Stuart Pearce is remembering the greatest night in English football for 55 years. At Wembley on Wednesday night, Gareth Southgate’s England side made their first final since 1966 and the crowd serenaded their heroes with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.
Pearce was watching the scenes unfold from the commentary position and loved every single second of it: “It was absolutely bouncing. It really was, probably the best environment I've been involved in since ‘96 I've got to say!
“We had a wonderful atmosphere then generated within the stadium, this team have done exactly the same with fewer fans which is absolutely brilliant. Once again, come the weekend, we have got a fantastic final on our hands and I think we are all going to look back with really fond memories of this tournament and hopefully with a trophy to prove it.”
As the game developed, it turned out to be a complete reversal of the 2018 World Cup where England took an early lead before losing in extra-time. This time around, Southgate was left victorious and Pearce believes this was not a coincidence.
“Gareth and the management staff will have learnt from it as well,” Pearce admits. “You can tell the experience of the players, they have had the composure, and they have shown that composure in all the games by the way, even when games went away from them on occasion they have shown composure to play through that and have a genuine confidence in their football and trust their football and trust each other.”
Not that it matters to England fans who were watching at home or in the stadium, but the decision to award Raheem Sterling a soft penalty which saw the Three Lions progress created some debate online.
“It was touch and go,” Pearce says. “When he turned down Harry Kane's potential penalty award earlier on, and VAR looked at it and said no, as soon as it went to VAR and he had given a penalty on the pitch I knew full well that the VAR were never ever going to turn that over because of what they'd done earlier and that was the case.
“I think you can put a call up either way for it, it was a little bit clumsy, two individuals attempting to get the ball and defend it but whether it was or wasn't the referee has given a penalty, some go your way, some don't.
“The beauty for me, we were well into extra-time when Raheem Sterling is still driving at their defenders and asking questions and he had done that later in the game as well and went past Vestergaard with ease on occasion. He was a real thorn in their side and the physical element of what we do as a team, if the game has to go to two hours, I think we are always the strongest side.”
The man who denied England on several occasions, and even stopped Harry Kane’s initial penalty, was Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, a player who Stuart Pearce managed as a youngster when in charge at Manchester City.
“He always had a wonderful work ethic. He was at the academy when I was a coach at Man City, then he signed his first contract when I was the manager in 2005,” Pearce explains. “He was in and around as one of the young goalkeepers for a couple of years while I was managing there. We were fortunate enough to have him and Joe Hart on the books at the time and they sort of bounced off each other in many ways.
“He is very brave, you saw that with the block from Raheem in the first half where he spread his body and took it in the stomach. Really hard working, loves his profession, would stay out on the training pitch. He matured nicely as a goalkeeper, in the early days there were question marks over whether he would be good enough dealing with crosses because he had not grown. But his distribution is wonderful, his shot stopping and his bravery and his penalty saving as well. He is a real credit and arguably the best goalkeeper in the tournament.”
Denmark and Schmeichel head home with their heads held high, but for England, just one game now stands between them and history.