Ben Pearson has something of a reputation, I think that’s fair to say. His style of play lends heavily to the perception of him being an aggressive, “dirty” player.

So much so in fact, that in the newly released player ratings for this season’s iteration of the EA Sport’s FIFA video game, Pearson is the player with the single highest “aggression” attribute, a whopping 95 out of 99!

In each of the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons Pearson was booked 14 times, last season averaging a booking every 192 minutes, culminating in a red card in the home defeat to Leeds that resulted in a 3 game ban towards the end of the season, the final 3 of 13 total games he missed through being banned last year. Alex Neil made the decision to not feature Pearson in the side at all for the final games of the season because a 15th yellow would have seen him miss the beginning of this campaign.

What I’m not aiming to do here is to try to clear Pearson’s name or in any way claim that he is blameless in the building of this reputation, that would make me look as silly as that small number of Sheffield Wednesday fans who still claim Fernando Forestieri doesn’t cheat.

Pearson himself has acknowledged the flaws in his game and targeted a reduction in the number of cautions he picks up. He even revealed over the summer that his mum had stopped coming to watch him play because she was so fed up with seeing him pick up yellow cards and that this had motivated him even further to begin to clean up his act.

What I am going to do, however, is question whether referee’s attitudes to Pearson in the last several months have been as impartial and situation-specific as refereeing is supposed to be.

The Rise of the Reputation 

2018/19 was an interesting season with regards to Ben. It was the first full season in which his reputation appeared to consistently influence the way he would be treated by opposition players and referees and this seemed to somehow influence the nature of the incidents involving Pearson.

To go over every foul and card attributed to Pearson would be a long, arduous task for everyone involved, so I’ll just focus on the strangest ones for now, starting with a very odd incident following the 2-2 draw with Bolton Wanderers at Deepdale in September 2018.

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It had been a tense game for North End, having gone into what looked like a commanding 2 goal lead only to be pegged back to a disappointing result against a poor Bolton side, and tensions boiled over after the final whistle and a scuffle broke out on the pitch.

At the centre of the scuffle was Bolton’s Joe Williams and, predictably, Ben Pearson. After a moment of squaring up against each other, Williams allegedly bit down and pulled on Pearson’s eyebrow with his teeth. I’ve seen some Bolton fans claim, rather strangely, that what was pictured attached to Pearson’s head was Williams’ tongue, but give no explanation as to why Williams might have been licking North End’s number 4.

The refereeing decision that followed was stranger still, with Andy Davies choosing to show Pearson a red card for the incident and somehow only booking Williams for his bizarre act of cannibalism.

The second incident from last season that I think displays how his reputation affects his treatment is the red card he was given at Hillsborough in December ’18. For a start, the red card in itself was incredibly harsh. Pearson slid into the challenge in complete control and won the ball cleanly, but his trailing leg caught the Sheffield Wednesday player who crumpled to the ground.

In most situations like this, you’d expect common sense to impact the referee’s decision and if indeed they still decided it was a foul, for the vast majority of players you would be very surprised to see anything more than at most a booking for a similar incident.

North End also appealed the sending off, something with the panel of adjudicators decided was not a frivolous appeal as they did not add any additional games to his ban. They upheld the ban despite the nature of the incident and the fact that, had almost any other player made the same challenge, it almost certainly would have not brought the same decision from the referee.

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That one wasn’t as strange and is certainly the most open to interpretation, but my view is that the initial decision is a perfect example of the way in which Pearson is subjected to much harsher decisions by referees in-game.

In my opinion, by far the most strange and most prominent example of the treatment of Ben Pearson by referees happened after the Christmas period, during North End’s impressive 3-1 home victory over Norwich City in February.

Late in the first half, Norwich were awarded a penalty when Pearson seemed to lunge in on Onel Hernandez in the Preston penalty box. At this point, all’s fair. No qualms about the decision, both players went for the ball, Pearson looked reckless in his attempts to win the ball and it looked as though both feet were off the ground when he went in for the challenge.

What was strange was that the referee seemed to be moving away without awarding anything, only for him to look back and seem to realise that it was Pearson who had committed the foul. It looked as though it was only after this point that the referee decided to not only award the penalty but to get the yellow card out too. In honesty, it looked rather arbitrary, as if the jump in logic he made was that a Pearson foul equals a yellow card. You can see for yourself below.

The attitude of referees that Pearson must be booked for his first forceful challenge, be it a foul or not, is a trend that seems to have followed him into this season. He was booked for a perfectly good challenge against Wigan in the first home game of the season, for example, something which did seem to be nothing more than handing out a warning to a player with a reputation to get him to toe the line.

Who’s to Blame?

Who is actually to blame in all of this? Is it the officials? Is it the player himself?

Pearson?

As I mentioned earlier, he is not at all blameless, at least in the fact that his reputation itself exists. He is an aggressive, diminutive defensive midfielder and his style of play over the last few seasons has, of course, led to a considerable amount of well-earned bookings and suspensions.

So often a major criticism of Pearson is the fact that so many of his cards have been picked up for unnecessary things like dissent and violent conduct. It is a criticism that has come from all sides, from the fans, to his manager, to his mother and I can’t help but feel his reputation wouldn’t precede him to even half the extent if these incidents had not been such a big part of his game.

Alex Neil has come out and spoken publicly, on several occasions about the need for Pearson to clean up his act, especially with regards to the aforementioned needless yellow cards.

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My fellow From The Finney writer Oli, has himself spoken in the past about Pearson’s temperament and how it lends to the cards he picks up, citing North End’s number 4’s difficulty controlling his emotions in high-pressure situations as a root cause of why he so often talks himself into trouble. You can read Oli’s entire piece from last season about how pivotal Pearson is to this North End side here.

Insofar as Ben’s own contribution to the cards he picks up and his reputation, I think that about covers it, but are there other people to blame?

Referees?

After his final card of last season, a red one in the home defeat to Leeds, it wasn’t the dismissal that Neil questioned but rather the booking that had preceded it earlier in the game.

Pearson had gone into a challenge clearly attempting to win the ball but had caught Leeds winger Jack Harrison who, to his credit, had got straight back up. It was Pearson’s first offence of the game. The referee booked him without hesitation. Yet, when Leeds defender Luke Ayling made an almost identical tackle, the referee let him off with little more than a quick word in the ear.

Neil was visibly annoyed with the referee after the game; “If it is a booking for that (Pearson), and if that’s the way you are going to referee the game then that is fine, but to book Ben and not book their player on the same kind of tackle… I have spoken regularly about Ben in that I think referees definitely target him in terms of giving him bookings”.

It does stand to reason that a referee should be making decisions in an entirely impartial fashion. Of course, the much-talked-about standard of refereeing in the Football League often seems to leave a lot to be desired, but is it too much when (taking the above as an example) two almost identical challenges within minutes of each other are treated differently by a referee, seemingly due to a player’s reputation?

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There are all sorts of reasons a referee might subconsciously show a predilection towards booking a certain player for things he might otherwise let slide, as seems to so often happen to Ben Pearson. With Ben Pearson the reason seems to be solely that his reputation precedes him and that referees want to ‘get ahead of game’ somewhat and book him for his first offence regardless of it’s nature in order to ensure he tows the line for the rest of the game.

This factor itself has been discussed by Preston fans a fair bit and seems to rear it’s head almost every time Pearson does find himself in the book. Some Preston fans back the referee in this scenario, and make the case for their seemingly prejudicial bookings being unavoidable;

“Like it or not, all this (Pearson’s reputation) affects how he is managed in games by the referee. It’s his fault.” says Nick Mahon (@NickPNE on Twitter) following Pearson’s extremely harsh yellow in the home win over Wigan Athletic earlier this season.

Nick’s point of view is one shared by a number of fans who believe Pearson’s behaviour, at it’s worst 12-18 months ago, has cast the die for the rest of his career. The problem with this is that after the game has come and gone, going by statistics, that yellow card for a nothing challenge is now just another yellow card picked up by a dirty or confrontational player. Logically, this only serves to lend itself to furthering the player’s reputation, even if they might be trying their utmost to change their game for the better.

Is it true that a reputation can, and often does follow a player around for the rest of their career? Even when it should never be their defining characteristic?

Didier Drogba springs to mind for me. Certainly a superb striker, capable of the absolutely sublime and often a pleasure to watch during his time at Chelsea. He had a reputation for being something of a dramatist though, and referees would often allow play to continue after Drogba had hit the deck on the very assumption that he was simulating.

This was based on little more than a few isolated, but high profile incidents, particularly against Barcelona in the Champions’ League. Sure, he would occasionally go down too easily but let’s be honest, it’s football, that’s going to happen.

Is it fair, therefore, that Drogba so often would be denied a free-kick after being clattered in the air by a centre-half from behind? Surely, referees aren’t so susceptible to being subconsciously drawn to making a decision about a player, that what they observe happening in front of their eyes in a game seems to have little to no impact on the outcome of their decision?

Opponents?

A reputation of being quick to anger and easy to provoke in football is bound to come hand-in-hand with a reputation such as Pearson’s. It’s also no secret that many, if not most managers and coaches will make a point of preparing for a game so as to exploit a hot-headed player’s temperament and, ideally, give their side a man advantage at some point in the game.

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This yellow-baiting, for want of a better phrase, is to be expected. Particularly in an era in which players hitting the deck, feigning injury or waving an imaginary card expectantly in the referee’s direction as a prompt, seems to be getting a little out of hand.

I suppose the main question here is whether or not we should be expecting better of opponents and, even with his reputation in mind, I’d say it would be far simpler, maybe even more likely, if Pearson were to continue the good work he’s put in so far this season in cutting down on the needless cards and focusing solely on the footballing side of his game.

Will Anything Change?

Soon? I doubt it. Refereeing standards in the Football League have been an issue for a while and the F.A. and PGMOL seem to be showing little interest in changing that.

We are watching football at a time when there is little accountability for officials. They do not have to explain their decisions (as happens in Tennis and American Football among others), VAR is only accessible at the highest level and, as the early part of this Premier League season has shown, is far from infallible and, perhaps the worst thing about football officiating at the moment, officials are exempt from criticism insofar as if any player or manager publicly questions a referee or calls out a poor decision, they are subject to immediate disciplinary action.

Short answer; no. I don’t think anything will change any time soon with regards to how Ben Pearson is treated by officials.

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But is that definitely a bad thing? Many North End fans have hypothesised that, due to Pearson’s undebatable quality, he may have gone on to bigger and better things by now were it not for his reputation being something of a turn-off for bigger clubs’ interest in him. I may be clutching at straws to try to find a positive there!

There is light though, despite having picked up a couple of yellows so far this campaign, both of these came from certainly debatable refereeing decisions and he does seem to be making much more of a conscious effort to tone down his confrontations and keep himself away from possibly dissent bookings, which were a major part of why his reputation formed in the first place.

If he keeps up the effort to continue his good behaviour (comparatively good to his past self anyway) for the rest of this season, even just to keep himself under 10 bookings, it would be an achievement and might even go some way to making a dent in his reputation and earn him some redemption in the eyes of the wider Football League community. Maybe in FIFA 21, he might not be the most aggressive player in the game!

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In my own opinion, his reputation has always been slightly out of proportion with the type of player he actually is but at the same time, he has far from helped himself. I’ve looked already at how a lot of the yellow cards he picks up for challenges can be construed as harsh on the part of the officials. Certainly, we would see very few players in the Championship booked for some of the incidents he’s picked up a yellow from in the last 18 months with the prime example being the one highlighted earlier in the piece with Luke Ayling in the game at home against Leeds United.

I think the core issue is his relationship with referees. With his reputation already having existed for a while, Pearson would confront referees and verbally challenge their decisions which, in today’s game is a big “no-no”. Due to failing to ingratiate himself with referees and potentially mitigate the damage done by his playing style alone, he often comes across referees who have booked, and often (presumably) had an earful from, him before. When all’s said and done, referees are people (well, nearly), and are inevitably more likely to treat him a certain way after having to discipline him in previous games.

What do you think about Pearson? Do you love him or do you find yourself far too frustrated by him? Let us know by leaving a comment or by getting in touch on social media.