Stuart Pearce’s England Under-21 side has crashed out of the European Championships with a whimper. But it would be unfair to label Pearce’s tenure a failure. Sometimes managers stay too long at the international level. It’s a four year job at most, and Pearce overstayed his welcome at this level.
Prior to Pearce’s appointment in early 2007 when he was still managing Manchester City, the England U-21 setup was largely farcical. The young lions had failed to qualify for the previous two European Championships and had a spotty record prior to that. When Pearce advanced the young lions out of the group stage in the Netherlands, it was the first time England had qualified for the knock-out stages of the competition since 1988.
The tragic penalty kick loss to the Dutch in the semi-finals was a heroic effort against a home side with greater quality and depth. Pearce maximized the potential of his squad getting excellent performances out of the likes of James Milner, Ashley Young and Leroy Lita. The direct approach Pearce took worked as it allowed England to compete with more fancied and diverse tactical teams. It was a tournament that showed once again England’s youth could compete at a high level after years of self-flagellation and defeatism.
England’s U-21 side advanced to the 2009 European Championship final losing 4-0 to a superior German side who featured four players who would play key roles during World Cup 2010. England actually won its group that included Germany, drawing the final group stage match against the Germans. Pearce’s side featured Milner again in a dynamic central midfield role and showed the quality of Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell in more withdrawn positions. England’s midfield bossed most of the matches in Sweden and despite the loss in the final, the young lions showed plenty of promise.
England’s closest brush with winning a major trophy in decades emboldened many supporters and had Pearce’s name mentioned among the potential successors to Fabio Capello. But Pearce has always favored dour tactics. His Manchester City side featured many youngsters who also played for England’s youth teams but almost entirely relied on defensive stoutness and counter-attacking. When Pearce was sacked in 2007 by City, it had less to do with results and more to do with stylistic considerations.
The last two European U-21 cycles, Pearce’s tactical limitations and unwillingness to develop a plan B have been exposed by the opposition. Failure to qualify out of the group in 2011 was followed up by a disastrous tournament in 2013. But still England has qualified for four successive tournaments — the best run since the early 1980s. Pearce’s inability to bring Olympic glory to Team GB in 2012 is also held against him, though the side he assembled was inferior to many others in the tournament.
Pearce was clearly the wrong man to take England’s youth setup to the next level but did a credible job in re-establishing the young lions as a continental force. As the post-mortems begin in earnest with the former England left-back’s inevitable sacking, it is important we recall the job he did to get the U-21s as far as he did in his first two tournaments.