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Defining moments: Pearce’s redemption

It can be difficult to explain exactly why sport captivates us so much, but for me one key reason is that it provides us with great tales which can stick long in the memory. Unlike the kind of stories that we see in films or books, sporting narratives rarely stick to the basic formula of having a beginning, a middle or an end, with key dramatic ‘beats’ punctuating the action at regular intervals. And it is that unpredictability which keeps us constantly on the edge of our seats even in the 89th minute of a dull, poor football game, because witnessing those magical moments when sport hits those high notes are what makes it all worthwhile.

In some cases these moments of magic are lightning strikes, little cameos which showcase sport’s never-ending capacity to delight, surprise and astonish (a stunning breakaway goal against the run of play, for instance). In others, they may be the culmination of a long, winding narrative which, with hindsight, has an air of glorious inevitability about it (Kevin Pietersen‘s destructive innings which finally clinched the 2005 Ashes, say).

I call these ‘defining moments’. In my mind, they form a mental photo album which underlines what great sport is all about and represents the pinnacle of my experiences watching, attending or participating in sporting events. Some of these will be recognisable to most fans, others deeply personal.

Since a big part of the essence of sport is that it is a shared experience, I thought I’d share some of my defining moments from the mental archive. So let’s start with an example of that most compelling of basic plots: a tale of redemption.

Euro 96, Wembley, June 1996

The report card on the veteran England full back Stuart Pearce prior to Euro 96 would have read something like this: “A great defender and a loyal servant to both club and country, but best remembered for one terrible mistake which has forever tainted his career. Questionable performance under pressure.”

Turin, 1990. England versus Germany. Two hours of football had failed to separate two evenly matched sides. A place in the World Cup final rested on a sudden-death penalty shootout; ten kicks of the ball from twelve yards out. Pearce – a regular and highly proficient penalty taker – failed to convert his spot-kick. Germany won and went on to beat Argentina 1-0 in the final.

Wembley, 1996. The European Championship quarter-final. England and Spain have battled to a tense, goalless stalemate. So now it’s the agony of penalties again.

First up for England is striker Alan Shearer, who emphatically blasts his shot into the top corner. Next, Fernando Hierro steps forward for Spain and strikes an equally powerful effort beyond the reach of David Seaman, but the ball cannons off the crossbar and away to safety. A huge roar from the crowd. Miss! David Platt then scores for England; Amor responds for Spain. 2-1.

Next in line for England: Stuart Pearce.

As a spectator, there is a familiar sensation of fear which forms in the pit of your stomach as a player makes the long, lonely walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot. In Pearce’s case, it is much more than that. A murmur of anticipation goes around Wembley. Are we about to witness a man released after six years of hell, or see him condemned to a life sentence for a repeat offence? Not even a man who goes by the nickname ‘Psycho’ deserves to suffer like this twice in a lifetime. With one sweep of his left boot, Stuart Pearce would be either redeemed or branded a choker, a man whose career is defined not by years of outstanding success but by two moments of failure.

A nation collectively holds its breath, but Pearce exhibits not the slightest trace of fear or hesitancy, stroking a left-foot shot wide of the goalkeeper’s despairing dive and into the back of the net.

Wembley roars in celebration and approval. And absolution; to a man, everyone in the stadium knows just how much this means to him.

Pearce himself is in another world – fists clenched, eyes bulging, a lung-bursting scream releasing six years of pent-up frustration and exorcising his demons.

It is one of the all-time great sporting photos, one of those rare occasions you get to glimpse the human being behind the professional façade. Emotion laid raw for all to see; the nightmare of 1990 finally consigned to history in one cathartic moment.

Even now, 13 years later, the memory of it is enough to bring a tear to my eye.

There’s a line in the English football anthem ‘Three Lions’ that says, “Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming”. For Stuart Pearce, it was six years of agony and frustration, but he never stopped dreaming of redemption. And how he had earned it.

It is not often we are reminded in such stark terms about the fine line between career-defining success and failure which even the most successful of sportsmen and women must walk; rarer still that we see the circle completed, with abject failure being followed by redemptive success. The image of an emotionally-released Pearce screaming at the heavens – and the fact it was played out live in front of an audience of millions – is exactly what great sport is all about, and why I and millions of others love it so much.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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