England

The story behind Stuart Pearce's iconic Euro 96 penalty against Spain

Ross Jackson
Stuart Pearce celebrates his penalty against Spain
Stuart Pearce celebrates his penalty against Spain / Getty Images/Getty Images
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"Are you f*cking sure?"

Terry Venables to Stuart Pearce

We're often told that the best way to overcome our fears is to look them dead in the eye before taking a deep breath and tackling them head on.

For many of us this is grabbing that spider in the bathroom or walking over the bridge you've been avoiding for weeks - for Stuart Pearce it was something else.

Stuart Pearce scores his penalty against Spain
Stuart Pearce scores his penalty against Spain / Stu Forster/Getty Images

Back in 1990, England were just a penalty shootout away from reaching only their second ever World Cup final. The Three Lions had matched West Germany stride for stride with both sides converting their three respective spot kicks, as Pearce confidently stepped up to take the fourth.

The 20 seconds that followed will be etched into the minds of England fans for eternity.

The Nottingham Forest left-back did what any defender - or any normal person for that matter - would do in such a pressure cooker situation and put his head down before blasting the ball with no intention of even trying to pick a spot.

The ball cannoned off the trailing leg of Germany goalkeeper Bodo Illgner, leaving Pearce with the unenviable task of trudging back towards his teammates with his head buried further into the turf than it had been during his run-up.

Pearce looked destined to never appear at a major international tournament again
Pearce looked destined to never appear at a major international tournament again / Ben Radford/Getty Images

Chris Waddle would go on to hammer the final nail in Bobby Robson's side's coffin with England's next penalty, but Pearce was the fall guy. Waddle at least had the luxury of plying his trade in a foreign league with Marseille the following season, whereas Pearce was forced to endure the wrath of English crowds week in, week out with Forest.

Naturally as time wore on the torrent of abuse began to wane, though, irrespective of what Pearce would go on to achieve in his career, he would forever be remembered for that miss that cost England the World Cup (in the eyes of England fans at least).

By the mid 90s, Graeme Le Saux's fine form with Blackburn had seen him edge ahead of Pearce in the reckoning to be England's first-choice left-back and the veteran full-back's international career looked to be coming to an end, forever to be known as that guy who missed the penalty.

However, an injury to Le Saux prior to Euro 96 offered Pearce his shot at redemption with the national side.

This was his big chance.

Stuart Pearce was given his shot at redemption against Spain
Stuart Pearce was given his shot at redemption against Spain / Stu Forster/Getty Images

The Forest man started all of Terry Venables' side's three group games, though - despite their famous 4-1 drumming of the Netherlands in their final Group A outing - their campaign was on the verge of ending with a whimper as they struggled against Spain in the first knockout round.

Javier Clemente's men dominated for large periods of the quarter-final, yet somehow England managed to scrape their way through 120 minutes with the scores locked at 0-0 - the dreaded penalty shootout loomed.

Real Madrid's Fernando Hierro crashed Spain's opener against the crossbar offering the Three Lions an early advantage. With both sides having taken two penalties each England led 2-1, yet all of a sudden the mood changed in Wembley without a ball even being kicked.

As Guillermo Amor headed back to the halfway line having converted Spain's first successful spot-kick, Stuart Pearce emerged from the crowd of players gathered in the centre circle.

Stuart Pearce bags his penalty against Spain
Stuart Pearce bags his penalty against Spain / Ben Radford/Getty Images

Despite attempting to puff out his chest, Pearce stepped forward with all the enthusiasm of a man asked to step forward in a police lineup - it was time to face his fear.

There was a collective gulp from not only those in attendance but across the nation. Venables clearly wasn't enamoured by Pearce's insistence on taking a spot-kick, though he wasn't to be denied his shot at redemption.

Six years of hurt, six years of pain, six years of wondering what might have been and it could all be banished with one kick of a football...the nightmare was finally over.

Was it a confident penalty? No. Was it a good penalty? No. Did either of these things matter? Absolutely not.

Pearce launched his left foot at the ball, wrapping his instep around it and firing it into the bottom corner with Spain goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta's left hand just inches away from offering his side the chance to restore parity.

Stuart Pearce consoles teammate Gareth Southgate
Stuart Pearce consoles teammate Gareth Southgate / Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Having taken a moment to steady himself, Pearce turned square on to the crowd and unleashed one of the most iconic celebrations in footballing history. There was no planned celebration, there was no composure, it was simply the release of years of frustration and unbridled relief as he clenched his fist and roared at the crowd.

England won the shootout before being knocked out on penalties by Germany the following round. This time it would be Gareth Southgate who would carry the burden, but make no mistake over which player was the first to console the distraught Aston Villa centre-back.

To some, Pearce's penalty against Spain may just be a professional footballer doing what any professional footballer should be able to do from 12 yards, but it really is so much more. The character required to face your demons with the hopes of a nation on your shoulders is truly enormous and Pearce deserved every single second of adulation and applause that came his way.


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