Tom Pearce admitted to being lost for words after his first Leeds United goal helped head coach Paul Heckingbottom secure the satisfaction of a 2-1 win over his former club Barnsley.
Pearce marked his third first-team appearance for Leeds with a 17th-minute strike and described the moment as “unbelievable”, coming so soon after his debut for the club.
Heckingbottom blooded Pearce in a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday last month and the 20-year-old left-back has maintained a trend of academy players catching the eye towards the end of a flat Championship season.
Pearce was part of a back five yesterday which included goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and centre-back Paudie O’Connor. His first-half goal – a searching run followed by a 20-yard shot – capped the most convincing of his appearances to date, prompting a knee-slide celebration in one corner of Elland Road.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Pearce, a youngster who Leeds picked up after his release from Everton as a 16-year-old. “To play for Leeds United is different but to score, I can’t describe it.
“Obviously there was space to drive into and I see everyone shoot all the time so I thought I may as well have a go. Luckily it’s gone in.”
Barnsley hit back from that concession to equalise in the 36th minute when O’Connor turned the ball into his own net but a sliding finish from Gjanni Alioski six minutes into the second half gave Heckingbottom a third victory as United’s head coach and a win over his old side.
Heckingbottom, a Barnsley supporter in his youth, was abused by the away end over his decision to quit Oakwell for the Elland Road hotseat at the start of February.
The Tykes’ defeat at Elland Road edged them ever closer to relegation with a two-point gap to safety above them and three games to play.
Pearce – one of several academy footballers who Heckingbottom has promoted into the first-team ranks – was happy to deliver a win for his head coach after a weak start to the 40-year-old’s time in charge. “I’m made up for him,” Pearce said. “He really works so hard, as we all do on the training pitch, and it was a good result. The gaffer has given me a load of confidence.
“Obviously on my debut I was nervous but I thought I grew into the game. I didn’t play again until (Aston) Villa when I thought I did well, and I felt I did well again (against Barnsley).”
Asked if he thought he had a chance of holding the left-back position beyond the end of this season, Pearce said: “It would be a big thing and a great privilege to be first choice. We’ll see what happens. If I’m in, I’m in. If not then I will work hard to get back in.”
Heckingbottom left his assistant boss, Jamie Clapham, to do the post-match press conference and Clapham insisted that the pair had been unruffled by the vitriol from Barnsley’s support.
“I didn’t really hear it until the end but it was quite amusing at the end,” he said. “It’s something you expect but it was a well-tempered derby with no bad tackles, between two teams who wanted to win.”
It’s unbelievable. To play for Leeds United is different but to score, I can’t describe it.Tom Pearce