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Despite Imminent Sacking, Stuart Pearce’s Entire England U-21 Tenure Wasn’t A Failure

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Milner again in a dynamic central midfield role and showed the quality of Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell in more withdrawn positions.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.

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  1. Smokey Bacon

    June 9, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    My problem is not with Pearce per se. It’s the lack of a coherent strategy by the FA. Where is the continuity? How many if the u-21s go on to the senior side? The FA is rotten from top to bottom. They remind me of cricket’s top brass during the 80s and 90s. Useless. It took several humiliating defeats before we turned the corner. How long before the FA realizes we are fast approaching rock bottom?

    It’s time we put English players first in the EPL. In theory it should not matter how many foreigners are playing in the Epl. The cream of English talent should rise to the top. Except it doesn’t. Until we tip the odds in the national teams favor we will continue our slow decline. The same goes for managers. Pellegrini is a disaster for English football.

    I’m starting to despise the FA and the EPL. For me the World Cup is and will always be the pinnacle of the sport. We are in for more disappointments like this tournament and far worse if we continue to put club before country.

    • Evan

      June 9, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      “It’s time we put English players first in the EPL.”

      I hate it when people go to places like this. Foreigners make the premier league a better league. By putting inferior players, that will only encourage the production of more inferior players.

      • Smokey Bacon

        June 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm

        Normally I would be inclined to agree with you. The usual argument is there were fewer foreigners in the 80s and England was crap back then too.

        It just seems to me we are at a tipping point and something has to be done to stop the decline. Improving the coaching of youngsters is one part of the solution. But there is something wrong when 33% of the Epl is English, while in Spain it’s 67% domestic.

        I would like the FA to announce a long term strategy to win the World Cup by 2030. And if that means turning the epl on its head then so be it.

        • Gary

          June 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm

          The reason Spain has 67% domestic players is because their players are good enough. Do you think if Spain did not produce so many top class players with technical skills that they would not sign more foreigners?

          The European leagues are so competitive and with everyone wanting to be in, and win, the Champions League that each club will sign the best players they can afford, regardless of where they were born.

          England needs to start developing players with better technical skills or they will never be successful at the international level. If Spin, Germany, Italy, Holland, etc. can develop them then surely the English can as well, provided the FA makes a concerted effort to put in place youth academies like the ones in those other European countries. Nothing wrong with copying what others do right.

          • Smokey Bacon

            June 10, 2013 at 8:34 pm

            You can have all the academies you want but the likes of Pellegrini will never play them when he can blow $200m of someone else’s money recreating Real Madrid. If I was a young Man City English player, I’d start packing my bags.

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