“Ask me anything you like, I don’t need a warning…”
It was the first time I’d met Stuart Pearce, after his appointment as Forest manager.
I was fully aware of the legendary status he has amongst fans, and to me he was also a hugely iconic figure from the time I was growing up watching football.
That seemingly permanent grimace, the thighs that could have cracked a walnut, and the celebration after his ‘redemption’ penalty at Euro ‘96.
He’d been a huge figure as a player in English top-flight football, and – with 78 caps to his name – for England.
I thought he’d be intimidating. It’s what you’d have expected, right? Imagine it, if you were interviewing Stuart Pearce for the first time – you’d have a few nerves, right?
In the answer at the top of this article, he took away all of my apprehension.
It was pretty standard procedure for me – if I was speaking to someone for the first time, or if I was going to talk about a subject that was a little controversial – to give the interviewee a flavour of the subjects I wanted to talk about.
So that was the last time I gave him any warning! And, let’s be fair, he didn’t need it either.
As long as I was fair with him and asked a reasonable question, he was always willing to answer anything I threw at him.
He remained charming throughout his tenure at The City Ground – he’d often walk into the interview room before a game, and ask us what the last film we watched was and chat about it.
The criticism of Pearce as a manager seemed to be that he didn’t seem to be the same person as he was when he played.
I got the impression that it was a conscious decision to be a different character whilst in charge of the team.
He wasn’t ‘Psycho’ anymore, and I think that was a shame.
He wasn’t always overly-demonstrative on the touchline – though there were notable exceptions (Pride Park, for example!) – and he often talked about senior players ‘leading’ the dressing room, rather than the manager.
He wanted to create a culture where the dressing room ran itself – I would imagine how it would have been in his day.
When Pearce played, Forest’s squad had plenty of characters who wouldn’t let standards slip – Pearce himself, plus Laws, Hodge, Walker etc. And that’s what he wanted at The City Ground when he took over.
I think Pearce’s problems as a manager started on Sunday 14th September 2014.
He’d started well, with six wins in his first seven matches, and then Derby rolled into town.
It finished 1-1, but Forest lost both Andy Reid and Chris Cohen to injury in the first half, and Jack Hobbs also suffered a problem in the game.
Neither Reid nor Cohen played again that season, while Hobbs didn’t return until 2015.
With those senior, experienced, influential players absent, it left a huge hole on the pitch and a huge vacuum of leadership in the dressing room.
It holed Pearce below the waterline, and, in hindsight, it was the beginning of the end for him.
Having been top of the Championship after the derby game, Forest won three of the next 21 matches.
That led to speculation about Pearce’s future, but how could you (as Forest chairman) sack someone like Stuart Pearce?
It was one of the reasons that Nigel Doughty gave for not appointing Pearce when he’d been the chairman – in all likelihood, there would come a day when he’d have to dismiss Pearce as Forest manager. And Doughty didn’t feel he could.
That poor run took Pearce and Forest up to the derby game at Pride Park.
Pearce answered all the questions about his future in a very straight-forward manner before the match (no warnings about topics needed to be given!)
And I do think that had the Reds lost the game, owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi was ready to fire Pearce as Forest manager. After a match against Derby County. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Fortunately, Ben Osborn had other ideas.
But the stay of execution was not long for Pearce. On the following Wednesday, Forest played at Fulham, with the manager naming the same team and formation as had won at Derby.
Steve Hodge was with us for the commentary on BBC Radio Nottingham that night. I shall never forget it.
He’d seen Fulham play the week before at Molineux, and told us in the car on the way down to London how Ross McCormack had caused Wolves all sorts of issues, and how Forest would have to adapt to counter it.
When the team news came through at 6.45, Hodge was aghast. And said as much on the radio. He absolutely nailed it.
Anyone that was listening would have been in no doubt about what could well happen when the game kicked off. And it did.
Forest were 3-0 down after 35 minutes, with McCormack tearing the Reds apart – using the space created by Rodallega’s runs, just as Hodge had advised. They were getting absolutely battered.
Pearce then changed it – by doing exactly what Hodgey had said on the radio at 7.05 – and Forest scored twice to make a game of it, but the damage had been done.
My respect for Hodge (which was already pretty high) grew that evening, bearing in mind he was a former team-mate of Pearce and how well they got on.
It would have been easier to use more flowery language and remain on the fence a bit more, but Hodgey got it exactly right that evening.
It remains the best piece of punditry I’ve ever heard – and it was all said before the event, not after it.
After defeat to Millwall at home the following weekend, Pearce was gone.
I felt sad about the way it had petered out for him – and how the loss of those three influential players in September probably cost him his job.
But the appointment of Pearce as Forest manager was an itch that needed to be scratched, to see whether it worked or not.
We’ll always have those moments: the walk down the tunnel for his first game in charge, the most ludicrous win I ever saw, beating Bournemouth away in the most one-sided match ever (Eddie Howe’s team ripped Pearce’s to shreds!), and the Ben Osborn winner at Derby.
For me, football is about experiencing great moments, and while the experiment may not have worked, the ‘great moment ratio’ was high under Psycho.
Photos: Dan Westwell