Penalty pain returned to haunt England in the final of Euro 2020, just as it did in 2012, 2006, 2004, 1996 and 1990. Stuart Pearce, the man who missed in the semi-final shootout in 1990 would return six years later to convert two spot-kicks at Wembley, has some encouraging words of advice for 19-year-old Bukayo Saka.
“While it is hurtful and raw now, the emotions, you'll find out that adversity will make you stronger in the long run. You've just got to understand that,” he tells The Sportsman.
“He will feel the pain of missing a penalty, the whole squad are feeling pain. The player I work with, Declan [Rice], I saw pictures of him walking around afterwards, bearing in mind he didn't take a penalty and was substituted, in tears. They've all felt the same hurt together and that hurt I think will stand them in good stead in the future.”
Manager Gareth Southgate, who took England further than they have been in a major tournament since 1966, came in for some criticism for subbing on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho in the last minute to take a penalty and choosing Saka, still a teenager, to take the fifth kick. But Pearce doesn’t subscribe to the theory that more experienced players should have been put up for the penalties.
“The bottom line is we talk about young players - ‘if they are good enough, put them in’. Well part and parcel of football as well, is if you are good enough statistically to be one of the best five penalty takers, why should age be a barrier to you taking a penalty?
“Well done to Saka for standing up and taking a penalty and well done to Gareth for putting him up to take a penalty and he has only done that on the statistics that he has got over a long period of time. You've got to back the judgement of the coaches, management and player.”
Pearce relied on his own mental resilience to bounce back from his miss in 1990, and responded on the pitch by producing his best ever goalscoring season, scoring 16 goals in all competitions from left-back for Nottingham Forest. He feels the Arsenal youngster can bounce back, just as he did from this disappointment.
“He [Saka] will be desperate to get back in at club level and have a point to prove form wise next year. His career is only going in one direction - upwards - and a penalty miss is not going to affect his career, I'm sure of that.”
Despite another penalty shootout defeat, Pearce is well aware the management team and players would have done everything possible to prepare for this shootout, something that wasn’t the case when he stepped up in the 1990s.
“The one good thing about this was you know Gareth and his analysis department would have done their homework on a penalty shootout,” he accepts.
“My frustration comes from when you bowl into a penalty shootout and you've not done your homework and you end up getting beaten then. People say it is a lottery. On this occasion I know full well, the England squad and the analysis department, they'd have practised penalties. If you don't end up winning a penalty shootout, I can live with that a little bit more as a footballing person because I know the homework has been done behind the scenes.”
England made it to the very last kick of the tournament. Jordan Pickford was heroic throughout and the only goals conceded in seven matches came from a brilliant free-kick and an unfortunate deflection in the final. Yet despite this near miss, some sceptics are still doubting Southgate, even though his tenure has seen the Three Lions make rapid progress.
“Because I'm involved in the sharp end of football, sometimes you get a little bit frustrated with people who sometimes don't see a bigger picture,” Pearce says. “Everything is fantastically brilliant or it is doom and gloom and ‘get the manager out’ which is ridiculous really - you just can't build anything with that mentality.
“You've got to understand that there is not a member of the population that wouldn't have said at the end of it, we are going to go to two hours, extra time in the final and take our chance on penalties. Would you take that now at the start of the tournament? Everyone would have bitten your hands off and said brilliant, absolutely fantastic achievement.
“You've got to understand that. You can't just at the end of the tournament change your mentality and say 'oh no it wasn't good enough' - the whole building process is being put in place there, as I can see from the outside.”
Despite the final defeat, the England legend believes that this tournament will be remembered in the same way as Euro ‘96 was.
“I think this tournament will be looked at very, very fondly by the footballing public I really do. Sometimes when you are involved in it you don't realise how good it is. Things are raw and the England team have been beaten in the final, but when you look back in a year or three or five years time there are a lot of people, even if it is their first memory as a young child, they will look at this tournament in a special way I believe.”
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