For Alex Pearce the 2011/12 season may be the season that defines his Reading career. With the departures of Zurab Khizanishvili, Ivar Ingimarsson and Matt Mills, Pearce is left as the only recognised centre back with Championship experience at the Madejski Stadium.
For many 22 year olds this would seem like unrealistic pressure, but the Oxford born Pearce has already been through enough ups and downs in his professional career that this latest twist might not faze him as much as it would many others.
After the jump I'll be taking a look back on Pearce's time at Reading and looking ahead to what we might expect from Pearce is the years ahead.
Reading signed Alex Pearce from his hometown club Oxford at the age of 12. In his early days he was seen more as a midfielder but as he went through the ranks he began to be used more and more in the centre of the defence. While during his time with the Academy, Pearce would play alongside several future first-teamers, Simon Church, Hal Robson-Kanu, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jem Karacan and James Henry.
But of all those players, Pearce was singled out for a future first-team career from an early age, signing a three-year pro deal while still just 17 and being given a squad number during the Royals first season in the Premier League. Just three months later Pearce would make his first team debut, replacing Ivar Ingimarsson during the second half of an FA Cup Third Round game against Burnley that the Royals would win 3-2, a game that also saw a debut given to an Australian goalkeeper named Adam Federici.
Still, with just five substitutes allowed in the Premier League at that time and Royals out of the cup in the fifth round, Pearce was allowed to join League One Northampton on-loan. He stayed with the club until the end of the season featuring 15 times and scoring his first professional goal in a 2-1 win over a Scunthorpe side that included Marcus Williams. During his time with the Cobblers Pearce was praised by the coaching staff, particularly for his maturity and also for his positional play.
The young defender came back to Reading in time for the end of the reserve team season, captaining and scoring for the side in a 2-0 win over Bolton in the Premier League Reserve League Final.
Pearce stayed with the team through the summer and took part in several of our pre-season games and made the trip to Korea to take part in the Peace Cup. However the young defender found first team opportunities hard to come by, managing just one minute as a substitute in our second round league cup tie with Swansea. With his chances again limited, Pearce once again made a loan move, joining team-mates James Henry, Jem Karacan and Scott Golbourne on the South Coast at Bournemouth. Pearce stayed with the Cherries until the turn of the year but couldn't help turn around the fortunes of a side who would end up relegated at the end of the season.
Back at Reading and the Academy graduate was thrust into the limelight when he put in a steady display against fellow Premier League side Tottenham in an FA Cup replay at the Madejski that Reading lost 1-0. Despite performing well the defender could find no way past the more experienced quartet of Sonko, Ingimarsson, Bikey and Duberry so was once again allowed to leave the club on loan, this time to Championship Norwich, where Pearce played 11 times as the Canaries, featuring regularly alongside future Royals loanee Ryan Bertrand as well as Reading hero Jamie Cureton. Pearce was even named Man of the Match on his debut against Barnsley. But Pearce was also to experience lows at Carrow Road, none more so then scoring an own goal against fierce rivals Ipswich.
The Royals relegation from the top flight at the end of the 2007/08 season put Pearce into the spotlight for a first team place, a prospect that was further enhanced by the departure of Ibrahima Sonko to Stoke before the end of August and injuries to Michael Duberry and Ivar Ingimarsson. Pearce made his league debut in a 4-2 home win over Crystal Palace and followed that up with starting roles in the next three games before losing his place in the team to the more experienced Andre Bikey. However Pearce's role in the team didn't go unnoticed with fans on HNA? who started touting Pearce as a future captain, a call echoed by assistant manager Kevin Dillion.
But with Duberry also fit again Pearce was then allowed to join Championship rivals Southampton on a loan deal until January. He then made an immediate impression on the Saints fans with a goal on his debut, as Southampton came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Preston. The defender added another goal two games later against Wolves and would make 9 appearances in all on the South Coast before returning to the Madejski Stadium in time for an FA Cup tie with Cardiff.
Pearce started in a 2-0 defeat at Ninian Park and shortly after was back in the league side on a regular basis, partnering Ivar Ingimarsson and then Michael Duberry as Reading vied with Wolves and Birmingham for the Championship title. However Pearce's return coincided with a dramatic loss of form for the team, as Steve Coppell's side failed to win a home league game after January and almost dropped out of the promotion race completely.
With the team struggling for goals, Pearce was sacrificed for a more attacking defender in Andre Bikey who kept the Oxford born man out of the side until the second leg of the play-off semi-final when suspension for Bikey saw Pearce step in. All in all, Pearce made 14 league starts for the club in the 2008/09 season and had now accumulated just under 30 Championship starts for Norwich, Southampton and Reading.
During that season Pearce also represented Scotland at Under 21 level, making his debut in a 3-1 defeat to Northern Ireland.
Defeat to Burnley in the play-offs spelled the end of an era at the club, with Steve Coppell and the bulk of the management team departing, as well as Duberry and several other first teamers. In came Brendan Rodgers, a man who had been Reading's Academy director when Pearce was in the youth set-up and the Northern Irishman chose Pearce as his vice captain saying,
"In terms of Alex, I know that over time he can progress into a natural captain and he can learn from guys like Ivar. I want to help Alex in his progress because he is a natural leader of this club. He will learn as vice captain and be mentored to become captain one day."
However, with Ingimarsson still suffering from injury it would be left to Pearce to captain a young Reading side in the first few games of the season, starting with a 0-0 home draw against Nottingham Forest. Reading played ok in that game but their first away game at Newcastle was a disaster, with the team played off the park in a 3-0 defeat. Pearce himself was partly at fault for the second goal, switching off thinking the ball was going out of play when it didn't.... Newcastle retrieved the ball and promptly crossed for a second goal and that was that.
(see 3.15 onwards)
Reading's form continued to suffer, with Rodgers struggling to find a winning formula, but Pearce helped secure the team's first win when he scored the equaliser in a 3-1 win at Barnsley at the end of August.
After starting the first eight games of the season Pearce was then given a 'mental and physical break' by Rodgers who seemed to admit the defender was feeling the weight of responsibility.
"It’s been a big ask for him. He was carrying a young squad with big responsibilities and he will be able to do that, there’s no question.
"There’s been a lot of pressure on Alex as a young captain so I just felt for a couple of games just to let him return to a bit of normality for a bit and give him a mental rest as well.
"It’s just giving him the mental breather as much as anything as well as the physical breather."
Pearce remained out of the side for five games before coming back into the starting lineup and played in the next 8 games before Brendan Rodgers was sacked. Brian McDermott came in and while Pearce featured for the first few games, he was soon replaced in the starting lineup by Matt Mills who also took the captains armband, with Pearce forced to settle for a place on the bench. Still the defender signed a new deal with the club in February of 2010 committing himself to the club for another three years.
Even so, the rest of the season was a frustrating experience for the former Vice-Captain, who had gone from being labelled the next John Terry to finding himself fourth choice behind Mills, Ingimarsson and loan signing Zurab Khizanishvili.
Going into the following season Pearce was once again primed for a place in the starting lineup with Ingimarsson injured and the club unable to bring back Khizanishvili on loan. Some fans questioned Pearce's long term future at the club on message boards, with the defenders lack of pace and questionable distribution being question marks. I myself wondered whether Pearce would ever establish himself as a regular starter at Championship level, questioning if his development had stalled in the previous 18 months.
Still, Pearce partnered Mills throughout the opening games of the season and scored in a 1-1 home draw against Nottingham Forest at the Madejski as Reading made a steady if not spectacular start to the season.
Even when Khizanishvili returned to the club on transfer deadline day, Pearce retained his place in the defence, winning praise from Royals fans for his determination and work rate and was recognised as one of Reading's best players during the first half of the campaign. Just when Pearce looked to have finally established himself in the starting XI, the centre-back suffered a leg injury that would keep him out for several weeks. In his absence the team went on a superb run of form all the way to the Play-Off final at Wembley, where Pearce was forced to watch from the bench as the Royals fell 4-2 to Swansea.
Now once again Pearce is presented with a chance to make the centre back position his own. With Mills, Ingimarsson and Khizanishvili all gone, Pearce finds himself as the senior centre-back at the club and first choice at the time of writing.
If I'd been writing this article this time last year I might have been more worried, but his progression last season was one of the biggest plus points of the campaign and he's finally delivering on the promise that has been teased throughout his early career. In a way perhaps Pearce has been a victim of his own success or punished for the labels pinned on him by others. Having been touted as a future captain by so many and then given the armband at just 21 it can't have been easy and the fact remains that Alex is just 22 going into this season.
Personally I'm looking forward to how he gets on this season. Ideally you'd like to put somebody with real pace alongside him, especially with our full-backs lack of pace, but given the right partner I can see him being a key player in our long-term future. Hopefully this season he'll begin to write himself into the Reading history books alongside the likes of Martin Hicks, Ady Williams and Ivar Ingimarsson.