Lita completes comeback for young Lions
Under-21: England 2-2 SpainLeroy Lita nodded home a 79th-minute equaliser to seal a famous comeback on Stuart Pearce's bow as England Under-21 coach.
Outplayed against Spain, trailing by two goals and booed off at the break, Pearce rallied his young charges at the break and David Nugent struck almost instantly to bring England back into the Pride Park contest.
Then, with time ticking down, Lita, the man who put Pearce through agony with his match-winning brace for Reading against Manchester City at the weekend, leapt above the visitors defence to meet Curtis Davies' cross and plant a header into the bottom corner.
Had Spain keeper Antonio Adan not flown across his goal to push away an injury-time piledriver from Kieran Richardson, England would have won. Instead, Pearce had to settle for a draw in his first - and last - game in charge before next summer's European Championships.
After all the protracted negotiations and compromise that gained his release from club duties, Pearce had stood in his dug-out for the national anthem on a freezing cold evening, proudly wearing his dark blue England tracksuit, those famous Three Lions on his chest, just as they had been 78 times during his own illustrious playing career.
An expectant crowd, many of whom were too young to have witnessed Pearce in his pomp, roused themselves in anticipation of a bright new era. Then the first-half started.
It soon became clear Pearce might be in for a difficult evening as the visitors, with Jose Jurado particularly impressive, playing neat passes and keeping possession while England reverted to stereotype and belted long balls towards the corners.
David Bentley apart, no-one in white caught the eye, although at least Davies ensured the new shirts launched by Umbro yesterday were given a thorough modelling.
The West Brom man got through three in the opening 45 minutes, a legacy of a bloody bang on the nose following a penalty box challenge with Spain keeper Adan.
Spain could hardly claim to have carved out a glut of chances but it was still no great shock when they took the lead following a couple of defensive blunders.
First Scott Carson, then Davies, failed miserably to clear their lines, allowing Raul Garcia to nip in and feed Roberto Soldado, who promptly swept round the two chastened England players and blasted into an empty net.
It got even worse in stoppage time when the home defence seemed to stand off their opponents, offering enough space for a move which saw Antonio Barragan exchange passes with Soldado, who then provided Jurado with the chance to execute the coolest of finishes.
The scoreline, and the boos which accompanied the hosts down the tunnel at half-time, were an eerie reminder of the treatment Pearce has suffered at Manchester City recently, where the last two Premiership games have resulted in 3-0 and 2-0 home defeats to Blackburn and Reading respectively.
Unlike at City though, Pearce had a few capable strikers to call upon and four minutes after the restart, Preston striker Nugent, who will attempt to knock Pearce out of the FA Cup in 12 days' time, rammed home decisively after the Spain defence had failed to deal with Bentley's inswinging free-kick.
The goal did not really spark England into life given Spain continued to enjoy plenty of possession and substitute Francisco Xisco belted a low shot against a post which could easily have sealed victory.
But Nugent's effort gave the hosts hope and for the second time in four days, Pearce saw Lita finish with clinical efficiency, this time with a firm header from Davies' right-wing cross.
The striker's celebrations were as enthusiastic as they had been at the weekend. This time though, Pearce was able to join in.
New England Under-21 boss Stuart Pearce is convinced a 'bloody nose' now could send the Three Lions roaring to European Championship glory this summer.
The protracted wrangle between the Football Association and Manchester City to free Pearce to take charge looked like backfiring at half-time at Pride Park as Spain swept into a two-goal lead.
Yet, after being booed off at the break, Pearce's interval team-talk inspired his young charges to greater efforts after the break, with goals from David Nugent and Leroy Lita completing a thrilling comeback.
The elation at grabbing a 2-2 draw was not enough to disguise the way England had been badly outplayed in that opening period, with Pearce accepting Spain's superiority.
'For 45 minutes, Spain were outstanding,' he said. 'We were tentative and possibly a little bit frightened and they pushed us right onto the back foot.
'But I said at half-time a bloody nose now could stand us in good stead next summer. But credit to the players, they were ones who got themselves going and in the end, we were the ones who looked most likely to win.'
Ironically, Lita scored a brace to defeat Pearce's City team when he turned out for Reading in the Premiership on Saturday.
Tonight, having left the forward out of his starting line-up, Pearce was able to join in the celebrations when the forward nodded home 12 minutes from time.
'I told all the players they will play some part between now and the start of the championships,' said Pearce.
'But Leroy has done himself a favour with the contribution he made when he came on.'
Even with things going badly wrong for his team at the break, Pearce resisted the temptation to lay into the players, maintaining a calm approach even though he would not have been scared to administer a few harsh words if he felt they had been necessary.
'Sometimes, young lads can be more grown up than you give them credit for,' he said. 'You can speak to them honestly and get a reaction.
'Spain were better than us in every department in those opening 45 minutes. I asked them to do something about it and we did.'
Given Spain were knocked out of the European Championships by Italy, who will face England in the group stages in Holland this summer, Pearce knows he has a tough task ahead if he is to achieve his aim of winning the competition.
In addition to the players at his disposal this evening, he could also call on Aaron Lennon and Micah Richards, who are both established members of the senior squad yet still eligible for Under-21 duty.
'I have not spoken to Steve McClaren or Trevor Brooking about the situation but I always feel having tournament football, at whatever level, is invaluable experience for the years ahead,' he said.
The chances are Lennon and Richards will be involved, although certainly not another Under-21 player in the England set-up, Wayne Rooney.
'He is still young enough,' smiled Pearce. 'I might just slip a little note under his door.'