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War & Pearce: Happy families or lasting scars?

Alex Pearce ended 12 months of uncertainty by signing a new deal this week to put an end to a year to forget for both club and player. At Reading we're not really used to bitter contract disputes. Sure Darren Caskey felt betrayed by Alan Pardew a decade ago and the fans felt let down by Steve Sidwell's and Glen Little's decision to move on during our first Premier League foray, but few disputes have had such a direct affect on team selection and direction than Alex Pearce's wrangles over the past 12 months. Sadly, I can't get over the nagging question of whether there's been lasting damage to both player and club?

Julian Finney

For a detailed background to the whole dispute I'll direct you to this piece I wrote back in November, but in a nutshell, Pearce was effectively frozen out of the team for long periods in large part due to his refusal to sign a new contract as his final year of his current deal wound down.

While Pearce did play 21 games last season, it was still a dramatic drop from his ever-present and player of the year performances in 2011/12 and even if the centre-back wasn't quite as excellent on the pitch, the fact that the woefully exposed Kaspars Gorkss was continually selected ahead of Pearce was baffling to fans of a club knee deep in relegation worries.

Ultimately the defender has now signed a new contract but in the meantime Pearce has lost out on the chance to gain more Premier League experience, has seen his club rival Sean Morrison impress and dented his short-term International ambitions with the Republic of Ireland.

From the club's point of view, their decision to let Pearce get to the final year of his deal seems a costly mistake, with the decision to freeze him out of the team due to contract issues looking petty and foolish to many fans who were desperate to see their side give themselves the best possible chance of survival.

So why did it get to this point?

Well here's what Pearce said after signing.

"It has taken a little while but I always said that I wanted to stay at Reading and I'm so thankful that I can be a Reading player. I've said that I wanted to feel valued, and that's the case now."

The not feeling valued part is what splits the fans and their opinion on the whole saga.

Sources have told the Tilehurst End that for Pearce it was simply a case of gaining parity with other players in the first team squad. It wasn't about being the top earner but more about getting the same type of deal that new recruits were being offered as well as some of the increases handed out to other promotion winners. Figures on this are fuzzy but sources have again said he was after a wage under that of Adam Federici, who reportedly earned a significant pay rise when he signed his new deal in the summer.

However, maybe the club just didn't feel Pearce was worth as much as others in the squad.

Brian McDermott had given plenty of indications that maybe he didn't rate Pearce as highly as some others. For example, Pearce was often overlooked for Zurab Khizanishvili and Matt Mills, while McDermott clearly rated Sean Morrison and seemingly thought Adrian Mariappa was a good defender if he was prepared to spend over £2 million on signing him. There's always been questions about Pearce's pace and ball-playing ability so maybe this was simply a case of the club not valuing the defender enough to give him the contract he wanted.

Those points are all valid but what can't be understood is the way that Reading wasted a key asset in their ultimately futile pursuit of Premier League survival. While McDermott and the club may have felt that Pearce wasn't a player worth a large new Premier League deal, he was almost certainly an upgrade on this season's Sean Morrison and unquestionably would have put in better performances than were shown by Kaspars Gorkss.

Would we have stayed up with 38 games from Pearce? Probably not, but certainly having our best XI out on a more regular basis can't have done us any harm.

We won't know who made the decision to freeze Pearce out but whether it was McDermott, Nick Hammond or Anton Zingarevich, it seems a remarkable act of stubbornness.

Steve Sidwell had shown that a player who's soon to be out of contract can still give 100% and help his team so why didn't Reading place the same faith in Pearce?

So has that stubbornness paid off for the club?

The jury's out.

On the one hand you can say that by sticking to their guns and showing that no player is bigger than the club, they've sent a powerful message out to other players and their agents looking for new deals and pay rises. Certainly some of the young players at the club might think twice about getting to the final year of their contract and risking time out of the limelight.

They've also given Sean Morrison a chance to show what he can do and it sends out a positive message that younger players who are committed and bide their time will get a chance eventually.

Reading have also probably saved themselves money by signing Pearce at a Championship rate and due to the club's relegation, saving pennies is probably a good thing right now.

On the other hand, will this damage the family and friendly image of the club? For Reading to act this way with such a loyal servant doesn't look particularly great to potential new recruits and those coming through the ranks. More importantly, those within the first team dressing room can't have been happy to have their own Premier League survival prospects dented by decisions made for non-footballing reasons.

However, let's not absolve the player of blame for his problems.

The decision to switch agents as you enter your final year of a deal is never going to make negotiations easier. As a relatively new agent on the block, David Robson-Kanu, brother of Hal Robson-Kanu, was always going to be looking at a deal that impressed his client, looked good to others looking for an agent and also giving him a nice pay day in the process. While I can't say I enjoy the role agents play within the modern game, I can't blame them for trying to get the best for themselves and their clients, afterall it's their job to maximise earnings.

At the same time, maybe either the player, the agent or both were being too optimistic with their hopes. While Pearce had a growing reputation, perhaps they could have settled for a lower deal with the hopes that a full season of performing in Premier League football would lead to a new deal sooner. Players such as Kevin Doyle, Dave Kitson and Stephen Hunt all were rewarded for good Premier League form as was Adam Le Fondre this season. While Pearce would have missed out on a lucrative signing bonus by staying with Reading, he could have helped boost his long-term prospects by signing a new deal and then making noises about leaving or getting another fresh contract.

So what's the end result of all this?

Well Reading have got a very good Championship defender on a new two-year contract, while the player himself ends the uncertainty over his future and gets to stay where he's been for more then ten years.

In that respect it's win win, but sadly Reading dented their survival hopes and Pearce damaged his reputation with a section of the fanbase by refusing to sign earlier. More importantly for the football focused Pearce, he gave rival Sean Morrison a big, big window to showcase his talents and Pearce will by no means just be able to walk straight into the starting lineup next season.

Hopefully this will be looked back on as nothing more than a 'playground scrap' in the long-term, with Pearce continuing to improve and Reading regaining Premier League status. However If nether of those things happen then from the players point of view in particular he may well live to regret the events of the past 12 months, even if he wasn't the driving force behind the problems.