BRIGHT SPARK: Stuart Pearce was an electrician while playing for Wealdstone before going on to play at the highest level
By John Lyons
Whether it was penalty heartbreak at Italia ‘90, redemption against Spain in Euro ‘96 or getting stuck in for Nottingham Forest, many of us will have memories of Stuart Pearce’s playing days.
But it’s easy to overlook the fact that the hard-as-nails left-back nicknamed ‘Psycho’ learned his trade in Non-League.
From 1978 to 1983, Pearce was a mainstay for Wealdstone, one of the biggest names in Non-League football at the time.
He notched up approaching 200 league appearances for the Stones before getting his big break with top-flight Coventry – and taking a £30-a-week pay-cut in the process!
That was because he combined his football money from Wealdstone with his wages as an electrician.
“It was tough on many fronts,” Pearce told The NLP. “At first it was the Southern League, so the travelling scenario wasn’t as bad. Then all of a sudden we were in a national league (the newly created Alliance Premier League) and going to places like Scarborough.
“The physicality of the players we were up against was different. Altrincham were a powerhouse at the time – they were all ex-pros and I had no experience at all.
“I was probably out of my depth technical ability-wise as well.
“I was a young kid in a struggling team and we got relegated in the second season of the APL. It was really difficult, but, my god, it didn’t half prepare me for later things like turning professional and how I was perceived as a player. People thought of me as a tough-tackling defender but in Non-League I was just one of many.”
Pearce is also grateful to two former Stones managers, Alan Fogarty and Allen Batsford, for their part in his development.
“Alan gave me my first contract. It shows how long ago it was that it was £15-a-week. There was also a £1.50 win bonus and 75p for a draw!
“He got sacked shortly after and that was a real blow because he had faith in me. He shook everyone by the hand and told me ‘I expect you to have a big future’. Little did I know…”
After Ken Payne had a spell in the hotseat, Batsford, who had led Wimbledon into the Football League, took charge in late 1980. He was unable to keep the club in Non-League’s top-flight that season, but guided them to Southern League success the following year and to third place in the APL in 1982-83.
“The big thing was Allen Batsford coming in,” said Pearce. “His reputation came before him. I remember one of the lads who had played under him before saying ‘F*** me, he’s a tough task-master’.
“It turned out to be true. He put really big demands on us and he was brilliant for me. He put pressure on me and everyone, and I owe a great debt to him. He was one of the big influences on me.
“He was just the manager the club needed at the time and the proof was in the pudding with the results we got.
“We also had some top, top players that went on to do good things. We had Ray Goddard in goal, the Cordice brothers, Neil and Alan, Roy Davies, very aggressive centre-backs in Paul Bowgett and Dennis Byatt – they knew the game and I got schooled by them.”
While Pearce was gaining invaluable experience playing men’s football at a young age, it was no surprise that his displays caught the eye.
“I was at Wealdstone for just over five years and in that time I had a couple of potential opportunities to turn pro,” he recalled.
“One was Wimbledon, but they only wanted to spend five grand and that didn’t happen.
“The other was Hull City. Myself and captain John Watson went up there for a trial – I was 17 and he was 27.
“Hull were in the Fourth Division at the time and we played a game against Grimsby reserves and trained. However, we both decided it wasn’t really for us.
“They offered me a job with the local council as an electrician so I could carry on my trade, but it just seemed a long way from home at the time.
“If he’d gone up there, John would have had to have given up a good job. It wasn’t right at the time and, touch wood, I was hoping to get a bit closer to the England Non-League team, though I just missed out on that.”
While there was plenty of talk that clubs were looking at Pearce, it wasn’t until 1983 – when he was 21 – that he finally stepped up. Although Coventry weren’t one of the game’s big guns, they were top-flight regulars in those days, and manager Bobby Gould saw enough to convince him to splash out £30,000.
“It was a massive shock, to be fair,” said Pearce. “You might see an odd snippet in the paper or hear that clubs are looking at you, but it wasn’t that common for players to go from Non-League to the First Division.
“We had a midweek game at Yeovil and Dennis Byatt told me beforehand that Coventry were there to watch me that night. He obviously knew from someone.
“You almost get a snapshot of one game to prove yourself and apparently Bobby Gould had made his mind up before half-time.
“Believe it or not, I had to take a wage cut to go there – around £30. But when the top division comes calling, you have to take the chance.
“I had turned Hull down, a potential move to Wimbledon hadn’t happened. You start thinking ‘Will I get another chance to go into the League?’.
“As a 21-year-old, I had played in the Southern League and for a good side in the Alliance. The standard was really good in the APL – you were playing against players that had been in the professional game. Altrincham were a really strong side at the time, Boston had good players, Graham Roberts and Andy Townsend were at Weymouth. We had some really good players.
“There were lots of players at the top end who were good enough to play in the Third or Fourth Divisions.
“As luck would have it, I had finished my electrician’s apprenticeship six weeks before, so I had something to fall back on.
“I’d signed a contract with Coventry for less than two years and the council had said they’d keep my job open if it didn’t work out.”
In The NLP a couple of weeks ago, guest columnist Sam Allardyce, who was Coventry skipper at the time, said Pearce’s subsequent debut for the Sky Blues in a 1-0 home win against QPR was the best he’d ever seen, describing him as ‘shy and quiet but totally fearless’.
But a modest Pearce plays down Allardyce’s plaudits.
“It’s got changed in translation,” he chuckles. “I’m a far better player now than I ever was in my playing days. The key thing was not to make a mistake. It was extra special for me because it was against QPR, who I supported as a boy. I got released by them after four or five months when I was 13.
“Bobby Gould put me in to see how I’d get on and the key thing was that I did well enough in that game to stay in the team. I never really missed out except for injuries.”
So how difficult was it to step up from Non-League’s top-flight to English football’s elite?
“The physical attributes were really difficult and it was also demanding emotionally,” he said. “I was young and I was probably one of the worst players in the team. I was knew and learning the ropes.”
Bizarrely, in this current day and age when Premier League players earn more money than they know what to do with, Pearce topped up his First Division wages by continuing to use his electrician’s skills.
“I started my own business and was doing some work in the afternoons,” he said. “I was on £250 a week, living away from home and had to pay rent, so I needed to supplement my wages.
“In fact, it was a nice release, I really enjoyed doing the work. At Forest, I advertised in the programme.”
While Pearce went on to great success in his career, Wealdstone continued to thrive immediately after his departure for Coventry. In fact, they became the first side to do the Non-League double of APL and FA Trophy in 1984-85.
However, selling their Lower Mead home at the start of the 90s proved a costly mistake as Stones became Non-League nomads.
It’s taken them a long time to climb back up the Pyramid. Indeed, the present day team were top of National League South and looking good for a return to the top-flight when the coronavirus threw a spanner in the works last month.
“I was so pleased for the club when they won the double,” he said. “I could see the strength of the club building and building.
“I missed out on that, and then I left Coventry and they won the FA Cup a couple of years later!
“I’ve got my fingers crossed Wealdstone do get promoted this season – they deserve to.
“It’s a difficult decision across all the divisions and only time will tell, but, from a selfish point of view, I hope they get promoted. I would love to see them back at the top. I’m forever indebted to the club and I do the odd dinner there and keep in touch. It’s really important that people like myself don’t forget where we’ve come from.”
Pearce recalls his Non-League days with clear affection.
“I used to love the camaraderie in the dressing room,” he said. “People came in and trained, and then went out in the evenings. When you turn professional, it’s more difficult because you’ve got the spotlight and the media.”
But things didn’t always go to plan.
“I remember a game at Scarborough,” he said. “We had a player sent off in the first half and our keeper got concussed.
“I went in goal in the second half, we had two more players sent off and got beat 4-0. It was unbelievable.”
It was no great surprise that Pearce fancied a go in goal. He did, after all, play for a team between the sticks.
“I was a decent goalkeeper,” he said. “I used to play for a Sunday team, Dynamo Kingsbury Kiev, in the Fulham & District League.
“I was quite professional as a Non-League player. On Friday nights I would have an orange juice and go home early to be ready for the next day.
“But on Sundays I liked to play with my mates. I played under a false name, Yak Jensen, because I had a Non-League contract and shouldn’t have been playing.”
However, there was a problem one day.
“I came out of the box and someone kicked me on the side of the shin,” he explained. “It was a bit sore at the time, but I trained in midweek.
“We were away at Runcorn on the Saturday and I was twisting and turning in the warm-up. Suddenly it felt like someone had thrown a lump of mud on it.
“I went up to Allen Batsford and said ‘I think I’ve broken my leg’.
“He said the typical Non-League line at the time ‘Give it five minutes and see how you go’.
“I played for five or ten minutes and then said ‘I’m in a bit of trouble’. All the Scousers were calling me ‘a soft tw*t’.
“On the Monday, I found out that I had fractured my tibia. That was the end of my
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