The ugly side of football has again reared it's head recently as Reading become embroiled in a contract dispute that's seemingly keeping their reigning player of the season firmly on the sidelines. With negotiations nowhere near complete and the January window looming ever nearer, have we seen the last of Alex Pearce in a Reading shirt?
How have we gotten to this point?
I won't go into his career back story as I've already covered that a year or so ago in 'The ups and downs of Alex Pearce'.
The key point is that the defender played every minute of every league game as Reading stormed to the title, with the defender grabbing some key goals along the way. In recognition of his performances the fans voted him player of the season and few disputed he'd be a starter the following season.
The signing of Adrian Mariappa did raise some question marks, with the young defender being signed for a hefty fee of over £2 million but with the only other competition an untested Sean Morrison and an ageing Kaspars Gorkss again few would have seriously questioned Pearce's future.
However things didn't go to plan for Reading in the opening few games as they lost three out of their first four Premier League games while also putting in a shaky display at home to Peterborough in the Capital One Cup. Pearce himself had performed fairly well throughout those opening games and was by most people's opinion the highlight of a defence that as a unit just wasn't working.
In response to the team's poor form, Brian McDermott made sweeping changes and of the back four that started on the opening day, only Gorkss survived by the time we beat QPR in the league cup back in September. With a win under their belts it was unsurprising to see McDermott keep a settled side despite leaking two goals but nine goals followed in the next four league games with no win and so many began to wonder when, rather than if Pearce would come back in to the side.
However despite the continual leaking of goals and the suspect performances no change was made. Even in the league cup Pearce was overlooked for Sean Morrison who was then part of a defence that conceded seven goals.
Then with Mariappa out injured against QPR, McDermott again elected to pick Morrison over the fit and ready Pearce, who was consigned to the U21s side that beat West Brom.
Throughout this Brian had remained silent on the issue of Pearce's omission, sticking to his usual line that he had a squad and was using it in the best way possible. However, when directly asked by Get Reading's Jonny Fordham about why the defender wasn't selected here were his comments.
"We shall see what happens this week. There is a possibility that there will be talks between Alex, his representative and Nick Hammond. When I first made the decision to leave Alex out (his contract situation) had no bearing whatsoever.
Alex has a choice to make and so does his agent. Sean Morrison is now in the team, proved a point and proved he can play at this level. He is very much in contention to play because we know he can do it. He's committed and has a three-year deal."
So while it's not a cast iron 'he's been dropped because of his contract' it's interesting that Brian chose the phrase 'when I first made the decision' rather than saying it was a tactical decision that had kept him out ever since. The phrase about commitment is also rather glaring and there's little doubt that the contract situation is playing a part in his thoughts over the centre-back.
So where do we go from here and what can it tell us about the way the club is being run right now?
Is dropping Pearce the right decision tactically?
As mentioned, you can understand the initial decision to drop Pearce for the QPR game. Reading hadn't beaten Premier League opposition and while Pearce was looking solid, he wasn't a stand out MOTM every week for a side that was performing well.
You can see why Brian would want to give his new signing a chance and to be fair to Adrian Mariappa he hasn't done badly, looking probably the better of the three other centre backs that have played over Pearce.
Gorkss himself has been hit and miss but the fact he's got more experience and a left foot could be a tactical reason as to why the former vice-captain has been kept out of the side.
Sean Morrison has likewise done little wrong, putting in decent enough performances against Arsenal and QPR, despite the avalanche of goals in the former of those games.
Where these arguments fall down is that while Brian has been bold and changed his defence repeatedly, Pearce has never once earned a recall despite the ineffectiveness of his centre-halves. Gorkss was just woeful against Arsenal, with his mistake just before half time showing a man tired and lacking in confidence. The QPR game presented a perfect chance to clear the decks but again the Latvian got the nod. While he scored and played OK, it was another game that Reading lost a lead and another without a clean sheet.
Is Pearce good enough?
This one's harder to answer because we don't see him every day but he didn't look out of his depth in his five games this season and as mentioned he was probably our most consistent defender across those games.
There have always been some concerns about his pace and mobility but his reading of the game has come on a hell of a lot in the last 18 months and he's looked the fittest and most athletic he's ever been at the start of the year.
Pearce only turns 24 this week so there's plenty of room to develop and the progression he's made in recent years backs up the praise and high regard he was held in as a youngster.
Would Pearce have made much of a difference to games this year? Again it's hard to tell but he couldn't have performed any worse and I'd bet on him being better than Morrison and Gorkss across a seven game stretch. That being said he wouldn't have helped with our lack of depth in midfield which to me is where the true problem lies.
Why the freeze out?
Looking at things from Reading's point of view, you can understand why they want to get themselves into a good bargaining position.
By dropping Pearce you force the defender out of the spotlight and into a position where he just wants to play. You also press home the fact that you want commitment from the entire squad which sends out a strong message to anyone else who might want to hold out on signing a new deal.
You also prevent a Steve Sidwell or Linvoy Primus scenario, where the club develops a young talent and makes him a core part of the starting XI, only to see them leave for a rival on a free transfer. It wouldn't do the club's long term position much good to be denying Morrison or Mariappa game time and development time at the expense of a man who might not be around in six months time.
There's also been rumours in the press that Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has 'turned his head'with a £50,000 a week offer but again we're told that that is absolute rubbish. Even without sources telling us, it seems far fetched to suggest that five games into a season he's had his head turned and that's the reason for dropping him.
Will he and should he sign?
Get Reading sources have said that Pearce has been offered a three-year deal and our own sources have confirmed that meetings have taken place this week with an initial contract offer being prepared. However, prior to this week the discussions have been almost non-existent since the summer. It seems stupid that this situation has even been allowed to get to this stage as both club and player should have sorted out a new deal before the season kicked-off.
However, the club decided to focus on recruiting new players while tying down the likes of Adam Federici and Jem Karacan meaning Pearce has had to wait patiently for the full focus of the club's management.
Pearce isn't blameless for the delay as a summer change of agent won't have helped speed things up, as his new agent tries to get the player the best deal possible. You can't 100% blame the agent for this, after all that's his job to get his client a good deal. Any agent isn't just going to jump at the first offer presented to his player, not when that player is a key cog in a Premier League side and especially at a club who have just got new rich owners and have handed out some fairly hefty deals.
It's that last point that we understand has been a major sticking point in the contract talks. Pearce wants to commit his future to the club but at the moment hasn't received an offer that puts him on a par with many of his peers. We're not privy to the exact numbers but we're he's after something along the lines of what has been given to players like Jobi McAnuff and Adrian Mariappa, rather than someone like Pavel Pogrebnyak or even Adam Federici who signed a lucrative new deal this summer.
Now again that's only one side of the story but given what we know of Pearce's history and character, I really can't believe that he's a mercenary holding the club to ransom by demanding to be on a par with a Russian international. This is a man that in every interview just talks about playing football and you could see from his reactions on the pitch to scoring goals or at the end of games how much he loves the club.
He's not a flashy player off the pitch either, regularly described as one of the more down to earth in the dressing room and you've never heard of him getting involved in boozy night in the city, unlike one other centre back at the club....
Looking at it from Pearce's view here's what you've now got in front of you.
You're fourth choice defender.
Your international prospects are being serverly dented by not playing, risking your chance to cement your place in a squad in transition.
You can walk away on a free transfer at the end of the season and secure a big signing on fee securing your financial future.
You can also now secure a move in January at a cut down rate that also secures your short-term future.
You can sign for Reading, knowing you've got management that's frozen you out for non-footballing reasons in the past and at a club that right now is an odds on favorite to be relegated.
Which would you choose?
Sadly there's no real winner from this as it stands. Pearce has missed out on valuable Premier League game time and Brian McDermott hasn't been able to play one of his best players due to matters off the pitch. With Morrison showing his capabilities at QPR, Pearce can't even be sure of a place in the team if he signs and if he's not going to be a first choice centre back, again why would you want to sign?
We also don't know the long-term damage this dispute is doing to the relationship between the club and player, or between the club and it's playing staff in general. While this firm stance may convince some to sign early, others might well be turned off by such a heavy handed approach, while others may wonder whether the club is more concerned with a wage budget that staying up.
How will it all end?
I really, really hope this issue gets resolved and for those that doubt my sources or opinions, I hope you're right and I'm wrong.
Sadly right now this seems to be only going one way and baring an injury crisis I do seriously fear we've now seen the last of Alex Pearce in a Reading shirt. Like I said, I very much hope not, that the talks move forward positively this week and it's all resolved, I just have a gut feeling the two sides might not be able to agree to a deal.
But how do you see the situation? Would you break the bank to convince him to stay or do you support the club omitting a player that's only got just over six months left on his deal.