THE consolation for Tom Pearce when Everton released him as a 16-year-old was that he was coming out of a category one academy.
Clubs in England were made aware of his status and Pearce’s pedigree made him an attractive free agent. When his name dropped at Elland Road, Leeds United were one of several teams who asked to have a look.
Pearce and Michael Taylor, another surplus Everton youngster, were taken on together in 2014 and signed despite the impact of swingeing cuts to Leeds’ academy. Staff at Thorp Arch, where the youth set-up was led by Neil Redfearn, found local digs for the pair and convinced their parents that it was worth their while accepting United’s terms. In Pearce’s case the move paid off.
Taylor, a centre-back and former Under-18s captain, moved on from Leeds last summer midway through a two-year deal. Pearce was due to reach the end of his first professional contract at the same time but received a one-year extension before it expired. His second 12 months as a junior pro’ could prove to be the making of him.
Since the latter stages of his time at Everton, the 20-year-old’s existence has been almost hand-to-mouth. Leeds’ offer of a first senior deal in 2016 came so late that he had already begun considering further options. Even now, his future is not entirely secure. The extension he signed last summer expires in June and Taylor’s progression in the past month has forced negotiations up the agenda.
English academies release scores of players each year but Pearce, a native of Ormskirk in Lancashire, felt philosophical about leaving Everton.
“I’m a confident person so I just thought ‘move on, find a new club and see what happens from there’,” he said.
“I had quite a few clubs coming in but when I came to Leeds it was unbelievable so I signed. Neil Redfearn was the academy manager at the time and he signed me up.”
In Pearce there are some very obvious comparisons with a young Charlie Taylor, the left-back who came through United’s academy and won the club’s player of the year award in 2016. Taylor, as a teenager, had a tall but thin frame, slight in his build until a series of loan moves built up his physique. Their athleticism is comparable and Pearce’s goal against Barnsley on Saturday, a run break from halfway followed by a shot into the bottom corner, was the sort of penetration that United have not seen consistently from a left-back all season.
I had quite a few clubs coming in but when I came to Leeds it was unbelievable so I signed.Tom Pearce
Pearce, after a passable debut against Sheffield Wednesday last month, did enough in Leeds’ 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa to ensure that he would finish the season in the starting line-up. His display at home to Barnsley on Saturday was the best of his three to date. A 17th-minute strike registered his first goal for the United and he had a hand in Gjanni Alioski’s second-half winner.
Leeds assistant Jamie Clapham, a former left-back who completed a loan at Elland Road in 2007, said: “He’s got every attribute. He’s 6ft or 6ft-plus, he’s athletic and gets forward. He’s got a lovely pass on him and there’s a lot more to admire. But there’s a lot more to be done too.
“With all youngsters, when they step in for a short period of time they’re right on their game. But the Championship is tough: game, game, game. It’s mentally tough for everyone, not just young players. We’ll keep working.”
The reality of junior footballers maturing at different ages has been demonstrated a Leeds over the years. Charlie Taylor went through four separate loans and more than 50 appearances elsewhere before establishing himself. Lewie Coyle, now 22, is cutting his teeth at Fleetwood Town this season. Lewis Cook became a regular at 17 and Ronaldo Vieira bypassed United’s development squad completely, a first-team player without making a single Under-23 appearance.
Pearce’s raw nature does not alter the fact that Leeds have an issue at left-back, one which has festered since Charlie Taylor joined Burnley at the end of his contract last July. Out of position, neither Vurnon Anita nor Gaetano Berardi have coped in that role. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s loan from Manchester United was so unproductive that he was sent back there in January.
Leeds signed Laurens De Bock from Club Brugge around the same time but De Bock’s initial form was wobbly and he has been absent with a hamstring injury for a month. Pearce can at least tell himself that his position might be up for grabs. “I think I’ve done well since I have been in,” he said.
The same is true of Bailey Peacock-Farrell, the youngster over whom Leeds have the most difficult decision to make. The 21-year-old has ticked every box in goal, handling the ball well, pulling off crucial saves and providing the assurance which United were lacking before he jumped into the first team a month and a half ago. An old head was seen on him when he ran to remonstrate with Samuel Saiz after Barnsley’s Connor Mahoney was allowed to skip freely into the box and shoot during the first half of Saturday’s derby at Elland Road. Leeds are likely to move on Felix Wiedwald in the next transfer window and they have the choice between recruiting a new number one or leaving the gloves with Peacock-Farrell.
“At this moment, he’s got the number one jersey for the next two games,” Clapham said. “But we’re looking at all aspects before the end of the season.
“We’ve had a good assessment of the squad and the players we’ve got available, and where we want to strengthen.”
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