husband a team-mate. Pearce’s co-player kept pre-match curfews yet regularly polished off four cans of beer as he sat on his sitting room sofa, watching television on Friday evenings.
Nearly three decades on, Pearce is back in the Midlands, managing Forest, with his previous posting as England Under-21 manager having reminded him that appearances can be deceptive and people are not always quite as they seem. The City Ground’s class of 2014 are discovering their new boss is ever willing to challenge orthodoxies and deconstruct assumptions. He returns as the local hero charged with guiding the team back into a much changed Premier League landscape. These days it would be unthinkable for a first-teamer to advertise his services as an electrician – “all work guaranteed” – in the match programme. Yet early on at Forest Pearce did precisely that, boosting his income by rewiring houses.
Always a little left field, he sometimes turned up for training in a mud-spattered Volvo jammed with straw bales destined for his girlfriend’s horses and punk rock blaring out of the casette player. Goodness knows what this enduring devotee of the Stranglers and the Lurkers makes of the Forest midfielder Andy Reid’s penchant for Irish folk music.
Still resolutely unpretentious and robustly no-nonsense, Pearce’s rough edges have been refined by countless coaching and business management courses. Over the years he has acquired a love of reading, the theatre and, above all, travel. One of his ambitions is to visit every country in the world.
Surprisingly fluent in corporate jargon he has long grown out of his old “Psycho” nickname and playing persona but, as the season goes on, Forest’s players may learn that beneath a measured exterior the old intensity still lurks. Senior professionals report a surprisingly laidback, analytical, non-combative, new manager but the coming months will reveal whether the old moodiness and occasional anger have been entirely dispensed with.
Pearce believes he has evolved considerably since the days when he used to growl at a rather functional Manchester City squad before presiding over England Under-21 sides arguably overly dependent on long balls. Although his team reached the final of the 2009 European Championship – losing to Germany – a swift elimination from last year’s tournament in Israel cost him the job. In mitigation, the demands of the senior squad dictated he could rarely select his strongest XI. Then 2013 proved a watershed year. Last autumn Pearce left Liz, his wife of 20 years and mother of his two children, for another woman. The emotional fallout led him to reject Fawaz al-Hasawi’s initial job offer last spring.
Undeterred, Forest’s Kuwaiti owner negotiated a compromise whereby his taking up the position was delayed until the summer. Ultimately the lure of the club he served with such distinction was too great to resist. “If I’d turned down the opportunity to come back here I’d not be fulfilled,” acknowledges Pearce.
Now his mission is to reconfigure Forest in a style befitting a Brian Clough protege. “I want my team to play a good brand of football,” he says. “I want to make Fawaz proud.”
His squad should expect the unexpected. Pearce once took his Under-21s to an army barracks, testing their reflexes in a battle simulator while, last year, he completed a Bear Grylls survival course in Scotland. The sole makeshift toilet was in a cowshed. “Ex-marines teach you fire-lighting, shelter-building and rabbit-skinning,” he says. “I did a number two once in five days. I had one wash, in a stream. I brushed my teeth three times.”
Very much a team man, he impressed British troops in Afghanistan with an inspiring speech about the importance of unselfishness in leadership. Yet despite a burning patriotism and unstinting admiration for the military he baulks at being stereotyped as a footballing regimental sergeant major. “I don’t think I’ve ever been the shouting, hollering manager there’s a perception of me as being,” he says.
Indeed in the wake of the sulphurous atmosphere surrounding his Forest predecessor Billy Davies, Pearce has brought much more than a mere clutch of new signings, including Matty Fryatt and Michael Mancienne, to the banks of the Trent. “The one thing I am with players, media or anyone else is honest,” he says. “If you ask me a question I’ll give you a straight answer.”
Hasawi has made a shamelessly populist appointment but Pearce maintains he and Forest are a perfect fit. “I’m the right man for the job,” says the lean 52-year-old who still looks as fit as some of those first teamers whose promotion campaign begins at home to Blackpool on Saturday. “It won’t be easy but I don’t shirk a challenge, never have.”
There are still some assumptions you can safely make about Stuart Pearce.