Sunday 25 February 2018

Irishman Alex Pearce aims to deliver knockout blow to Arsenal in FA Cup

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The spirit of the underdog lives in the corner of Alex Pearce's living room, a fitting source of inspiration ahead of this evening's FA Cup semi-final.

When Pearce, the Irish international and captain of the Reading side that will be attempting to upset Arsenal, moved into his plush abode in the leafy Berkshire countryside, his father Don turned up with an unexpected and expensive housewarming present.

Knowing that his son was a boxing enthusiast, Don had gone the extra mile. He presented a glass case containing a framed picture of Henry Cooper knocking down Muhammad Ali at the old Wembley in 1963 and a signed glove of historic significance.

"The glove you see there is the actual glove that's in the photos," explains Pearce. "That's Henry Cooper's glove, the glove that knocked Ali down.

"I said to my dad, 'How much has that cost you?' and he wouldn't tell me. He went down to an auction, had a few drinks, got a bit competitive with another fella and ended up getting it."

The imposing centre-half is proud of the tale. He's from a close-knit family and, just as our discussion ends, the doorbell rings with his brother Charlie waiting ahead of a trip to London to celebrate their father's 58th birthday.

Alex Pearce celebrates putting Reading into the lead at the Madejski Stadium
Alex Pearce celebrates putting Reading into the lead at the Madejski Stadium

Don's ability to secure an impressive piece of memorabilia would suggest he has succeeded in his own field.

"He's got his own building company, his own firm," his son explains. "He's done well for himself."

Pearce, who has won six Irish caps, grew up in an environment that is slightly different to the average footballer.

The well-spoken native of Oxford attended The Oratory, a rugby school better known for producing poets and politicians.

"I suppose the majority (of other players) don't have that background," he muses. "They didn't go to those sort of schools but I enjoyed it.

"Rugby is a great sport. I played fly-half or centre. A bit of kicking, a bit of kicking the opposition as well, but you'd get stuck in. It toughened you up."

He was destined for a career with the round ball by the time he was 12, however. The Manchester United fan, a childhood admirer of Roy Keane, was playing his football with Oxford United when a notable delegation from Reading came to watch him.

A youthful Brendan Rodgers and Nick Hammond invited Pearce to the academy and that was the start of his 14-year association with his current employers.

The one-club man is a rarity in today's game, and it explains why the prospect of leading the Royals out at the home of English football means so much to him.


Alex Pearce
Alex Pearce

It's a reward for lasting the course, the initial trips from Oxford a couple of times a week which grew into a professional scholarship at 16, stints on loan to build character and, eventually, a regular role in the first team. Rodgers was a formative influence before he departed for Chelsea, and another Irishman, Eamonn Dolan, was a major part of his teenage development.

Pearce was thrilled when the current Liverpool boss came back to the Madejski Stadium as manager in 2009 and placed his trust in the emerging defender. Indeed, he rated the academy graduate so highly that he publicly suggested Pearce could function as Reading's John Terry. He even put the youngster in touch with the Stamford Bridge legend.

"It was a nice gesture," the player recalls. "He said, 'Pearcey, I'll give you John Terry's number, I'll put you in contact with him and you can chat with him and get some advice'. We exchanged a few texts and it was really nice of him to do that. It was a nice touch from Brendan, from both of them."

His good relationship with the Antrim man added weight to rumours that Liverpool were contemplating a move two seasons ago when Pearce was struggling to agree a new contract.

"It was very flattered to be linked with it but you'd have to ask other people about that," he says. "It's not for me to comment on."

The deal that he signed to end rumours about his future expires this summer and no discussions have taken place with new manager Steve Clarke or the hierarchy about an extension. Pearce gives the impression that he is satisfied in his current environment, but knows that circumstances can change quickly.

He likes his role as captain which he regained after a rocky patch earlier this season and, while he cuts a relaxed figure in his own surroundings, stresses that he can be a different animal on match-day.

Pearce loves the game, and like most fans he enjoys sitting down on a Monday to watch the analysis of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher; it has allowed him to study the Arsenal group they are looking to take down. But his philosophy on the trade is straightforward and he is wary of over-thinking things.

"In the changing room I'm not very relaxed, I get wired into it then and psyched up but I think it's important not to build the game up in your mind into something that it's not," he asserts.

"It's a game of football, I'm simplistic in that view. You're allowed to enjoy it. It's a game where you can go out and test yourself against world-class players. These are the games you should relish.

"People say, 'How do you enjoy it?' You enjoy it by going there, competing and doing the right things. Let them know they're in a game."

Aside from the stress of organising tickets, these are the occasions that the 26-year-old has spent his life working towards, and he is conscious that involvement in these fixtures can build his profile and further his international ambitions.

Pearce has another photo on the mantelpiece which captures him on the bench at the Aviva Stadium during the anthems on the opening night of the Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane era. He's hoping to create some new memories on the pitch, but he's had to be patient waiting for his opportunity. "It's a pleasure to be involved in such a great set-up," he asserts. The Irish connection is through his late grandmother Charlotte, Don's mother, who moved to Oxford early in her life but retained her patriotism.

Pearce has Scottish qualifications on his mother's side and did appear for the Tartan Army at U-21 level but Ireland was his preference and he accepted the call from Giovanni Trapattoni in 2012. The clan are coming across for the Euro 2016 qualifier with the Scots in June.

"I was very close to my grandmother as a kid," he says. "She was fully Irish and we had some great times with her, she's sadly missed in the family.

"You're playing for people like her really, you're representing Ireland for yourselves and people like her. My dad is very proud when I get selected to go and play, as am I. I hope we can do something special and make it to the Euros."

Before that, he must deal with the stiff challenge presented by Arsene Wenger's hot favourites. Given his affinity with Manchester United, Pearce was no fan of the Gunners when he was growing up.


The scraps between Keane and Vieira and Ruud van Nistelrooy and Martin Keown spring to mind.

He actually shares a dressing room now with Keown's son Niall who has declared for Ireland at U-21 level. Causing a shock would prolong a campaign that has proved a disappointment. On Tuesday, Reading lost to a Bournemouth side that is on course for promotion to the Premier League and he's envious of his peers that are in the shake-up.

"The Championship is a war of attrition, it really is," he sighs. "And it's the team that can gain momentum and keep it through consistency that can be successful in the end.

"It's been a tough year for us in the league and the cup has been a nice distraction. And the chance to play at Wembley, it means the absolute world to me."

In this arena, large reputations can tumble. Pearce is determined to create a lasting image from his biggest bout.

Reading v Arsenal,

Live, BBC1, 5.20

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