Stuart Pearce exits after Israel nadir exposes limitations

 

Stuart Pearce littered England's dismal campaign in the European Under-21 championship in Israel with the sort of liberating free speech associated with a man who knew his time was up.

And if England's youngsters were speaking for their coach, three defeats in three games by Italy, Norway and Israel said it all. The Football Association's confirmation on Tuesday that Pearce was out after six years was a mere formality.

Pearce had his limitations as a coach and his time as manager at Manchester City, before he was sacked in May 2007, meant it was a surprise that he became such a part of the FA's fabric, both as leader of the younger generation and as sidekick to former coach Fabio Capello.

Football Association's statement

Stuart Pearce and David Bernstein

"Nobody can doubt his commitment to the job throughout his time as Under-21 coach.

"He has done extremely well in qualifying for finals tournaments, but after the disappointment of the past two tournaments, we believe it is time to change coach.

"On behalf of everyone at the FA I'd like to wish Stuart well for the future."

FA chairman David Bernstein

On the surface Pearce's record was presentable, leading England into four tournaments but he won only three games out of 15 in those competitions and even before you delve into arguments about how the FA prioritises its under-21 level, there were no excuses for what happened in Israel. Pearce was always going to pay the price.

After the defeat by Israel he savaged England's players, saying: "I honestly don't believe I should be here answering questions on behalf of them. I don't think it's my responsibility at this stage to answer for a performance as bad as that."

Any responsibility left has now been removed.

Pearce, after years of silence as a player with Nottingham Forest and England, had developed into something of a loose cannon. First he complained - legitimately - about players who were not in Israel then he complained about those who were there. The buck, however, stopped with him.

In his game in charge of the senior England team between Capello's resignation and Roy Hodgson's appointment he bizarrely chose Scott Parker ahead of Steven Gerrard as captain against the Netherlands.

And then - in what in some people's eyes was the equivalent of dropping a stink bomb outside the Olympic Stadium - he left David Beckham out of Team GB for London 2012.

Israel was simply the last straw.

It is time to move on but while Pearce will have his reputation damaged by the failure, will the task of his successor be made any easier in coming years?

The FA must always place the senior team at the head of its list of priorities ahead of the Under-21s but has the balance now swung too far?

While England should have performed better in Israel, Pearce had a valid argument when he said they must not just qualify for Under-21 tournaments with their best team - they must also take that team to the tournament.

The problem for Pearce's successor will be that while England continue to go through what is hardly a golden era for the senior team, any promising young talent will be moved quickly through to Hodgson's squad rather than kept back for Under-21 duty.

Pearce's Euro Under-21 record

Stuart Pearce
  • 2007 in the Netherlands: Semi-final
  • 2009 in Sweden: Final
  • 2011 in Denmark: Group stage
  • 2013 in Israel: Group stage

With Hodgson and outgoing FA chairman David Bernstein already bemoaning the lack of English players in the Premier League, with only 30% eligible for the national side, it is hard to see how the situation will change.

England's senior manager is grateful for any available talent in the current circumstances, irrespective of age. He will claim it gratefully no matter how it impacts on the Under-21 side.

Instead of flying to Israel, Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was scoring as a substitute in England's 2-2 draw against Brazil in Rio. Phil Jones also played in Brazil while Danny Welbeck, who was carrying an injury, and Jack Rodwell were also with the senior squad.

Would Oxlade-Chamberlain have been better served travelling with Pearce for several matches rather than a substitute's appearance with Hodgson? Logic says yes - but the player might say no after getting a memory to last a lifetime with a goal in the Maracana.

Former England manager Glenn Hoddle is the purists' choice to succeed Pearce,  an advocate of nurturing raw ability from a very young age with focus on technique and skill first ahead of physical attributes.

Few would doubt Hoddle's ability as an educator but he drives at the heart of the problem when he says he would not take the job in its current guise because he sees it "like a boxer going into the ring with one arm tied behind his back" as Spain, Italy and the Netherlands field strong teams.

It seems the FA's strategy towards Under-21 football would need to be altered radically to tempt Hoddle and a replacement for Pearce will be one of the first tasks for new FA chairman Greg Dyke.

Bernstein hinted at the future when he said: "It is important the organisation now considers the best approach for the role of Under-21 coach and how this works best within the overall England structure before making any new appointment."

While Hoddle would be a popular choice with some, the FA's former head of elite development, and ex-Middlesbrough boss, Gareth Southgate is favourite.  Michael Appleton, who worked with senior England manager Roy Hodgson and FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth at West Bromwich Albion, and recently retired Everton midfielder Phil Neville, who was part of Pearce's backroom staff in Israel, are other possible candidates.

Whether the structure offers them more help than it did to Pearce remains to be seen but there is one simple fact of life at the FA and this is that the senior team will always take priority - and in reality few would argue against it in this current era.