Big thanks to Rob Langham, from the estimable Two Unfortunates website, who has been good enough to to take time out from editing the thinking man’s Football League website to offer us some background on Derby’s new centre back, Alex Pearce.
The key points to emerge here seem to be that Pearce is a whole-hearted, aerially dominant, old-school defender and leader. However, there are significant weaknesses to his game, in that he’s no ball player and is one-footed (right). He has a Championship promotion on his CV, but looked out of his depth in the Promised Land – and ultimately, Rob questions whether Pearce is actually better than what we’ve already got.
Interestingly, he is almost exactly the same age and height as both Raúl Albentosa and Ryan Shotton. All three are 6’3″ or so and were born within a few weeks of each other in 1988.
A few years back, Reading assistant manager Kevin Dillon predicted that the teenager Alex Pearce would end up playing ‘goodness knows how many games’ for the club. Pearce always seemed to be the youth product to define all youth products, a latter-day answer to the club captain and legend Martin Hicks, who played 500 games for Reading between 1978 and 1991.
So it came as some surprise when the Oxfordshire-born central defender finally moved on this summer, having chalked up almost 200 matches for the Royals.
Tall, imposing and willing to plunge his head into a forest of hobnail boots, the privately-educated Pearce – who seemed more suited to the officers’ mess – would engage charmingly when asked for autographs and never gave less than a hundred percent.
While Reading charted the choppy waters of the Premier League between 2006 and 2008, Pearce gained experience elsewhere. Loan spells at Northampton, Bournemouth, Norwich and Southampton were inauspicious, although central defence is generally no position for a youngster and the opportunity to play at a higher level than Royals’ loanees are usually accustomed to did a lot to toughen him up.
That experience meant that Pearce was fully ready for Championship football after the great 2005-8 team broke up. Brendan Rodgers quickly promoted him to vice-captain and he flourished despite a difficult half-season for the Ulsterman.
Rodgers’ attempt to impose a pure passing game seemed more suitable for the lab than the football pitch, especially with players like Pearce in the side. He’s typical of the English central defender, in that the ball on the deck has always caused him problems. He needs a split-second longer than most to gain control and seek a pass, so it’s a credit to his character that his other attributes can often mask this deficiency.
As Brian McDermott took over as manager and eventually took Reading to a second Championship title in six seasons, Pearce’s attributes were very much to the fore. He formed a terrific partnership with Kaspars Gorkšs, the Latvian’s left foot allowing Pearce to play on the right of the pairing (as a natural one-footer, he has never been comfortable when asked to play left centre back). His fine leadership and encouragement of others, his strength in the air, ability to lose a marker on the back post and set up goals from set pieces, plus an tendency to weigh in with the odd crucial goal himself, eventually earned him that title winner’s medal.
In the Premier League, Pearce looked way short of being good enough, as did Gorkšs and pretty much every other Reading player. Perhaps most disappointingly, a contract stand-off also involving Hal Robson-Kanu poisoned the water early on, amid rumours that Liverpool were interested. The feeling that both players had got ideas above their station was unavoidable. For such a level-headed man as Pearce, this was surprising.
International caps have followed for the Republic of Ireland and he has generally done well in the Green, while if I were to pick out significant games in his Reading career, a brave rearguard action in a 1-0 defeat at Manchester City might stand out. Royals held out until the dying moments, before Nicky Shorey was outjumped on the back post – but Pearce was outstanding on the day.
From the outside looking in, Derby’s big Achilles heel of the past two seasons has been central defence, with Richard Keogh, for all the willing effort, not matching the talent of the midfield players and strikers ahead of him. The arrival of Pearce would seem to be a solution to that weakness, while Chris Baird is a versatile performer and could fill in at centre back or, more likely, function in a holding role in front of the centre half duo.
If we are talking ‘Moneyball’, then Derby County have been shrewd in choosing a player who has something on his CV that is identical to what they wish to achieve. However, whether the former Royal really improves the Rams’ back line is debatable.