Ex-Leeds, Bournemouth and Charlton defender Jason Pearce: I joined Portsmouth three times before my breakthrough, but that's me. I want to prove people wrong, to come back stronger, come back fighting

It is perhaps fitting that Jason Pearce should twice be shown the Pompey exit by the age of 19, before clambering to his feet to stage a remarkable Fratton Park comeback.

Thursday, 26th May 2022, 6:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th May 2022, 9:19 pm
Jason Pearce was crowned The News/Sports Mail's Player Of The Season for 2011-12. Picture: Steve Reid
Jason Pearce was crowned The News/Sports Mail's Player Of The Season for 2011-12. Picture: Steve Reid

As a dogged and stubbornly belligerent central defender, he has chiselled away a career with Bournemouth, Leeds, Wigan and Charlton, winning three promotions in the battle to prove people wrong.

Yet his beginnings were beset with potentially crippling blows, brushed off with customary nonchalance before powering ahead with admirable bloody-mindedness.

Firstly the Blues deemed him not good enough, then, in his second spell, Harry Redknapp offloaded him to Bournemouth without a transfer fee required or first-team game to his name.

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In June 2011, the Fleet-born defender returned for a third shot, albeit costing Pompey £300,000 to secure the reunion he craved.

The outstanding Pearce subsequently won the captaincy and The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season, before sold to Leeds to save the club from liquidation.

His resurrection complete.

‘Resilience is something instilled in me from a young age, it’s the way I was brought up, never accepting failure and finding a way to become better, learning from your mistakes,’ he told The News.

Jason Pearce rises above Brett Pitman during a March 2012 encounter with Bristol City at Fratton Park. Picture: Barry Zee

‘My mindset has always been I want to prove people wrong, working hard as I can to prove you wrong, to come back stronger, come back fighting.

‘At the start of the 2021-22 season, I was told by Charlton boss Nigel Adkins that I wasn’t going to play at all, I would be purely a back-up player. I told him I’d prove him wrong.

‘I worked really, really hard over the summer to come back strong – and played 23 League One matches in the end. I wanted to prove people wrong.

‘Pompey first released me at the age of 10, but I came back. I’d been at their development centre in Basingstoke, training twice a week, and wasn’t good enough.

Jason Pearce skippered Pompey with great distinction, despite their relegation in an eventful 2011-12 campaign. Picture: Barry Zee

‘Looking back, it was the environment, like going to a new school, everybody had already made their friends and you’re trying to impress.

‘I found that difficult and that showed in how I played. I didn’t perform as I knew I could and, ultimately, was released after a year.

‘I returned to play for my local team, we used to win everything. I was playing with confidence, playing for my district team, playing for my county – within a year Pompey invited me back.’

In July 2004, Pearce progressed to be handed apprenticeship terms at Fratton Park, living with Asmir Begovic in digs in Powerscourt Road, North End.

Skipper Jason Pearce battles with Rickie Lambert as Pompey claimed a dramatic point in the 2-2 draw at St Mary's in April 2012. Picture: Barry Zee

Begovic was attached to the age group above, as was future first-teamer Marc Wilson, who went on to make 49 appearances for the Blues.

Another of their year was Matt Day, who later played for Oxford United, and whose own Pompey fate would be inextricably linked with Pearce’s promising career.

He added: ‘There was a lad called Matt Day, who was a year older than me. You ask Shaun North, Mark O’Connor, any of our coaches at the time, and I guarantee they will tell you he was the next big thing until that summer.

‘At the time I was playing left-back and he was a centre-half. He was getting towards the end of his apprenticeship, then came back for pre-season in horrendous shape, he had obviously done everything wrong.

‘I don’t think I would have got a professional deal (in 2006) had he looked after himself. He returned massively overweight, the transformation was incredible, he couldn’t move the same way, he just let himself go – and that, ultimately, cost him a professional contract with Pompey.

‘I really looked up to Matt, I saw the potential in him, an excellent player, good with both feet, not the tallest but brilliant in the air and a great reader of the game.

Jason Pearce made 44 appearances for Pompey after finally getting his first-team opportunity in his third Fratton Park spell. Picture: Barry Zee

‘That was a real turning point for me. When Matt came back like that I was moved from left-back to centre-half, I got my chance.

‘It goes to show, it’s all about that bit of luck, you need that little break sometimes to get an opportunity. I was potentially not getting a professional contract, they wanted to give me an extra year on apprentice money, but I fought hard and eventually they gave it to me.

‘Being an apprentice at Pompey was a tough upbringing with someone like Big Kev (McCormack) around. He was hard on you, but set the standards, the values, the culture. I’m the person I am today because of that.

‘We would stay after a Fratton Park night game, scrubbing the dressing room floors until they were spotless. Kev would inspect it and if it wasn’t up to scratch you’d have to do it again.

‘I also cleaned the boots of Matt Taylor, who was quite tough on me, to be honest. He’d arrive in the morning and, in front of the first-team players, would shout at the top of his voice “Pearcy”.

‘I’d walk into the room with people like Sol Campbell there and Matt would say “Pearcy, my boots are wet. Go and dry them. Now”. I had to hold them under a hand dryer for ages before returning them to him.

‘I didn’t like it and wouldn’t be like that with the younger lads as a consequence, but there are still things you take from that.

‘Apprentices don’t carry out those duties these days. They take some of the first-team equipment out, bring it back, and pump up some balls, that’s about it.

‘Something like cleaning boots is really important, you get that bond with first-team players. In any job, normally you start from the bottom and work your way up, you shouldn’t just be handed it at a young age.

‘If I get the opportunity to coach, which hopefully I will, I’d like to bring something like that back, because I think it’s important.

‘Soon I was in and out training with Harry Redknapp’s first-team, big hitters like Kanu, Andy Cole, Sol Campbell and Niko Kranjcar, a real test for any youngster.

‘Whenever I came across to join them, Harry would say: “Pearcy, watch your tackles. I don’t want anybody getting injured”. He knew I liked a challenge!

‘Then one day he pulled me into the changing room, I’ll never forget it, and said: “Listen Pearcy, I think it will be great for you to go out on loan. My good friend Kevin Bond is at Bournemouth, you can go there. Learn your trade, become a man and then come back a better player”.

‘I moved there permanently, it was a great move for my career – and all Pompey wanted was a 50-per-cent sell-on clause.’

Following loan spells at Bognor and Woking, he moved to Dean Court in August 2007 on a two-year deal.

When Convers Sports Initiatives took over Pompey in June 2011, within three weeks Pearce became Steve Cotterill’s second summer signing, signalling a third Fratton Park spell.

The Blues splashed out £300,000 for the central defender who, during four years away, had amassed 183 Bournemouth appearances and won promotion to League One.

Handed a maiden opportunity to test himself in the Championship, Pearce not only established himself as a regular, but was elevated to the role of skipper from February 2012, while totalled 44 appearances and two goals.

Pompey supporters also voted the youngster as The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season in a campaign devastated by financial difficulties and administration.

‘As soon as Pompey came back in for me, I couldn’t wait to return. I came through the ranks there, I love the club and always have done,’ said Pearce.

‘That was a really good season in my development, but the club went into administration and it’s just a shame how it had to end.

‘I was 23 at the time and been through one administration at Bournemouth. Now I was going through another at Pompey and thinking “Wow, I must be the black cat here!”.

‘As players, we were asked to take pay cuts. Myself and Joel Ward were probably the lowest-paid in the team, but we agreed, whereas some real big hitters in the team who refused.

‘The pair of us cared about the club, we had come through the ranks here, we did what it took to keep the club afloat, that was important to us.

‘Things were cut back, staff members started losing their jobs, we were no longer able to stay in the same hotels, or stay in a hotel at all, yet Michael Appleton was excellent with the players, very open.

‘Having been through it before, I was mentally prepared for what to expect and knew the club wouldn't fold, I just knew. The fans are so good there, they wouldn't allow it to happen.

‘As captain, I had to keep the lads going. It was a difficult time, but I’ve always been one to set an example and be a role model, to try to do things right. I’m not a shouter unless I have to.

‘This was backs against the wall, everything was against us, it was about trying to galvanise the group, we couldn’t let external matters affect us. Everyone gave their all, unfortunately we weren’t quite good enough.

‘But Southampton never beat us that season – and, by the way. they were a top, top team. Growing up around Pompey, the derby was something I had always wanted to play in, so to get the opportunity was unbelievable.

‘That match at St Mary’s in April 2012 is up there with the favourite games of my career. I was captain and despite everything going on at Pompey, we galvanised that group to get a 2-2 draw.

‘They were on the way to promotion, a club on the up, whereas we were in administration and second from bottom of the Championship. That was massive for us and massive for the fans.’

Following relegation to League One, administrator Trevor Birch was challenged with cashing in on Pompey’s playing assets to keep the financially-stricken club in business.

At the top of the list were talented young trio Ward, Stephen Henderson and, of course, Pearce.

In May 2012, just seven days after a final-day 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, Pearce was the first of 14 summer departures, sold to Leeds for a cut-price £500,000.

He added: ‘I had bought a house in Sarisbury Green and was going to settle there with my family. Then, 3-4 months later, Trevor Birch informed me they had to sell our assets.

‘I was massively disappointed, I wanted to stay at Pompey, I had signed a three-year deal and am someone who likes stability, but it didn't happen like that.

‘There was Leeds and Burnley in for me, the two contracts on the table were pretty much identical, both four-year deals.

‘My former Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe was at Burnley, while to play for Neil Warnock at Leeds was a huge pull, it was a really tough decision.

‘I joined Leeds and Warnock told me: “We want to sign Joel (Ward) as well, but can’t just yet. We need to wait a couple of weeks to get some players out”. Wardy also had Palace interested.

‘I remember telling Wardy: “Listen, you can’t wait in football. If you do then the opportunity at Palace might go, while Leeds may not come in for you after all. There’s no guarantee”.

‘He went to Palace and look at the career he’s had, it’s been incredible. He definitely made the right decision.

‘I’m coming to the end of my career now and would have loved to come back to Pompey. I have unfinished business there.

‘There was talk on a few occasions, but, ultimately, it just didn't happen, it never got to the stage of discussing contracts.

‘I’ve been very lucky in my career, winning three promotions, while my love for Pompey means playing for them ranks highly too.

‘I’m 34 now and without a club. Football takes its toll on your body, but I will still keep doing it to the best of my ability, to be the best I can physically. Proving people wrong.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Pompey's John Marquis is tackled by Charlton's Jason Pearce during a 2-2 draw at The Valley in September 2021. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages