Tougher Than The Rest

The two smartest things I’ve ever heard, I heard across a bar.

I worked in a pub for the three years, and it was a proper pub. It had bare brick walls, wood floors, and a band every Friday night – either blues, rock, or blues-rock. Once a week these bands would come, to take their turn with a Brown Eyed Girl; pot-bellied men with thinning ponytails, boot-cut jeans, and leather waistcoats.

And whoever that band was, and whatever they called themselves – unfailingly, it featured the word ‘blue’ – they always, always encored with a Stones song.

We had a lot of regulars there, but the one I remember most – one of a small handful I actually, honestly liked – was a guy called Harry: a gravel-throated Yorkshireman, who’d been a fixture of the 60s’ R&B scene. He’d done a lot of speed in his time, and drunk a lot of beer, and it still didn’t seem to be completely out of his system. Harry was edgy, and grumpy, and very, very good company.

We were stood together one night, watching The Blue Something-or-Others butcher ‘Satisfaction’, when I turned to him and remarked that surely, surely, it was impossible to ruin a Stones song.

“You know why that is, don’t you?” Harry curled his yellow fingers around a pint of Bass. “It’s because they all want to be Mick or Keith.”

And then, after a long, thoughtful sip: “It’s Charlie who drives the Stones. He’s their bollocks.”

We watched the singer, clapping and preening. I think his name was Dennis.

“No one wants to be Charlie, though. Why be the left-back, when you can be a centre forward?”

No one wants to be Charlie: that’s stuck with me, ever since.

The other gem – from one of the many punters who came, went, and disappeared forever – was this: you’ll always know in life who’s genuinely rich, genuinely smart or genuinely hard, because they don’t talk about it.

I’ve put this theory to work over the past decade, and I’ve got to tell you – it stands up.

Take Stuart Pearce MBE, for example – he could never be drawn on just how hard he was. People with microphones pressed him on it for years – as if that was all he was – and Pearce was happy for the sense of it just to pervade: from those coldly evaluative eyes, framed by that neat blonde fringe; from his careful, too-quiet voice; and from his actions, rather than his words. He was a person, after all – not a pantomime.

And what sort of Psycho gives you answers?

As much as I wanted to write about Pearce for this issue, I wasn’t sure of what to say. What exactly should it be, this piece? A run-down of his achievements; of his greatest goals, and his biggest tackles, and the thousand-chaptered montage of all the times he’s ‘made us proud’? The moments that he moved us – specifically, us – just by being who he was, without fail, every single weekend?

I don’t need to walk you back through it. Because if you’re reading this, you’ll have seen IMG_0061it for yourself. Week on week, salute by salute, roar after roar – you saw it all for yourself, and you’ll know what he meant to you; what he probably always will.

He lives in a place beyond words. He’s a human highlight reel of 50/50s (or 30/70s), and one-twos with Nigel, and free kicks, and great big bastard bollocks, and he’s not just everything we could ever wish for in a Forest player – he’s a living, breathing tick-list for The Perfect Footballer. The heart of a lion, wrapped in the body of a machine, attached to – and I’ll borrow some Partridge here – a foot like a traction engine. He is top-to-bottom, all-encompassing power; in every form, and in every way.

I found Forest and Pearce in September, 1990. This was three months after his country – the country he loved without proviso or condition; the one he’d already cried for, and would go on to bleed for – had turned its back on him.

We break people in England in a peculiar way; a very insidious one. We do it by telling them that they’re just something; that they’re only something. And in missing that penalty, every England fan who didn’t have a Stuart Pearce of their own fell happily back on the myth that he was just a thug. Big tackles, yes, but no brain; no élan, or craft. A man who was meant to be hard in the heart, and hard in his head, but who bottled it when it mattered… and then cried. A man who’d let his country down – Psycho’s own personal kryptonite – because he was just hard. And it wasn’t enough.

For him, and us, that was their mocking subtext: that’s your warrior?

Pearce never set himself up to be anyone’s hero, but in the year or two that followed – my first seasons as a Forest fan – he was tried as one, up and down the land. A failure as the tough-guy he’d never claimed to be. He was booed and belittled, everywhere he went.

But it focussed him. It inspired him. I didn’t get the Angry Young Man years – I was too young for those. What I got instead was the thoughtful, considered footballer, and the leader – I got the legitimised hero. Unconquerable. Unflappable. The man who strode from ground to ground, and game to game, telling people to fuck off – in his own calm, precisely dominant way.

At United – when he told the Stretford End to fuck off. Who missed in Italy, they sang, as he measured up an impossible free-kick.

 Bang.

Spurs, at Wembley, when he told the occasion to fuck off. The FA Cup. No smiling…

… just…

 Bang.

All those goals he wouldn’t celebrate… A vision of indifference, as he trooped back across a gluepot pitch to the halfway line, unsmiling. The definitive Pearce; his portrait. Players hanging off him, in that constantly slanting rain of the early ‘90s. Ground after ground, and game after game. Wounded, and scowling; serving his own kind of penance. Waiting – you felt – to be finally and properly redeemed.

Forgiven? Maybe not. But proven – as a character, and a footballer. Proven, that he could be trusted.

Too many people called Euro ’96 his redemption. What a lot of silly bollocks that is. There’s been so much chat about ‘exorcising demons’ and ‘everybody wanting him to score’ – again, rubbish. The truth is this: in a moment of an afternoon, England needed Stuart Pearce to be Stuart Pearce. The Pearce they’d been ridiculing for years. They needed him to be everything they hated and feared him for: a big and indomitable set of bollocks. And to me, that penalty – and his response to it – was his clinching rebuke; his summit. You can see it in his face, and it’s not a celebration. It was a massive, primal fuck off – the loudest of the lot. I was fifteen years old, and watching it at the Wheatsheaf in Aspley, and we – we – all lost our minds… but we lost them for him. Not for England. Not for Skinner and Baddiel, and not for Danny Baker or Keith Allen, and not for the daft lads in the crowd who – after years of taking the piss – suddenly decided to hijack our call to him.

Wembley stadium, ringing with Psycho, Psycho, Psycho. His entrance, his own creation, his grand finale, and – to England – his goodbye. At the last, he’d won.

That afternoon, Stuart Pearce finally proved that he was usefully tough. That he was IMG_0063resilience, and application, and craft, and bravery – that he was the very marrow of this country, and everything good that we’re always banging on about. That rather than letting England down, he was – and always had been – definitively English. It’s just a shame it took this country – his country – six years to realise it. And it’s a shame we put Beckham through the same thing, two years later, when we all decided he was just a ponce, and only out for number one, until Greece happened. Until, again, we needed him.

 We always knew what Pearce was, and he knew we knew. In a Forest shirt, the man was metronomic; he was canned hea(r)t. Stuart Pearce – he was your Charlie Watts. Never any danger of him flouncing off, like Mick; of him losing his focus, like Keith. Simply, you knew what you were getting from him, and for twelve years that was a beautiful thing.

He said once that his biggest achievement in football was taking Forest back up, in 1994. The year he stayed; the year he mortgaged the captaincy of his country, for us. It says it all that that was his finest moment – not a goal, or a glory, but simply the righting of a wrong. The banishing of a failure – for his club, and himself. It is the true measure of the man, and if you really pressed me on it, that – more than any other single reason – is why I love him. He’s what Forest – and England – haven’t been for far, far too long now. And it’s harder to truly care without it.

Any kid that’s found Forest in the last ten, fifteen years or so… I feel for them. And not because we’ve been crap – I don’t feel any worse for them on that count than I do for myself. No: I feel for them because they never saw his type, and they probably never will. The game has eschewed out his kind: it’s eradicated his kind of strength, and his kind of loyalty. Simply, there’s no longer a place for it; someone who’s that big in the tackle, and that big on their promises. And so these younger fans… they’ll never know the joy of watching a player who’s truly hard; they’ll never get the security and the warmth and the love of hanging a hat on – truly – one of their own.

They’ll never know how one footballer can elevate things so far beyond the nuts and bolts of football – the feelings, the memories, and the pride.

But once he’d gone, I didn’t want him back.

Not as manager.

It was a ‘what if’ that didn’t need answering – it could have simply hung there for a lifetime, and no one would have really minded. You need these things to exist, if only as possibilities – there, just to chat about, and tease yourself with. Life on Mars, and Psycho managing Forest: sometimes, it’s enough just to wonder.

Because to finally answer that question was to risk things Going Wrong, in a game and at a club where they usually do. And once it did go wrong, we’d have to surrender that ‘what if’ – chuck it on the pile of all life’s things that just weren’t what they should have been.

When it went wrong, it’d be the full stop on Pearce and Forest. And the thought of that full stop being inked on a whim by the idiot upstairs… I just couldn’t stomach it.

In the end, of course, that’s exactly what happened. There’s not many happy endings in football, and they’re especially scarce at Forest. The world moves on, always: whatever a player once was, and whatever they continue to mean to us, most of them just run out of time.

I wish we still had that ‘what if’. I’d love it still to be there, just as a possibility. Simply, I’d love not to know what we do now – that in the end, management’s probably not for him.

And it’s obvious why. The clues have been there, ever since he put his suit on. There’s an interview he did at Manchester City, back in 2006, when they were beaten 1-0 at home by Middlesbrough. It’s remarkable; probably the only remarkable thing about that whole day. Because you can picture the scene – City being City, the old City, and sleepwalking to the end of another wasted season. Playing out a pointless match, in front of 10,000 empty seats. Ben Thatcher, next to Sun Jihai, next to Richard Dunne. Nothing too remarkable about it; nothing especially offensive.

Unless, of course, you’re Pearce.

The interview he gave after that game said everything – about the man he is, and the manager he isn’t.

“Myself and the players were an absolute disgrace this afternoon.” That was his opener. “An embarrassment to this football club.”

And then: “We were so spineless, it was frightening.”

“We showed no quality,” he continues. “No moral courage. No desire to be the man, to step up, and say to our teammates, ‘right, get behind me, I’m gonna lead us today’.”

And then, finally: “It’s about looking yourself in the mirror, and saying ‘that’s not good enough’. Because I can’t look my family in the face after that.” And he shrugs, and he leaves.

This was his Michael Douglas, Falling Down moment. Suddenly, it – everything – just wasn’t good enough. Having to drill courage into your players; having to train them up in the business of caring; this was the thin end of the wedge. A sign of what was to come, and what – in the end – did. He stood with the man from Sky and raged against the withering of a standard that, to him, came as standard. It’d happened on his watch, and he couldn’t understand it.

For the first time ever, Being Stuart Pearce wasn’t working. He was adrift; suddenly outnumbered by Micks and Keiths, when all he needed was a Charlie Watts.

Even then, ten years before he came back to Forest, his kind was running out of time. Riffing on fusty old things like pride and selflessness, as the gates swung open to the Modern Footballer. The player who’ll simply down tools, at his agent’s behest; who’ll slap in a transfer request, because he never got a birthday cake; who’ll pull out of the squad hours before a game, because ‘his head’s not right’. And there was Pearce, pushing his message of constant, fierce pride into the blank faces of teenage millionaires; preaching about the badge to young men who’ll only ever see your club as one rung up on their ladder to More.

He’d never transitioned from Pearce the player – that was the problem, if you’re inclined to call it one. He was still thoroughly, necessarily himself, and it was all he knew. Stuart Pearce – the man who lived life on the razor’s edge of caring so much, and caring too much. One look, one sound, one way.

And this dawning – it seemed to change him. The Pearce who came back in 2014 was different: quieter, cerebral, and rather conflicted. In one of his first pressers, he refused the ‘Psycho’ title – he wasn’t that anymore, he said. He couldn’t be. After all those tackles and all those goals and all those salutes and all of that blood – after a footballer’s life played out on his own terms, and as his own man – he’d been knocked clean off kilter. He wore a decade’s weight of the indifferent new breed; of being told to fuck off, by the likes of Danny Mills.

 Psycho belonged to the past – to a war waged on instinct, and with blazing passions. A rougher, closer, grimier war, and an altogether more glorious one. The fighting now was clinical, and strategized; all the inches planned, and the thinking done by distance. This wasn’t his kind of fight.

And by 2014, Stuart Pearce was neither one thing nor another.

It was like the before and after of Alex DeLarge, in A Clockwork Orange. Once the glowering leader, he was now passive and gentle – neutered by the needs of a new and bratty world. Because the likes of Jamie Paterson didn’t care about the good old days, and they’d probably never heard of Basil Boli.

And of course, it was them – the Dannys, and the Jamies, and the Henris – who won out. Don’t they always, nowadays?

I suppose it’s a question of what you want to remember. You can call it a failure, yes… or you can call it an epilogue. It’s your choice. Was it time having its way – as it does with all of us – or a curtain call for the man who just meant more than football; a final glance at a time and a spirit that’s gone now, and probably forever?

I know what I think. I don’t remember Millwall, or Birmingham, or ‘Boro away; what I remember is Norwich, in the last minute. I remember Derby. I remember the beauty of those times when he forgot himself, and when the proper Pearce – the enshrined, cast-iron one, who we all know and love – burst back out. When for a few moments the walls dropped, and he let himself be Psycho again. When he didn’t have a choice in it. With his fists clenched, and his eyes bulging, and his heart full of Forest: hello, hello, Psycho is back.

 I remember those times. And most of all, I remember Blackpool. Those clean blue August skies, and the beaming sunshine, and a moment when we were all just a little bit younger again… because He was back, and Forest were the Forest that we all still daydream about. The Forest that they haven’t been in years – not since He left. Something more than just a football club.

And for all of that, and despite my own misgivings, that’s why I’m inclined now to think that it was worth it. I just hope that he does, too.

He never made it as a manager, and I don’t think he ever will… but then I don’t see that as Pearce’s failure. It’s football’s failure. When being Stuart Pearce – and everything that invokes – suddenly isn’t enough… that’s why the game’s slipped away from us. It’s why we struggle to get excited. And it’s why, year on year, we care a little less; why – as the furniture shifts, from season to season – the whole damn thing just feels that bit more disposable.

It’s why, one day soon, there really will be no more heroes. And imagining that, and all it means… it’s just a great big bloody shame.

“I did my best.”

How many times have you said that in your life?

And how many times did you actually mean it?

It’s just something people say – rarely true, but no one tends to argues. When you’re young, there isn’t much that needs your best; when you’re older, there’s more reasons not to give it.

Pearce was the only one I’ve ever taken at his word, when he said he’d done his best. And because of that, he’s got nothing left to prove to me.

People who gave their all, and told the truth – it isn’t much to ask, but they’re precious qualities. Especially when it comes to football: mix a bit of talent in with those two, and you’ll move mountains. And at the very least, you’ll move people. It’s reassuring that for all the trends to come and go – whether it’s a back three, sports psychologists, or snoods – there still remains a hallowed place for commitment, and superhuman, otherworldly bollocks. They’ll always resonate, those qualities – give them often and usefully enough, and they’ll mark a person down as something else, forever. God willing, good old-fashioned doing your best will never go out of style – here’s hoping that honesty and application will always endure, because in these lean times, there ain’t much left that don’t cost money. As a Forest fan, that’s something to keep on holding out for.

Pearce is timeless. He’ll echo through the rest of my life, and yours, and the club’s. There isn’t an end with him. He’s a Cantona, and a Charlton, and a Baresi – he’s a benchmark. And whatever came to pass between the first day of July in 2014, and the last day of January in 2015, he’s a standing ovation at the City Ground. Every time, guaranteed. He’s that chant; he’s the call, and the response; he’s pure and total love.

Simply put, he’s tougher the rest.

He wasn’t just a footballer, to the likes of you and me. As a kid, he was someone to aim to be. Long before tattoos were everywhere, I wanted one – just because of Stuart Pearce. I got into The Stranglers because of him, and The Ramones too. What little glimpse he ever gave us of the man behind the mask – his books, his films, his music, his opinions – I fell instantly and dutifully in step with.

On the park, or at 5-a-side, or with your school team, or even just in the back garden withIMG_0067 your brother or your sister or your mates – you played like Him. I’ll be Stuart Pearce, you be Andrei Kanchelskis. The Ramones didn’t smile, and Stuart Pearce didn’t smile, and who hasn’t scored an absolute blinder in a 5-a-side game, then walked impassively away – jaw set – just because it looked cool?

Nobody wants to be the drummer, and nobody wants to be the left back. But knowing what you know now – twenty years older, and wiser – would you rather be the face, or the soul? Mick, or Charlie? Pierre, or Pearce?

There are things to smile about, looking back on Him and Us, and there’s cause for a few tears too. One life, lived through a left foot – I’m 3800 words down the line, and we’ve still not scratched the surface of what he really was. What he meant, and what it was to call him one of ours. But it’s been a pleasure all the same. When I write about Forest nowadays, I don’t use these kinds of words, or think these kinds of thoughts. I don’t feel like this, anymore – about the club, or anyone attached to it. Maybe it’s because we’ve all grown up a bit; maybe it’s knowing – 25 years down the line – that it really is just a game. But he’s one of the main reasons I fell in love with Forest, and – in his absence – one of the main reasons that it all seems so very, very ordinary today.

3800 words, when I could just have quoted Jon Stewart. He said this once, about Bruce Springsteen, in his Hall of Fame speech:

Whenever I see him do anything, he empties the tank. Every time. And the beautiful thing about this man is that he empties that tank for his family, he empties it for his art, he empties it for his audience, and he empties it for his country.

 And we, on the receiving end of that beautiful gift, are ourselves rejuvenated… if not redeemed.

And for now, with the words all used up, I guess that’ll have to do.

 


 

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