Stuart Pearce: ‘It was like the Dirty Dozen walking into that West Ham changing room for the first time’

We hear from the former defender and coach about his life on the pitch and the dugout for West Ham

You signed for the club in 1999. How did your move to West Ham come about?

Basically I was playing for Newcastle at the time, but not really getting a game so I personally picked the phone up to call four or five managers in the Premier League where I thought I could play and get into their first team, and the only taker at the time was Harry Redknapp who said to me that he needed to run it past his chairman. This went on for a couple of weeks and then all of a sudden the week before the first game of the season was due to start, Harry rang me and said we’ve got Tottenham next week, come down on Monday to sign your contract and you’ll be playing next Saturday, and that was it. He was the one who took a punt on me to be fair.

At that time he’d bought through a few old heads – myself, Nigel Winterburn – individuals who he thought perhaps their best days were passed them or people like Paulo Di Canio who had had a bit of trouble where everyone was saying to stay clear of him, and he was trouble and all that, but Harry had the ability to juggle all those balls, and was brilliant at it.

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That sounds like there was quite a few characters in that dressing room then?

Yeah, it was like the Dirty Dozen walking into that changing room it really was. You had the likes of Razor, Paulo, we had some top top players with experience too but on top of that, you had some young players coming through which was the envy of the Premier League. Rio was coming through, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Lampard, Defoe was in the academy too. Incredible when you think of it.

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Could you see straight away that those players had a big future in the game?

Yeah, you could see how rounded they were. The likes of Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard were incredibly rounded individuals, plus you had the likes of Rio whose ability was there for all to see and Joe Cole was loved by the fans from the off. So, we had some real talent sort of floating around and my job was probably to guide them as well. I used to play alongside Rio in a back three and his legs got me out of trouble, but my head got him out of trouble at times too.

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You were always a fan favourite, winning the 2001 Hammer of the year, but when joining the club, you replaced a club icon in Julian Dicks – did you feel any pressure in taking over his shirt?

No, in some ways I didn’t. I was acutely aware of the affection for Julian, which was there for all to see and rightly so, but I was never there to replace Julian or his memory at the club. For me it was just a case of come in and try to win over the fans, which is what you have to you from the offset. They would have known me, and my reputation from England, but you have to win them over with your effort, your work rate and your performances, so the Julian thing was never really an issue for me, I was just there to supplement what he had already done.

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You left the club in 2001 and later re-joined as a coach in 2017. What were the key differences you saw between your times at West Ham?

Professionalism was the one thing over that period of time if I’m being honest. Coming back to the club with Moyesy in there and his level of professionalism that was the one thing that really changed. Don’t get me wrong, that changed at most clubs to be honest, but I think at West Ham that’s what caught the eye.

The change of stadiums too in that era, I played at the old Upton Park and now there’s 60 odd thousand at the Olympic Stadium. Some of the fans struggled with that to start with but I think that the club have started to create some brilliant nights there with the European runs.

They were the main ones, but also financially and with the budget, the club are in a better place to go and buy players now. I remember us selling the likes of Kanoute and Marc Vivien Foe because Harry had to balance the books as such, but there’s a lot more financial clout and West Ham are a much more rounded club now.

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Looking back between the two eras, the one you played and the one you coached, which would you have preferred to play in?

The only reason I wish I could play in the current era is for the levels of professionalism. The finances are irrelevant to me to be fair, but to have the sports science, coaching, technical input behind me, I would have preferred to have had that, as I think I could have been a better player now than I was in my era.

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You’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve whenever you played for club or country. How much of that is professionalism and how much is just down to you as a character?

I think its probably more me as a person and what it meant to me to play, certainly for my country, but also all the clubs I played for. I didn’t like to lose; I didn’t like to play badly and I always wanted to be the best player on the pitch. That was my mantra. Whenever I took to a pitch I wanted to be the best player. If I couldn’t, then I’d try to do that the next week.

I was always very professional even in an era that probably wasn’t the most professional, so it was a combination of the both, but it meant a great deal to me to be a professional footballer, coming from such humble beginnings. You know, that’s probably why I realised that every day for me was a bonus.

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Do you think coming from non-league is the reason you were like that, where some who come through the academy system end up too sanitised?

Yeah, personally I do. There were a few players from the non-league set up that had turned pro at Coventry and you could tell the ones that had come through that route as they embraced it, it meant that little bit more to them, and they never got blasé about the profession.

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You’ve played for and worked with some top managers across your time in the game. Where does David Moyes rank amongst them?

Well, for worth ethic alone he’s number one. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve never seen anyone put as much effort and time. He taught me a great deal. I joined David when I was in my late 50’s and had been around the block as a player, done a few little bits and pieces as a coach and manager but with David it was an education, and I learnt a lot being alongside him.

Listen, anyone who’s managed over 1000 games and done what he has is going to be good, and at West Ham he was bringing a trophy for the first time in 40 years. I see all the good in Dave, having worked alongside him and seen how good he is at what he does, and he does everything at the club. He’s hands on with the everything, from the coaching right the way through. With David, you’ve got a workaholic who is very knowledgeable as well.

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Any regrets about leaving West Ham just before that night in Prague happened?

No. The one thing I would say about the European final is that having left the year before, I sat and watched it on TV with pride. I was covering the Champions League final a few days after so I didn’t go but I still used to go in, pop in at West Ham even after I left – would pop in once a month to see the staff.

I’d always kept in contact with David, and so if I’d seen something and I knew say, West Ham were playing Villa I would contact Dave and tell him what I’d seen in regards to preparation and things like that, but it was probably the right time for me to leave at that time.

Sitting there watching it, I just sat there with this big beaming smile on my face, that the team had won, and I knew the effort that David, his coaching staff and all the back up staff had put into it, plus the fans and the enjoyment that everyone was having on that day. And if ever there was going to be a day that you thought there was regret it was that one, and it wasn’t. It was just pride in having been a part of that on that journey.

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Stuart Pearce was speaking on behalf of BoyleSports, who offer the latest Euro 2024 betting.

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