They needed a hero. They were 11 reserve team stalwarts thrown by the vagaries of grassroots football – namely, the unscheduled pre-season departure of the club’s manager and first team – into a league five divisions higher than their accustomed level.
As Longford FC’s goal difference headed towards minus 190, cruel headlines spoke mockingly, and unfairly, of “the worst team in Britain”. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Stuart “Psycho” Pearce, formerly player and manager at Nottingham Forest, and England captain, making his debut on Saturday – at the age of 53 – in the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League, Division Two.
After a night spent watching a gig by his favourite band – The Stranglers – Pearce arrived at Longford and found himself on the bench.
“I’m an all or nothing merchant,” said the man whose USP was that anyone he tackled, stayed tackled, as he prepared for the game.
“I can say ‘enjoy the game’, but in the heat of battle … When the ball’s there and you need to win it, that might be a different matter.”
His eyes narrowed: “Getting beat won’t sit easily with me.”
It wasn’t clear what Psycho would do to the opposition; it wasn’t entirely clear what he would do to his team-mates – but they do say fear is a great motivator. “If I make a mistake,” said goalkeeper Irshad Badat, “he’ll give me one punch and knock me out cold”.
One thing, though, was certain. “It’s gone crazy,” said Mike Dean, 50, the club’s treasurer. “I’ve had people from the US, Spain, Holland contacting me and asking to play for Longford.”
So big had this become, revealed Mr Dean, that something amazing had happened: “The cactus club has let us have the village hall.”
Yes, to make way for the level of interest in Pearce’s debut, the Gloucester and District branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society had – for one week only – offered to hold its Saturday meeting somewhere other than in the village hall overlooking Longford’s pitch.
The crowd had grown from the usual one man and his dog to 454, possibly not because this was the big relegation six-pointer against second bottom Wotton Rovers.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Trevor Wakeham, from the next-door village of Longlevens, in his Nottingham Forest-issue “Psycho” T-shirt.
“Stuart Pearce was a legend for Nottingham Forest. Maybe he can be a legend for Longford.”
Pearce came on for the second half, with score at nil-nil. Playing in midfield, he won his fair share of the ball and looked dangerous – in a good way.
Two minutes into the half, the first corner he took nearly caught the Wotton Rovers goalkeeper out and very nearly went in. The keeper only just managed to scramble to tip the ball over the bar.
But even to former international players, football can be cruel. Wotton Rovers got a penalty for a handball (not by Pearce) and duly converted it.
Longford battled, Pearce battled. No equaliser came.
There to ensure maximum hoopla around his debut had been the insurance company Direct Line, which had arranged Pearce’s signing as part of its #directfix campaign. (Fixing the nation’s problems – geddit?)
They had the film crew, the “talent liaison” executives and the “STRICTLY EMBARGOED” press releases. For a village football match.It’s a shrewd sponsorship move by the insurers, though. Because, let’s face it, with the upper echelons of nearly every sport seemingly mired in corruption, when it comes to a bunch of guys with zero points and a minus 190 goal difference, you can be sure of one thing: they’re not cheating.
Until January, they hadn’t even managed to score a goal, but the proud yeomen of Longford FC refused to be downhearted.
They even went on a scoring spree after The Independent on Sunday visited that month, bagging eight goals in six matches although, admittedly, their opponents scored a total of 28 times in those games.
Being beaten 1-0 by Wotton may not have sat easily with Pearce, but he could see the positives.
They were beaten, but they weren’t getting battered any more. And he had returned to his roots. His footballing apprenticeship had been served, not in a big club’s academy with a big salary, but during five years at for non-league Wealdstone.
He knew the true spirit of grassroots football when he saw it.
“This club,” Pearce said, “has team spirit and camaraderie in abundance. Week in, week out, they play with smiles on their faces, for the love of the game. If they were just in it for silverware,” he added, “they would have given up a long time ago.”
Longford FC really liked Psycho too. That stuff about being knocked out was just a joke, said Mr Badat, still cheerful even after having had to pick the ball out of his own net some 200 times this season.
“I’m loving it,” said the 25-year-old insurance administrator. “He’s brought more confidence, more morale.”
“He’s just one of the lads,” insisted Mr Dean. “Psycho? He’s a pussycat.” Mr Dean paused. “Maybe don’t write ‘pussycat’.”