Sat on the England team coach in Turin as it pulled away from the Stadio delle Alpi after the 1990 World Cup semi-final, the tears flowed for Stuart Pearce.
Missing England’s fourth penalty in their shootout with West Germany had a deep impact on what was one of football’s most stereotypical and self-styled hardmen.
Never the shrinking violet, Pearce composed himself enough to produce the best campaign of his career the following season, despite being overlooked by the new England manager, Graham Taylor, for the captaincy of the national team.
Persistent problems with injury during the 1994 World Cup qualifiers aside, having remained England’s first choice left-back throughout Taylor’s laboured reign, when Terry Venables took over as manager at the beginning of 1994 a new broom was swept.
Fresh ideas were swiftly brought into play, inclusive of the marginalising of Pearce, in favour of Blackburn Rovers’ Graeme Le Saux.
Cast into the shadows but unwilling to give up the fight to represent his country, Pearce bided his time, making only cameo appearances during Venables’ first 12 games in charge, until Le Saux suffered a broken leg in the December of 1995.
Fast closing in on his 34th birthday, Pearce could sympathise with Le Saux’s situation: he had positioned himself impressively to challenge Kenny Sansom for the number 3 shirt at the 1988 European Championship, only to miss the tournament after picking up an injury of his own.
None of this stopped Pearce from grabbing his opportunity to secure the left-back spot at the 1996 European Championship, however. Focussed and ruthless, this is exactly what he did.
An international career of extremes, Pearce had swung from the disappointment of missing out on Euro ‘88, to playing a predominant role at Italia ’90. He had gone from the heartbreak of that World Cup semi-final defeat and missing out on the captaincy, to arguably being England’s best player at the collectively shambolic 1992 European Championship.
Now Pearce had travelled the distance between being part of the England set up that failed to qualify for USA ’94, followed by being phased out of the side by the new manager, only to fight his way back to be first choice left-back for Euro 96. A tournament being played on home soil.
Even within the finals of Euro 96, Pearce was at the centre of some heavily defined sweet and sour events. The man to give away the penalty from which Switzerland equalised in the opening game, he was then replaced at half time during the second group game against Scotland. Pearce could have been forgiven for feeling as if he were cursed.
With Pearce off the pitch, England improved rapidly during the second half. Switching from 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 formation, Jamie Redknapp had performed impressively as the extra man in midfield, and it would have been difficult for Venables not to have swayed towards naming the team that started the second half against Scotland as the starting line-up against the Netherlands, three days later.
Unbeknownst to anybody, however, Redknapp had already kicked his last ball in anger at the tournament. The injury that forced him off the pitch for the last six minutes of the Scotland game was far more serious than first anticipated.
Subsequently, Venables opted for an unchanged starting line-up against the Netherlands. England were word perfect, on an evening that has rarely been matched in terms of the class of football played by players wearing three lions on their chest.
It was a victory that sent England into a quarter-final against Spain.
After the verve with which Venables’ side had dismantled Gus Hiddink’s Netherlands, much was expected of them for their clash with Javier Clemente’s side. Without the midfield steel of the suspended Paul Ince, however, Fernando Hierro, Miguel Ángel Nadal, and Guillermo Amor, dominated the centre ground.
England undeniably rode their luck. Julio Salinas had a first half goal wrongly disallowed, while Alfonso was flashed a yellow card during the second half, when he instead should have been awarded a penalty.
After 120 goalless minutes, much to Spanish disgust, the game lapsed into a penalty shootout, and in typical English fashion, nobody had thought to prepare, other than suggesting a set of end of training session practise shootouts.
With frantic discussions between Venables and his backroom staff ongoing, Pearce took it upon himself to state he was not just taking a penalty, but that he was positioning himself at number three. No, not being an answer of option for the England manager, he then built the rest of his five takers around the Nottingham Forest captain.
Alan Shearer got shootout proceedings underway, confidently powering his spot-kick into Andoni Zubizarreta’s top right-hand corner. Hierro then struck David Seaman’s crossbar with Spain’s first effort, which was followed by successful conversions by David Platt and Amor.
This then brought Pearce to the penalty spot.
An electrically nervous crackle swept around Wembley, as the weight of Turin made itself felt across Pearce’s shoulders. The pressure was intense. Although England had the advantage, a miss at this point would have handed Spain the opportunity to level the shootout with two kicks each remaining.
Swift and decisive, Pearce placed the ball, walked to his starting point, turned, focussed and ruthless, he immediately began his run. No pausing, no hesitation, he reached his target and planted his kick low and to Zubizarreta’s left. It was an unstoppable shot and it garnered the biggest roar of the afternoon, not only in the stands, but also on the pitch.
Pearce went truly primeval in his celebration, repeatedly punching the air, screaming into the far distance. The ferocity of his penalty, the omission of every ounce of distress and pain from six years earlier, it all simply flooded out of him.
Within three more penalties, England had their place in the semi-final, where another date with Germany awaited, with a new villain of the piece to emerge.
Spain, however, was the redemption of Pearce.