Tributes have been paid to popular former North East footballer Gary Pearson, who has died at the age of 45.

He was well known throughout the region having played for several clubs, including Darlington, Spennymoor and Durham City, while only weeks ago he was appointed manager of Billingham Town.

Pearson had treatment recently for a heart condition, and was resting at home on Thursday when it is understood he died having suffered a suspected heart attack. An ambulance crew arrived but they were unable to save him.

A statement from Billingham Town read: "All at Billingham Town are deeply saddened by the passing of first team manager Gaz Pearson.

"Although Gary had not been a member of the Billingham Town family for long, his personality had rubbed off and he leaves a lasting impression on us all.

"Our heartfelt condolences go out to Gary's family and friends at this time.

"We are also thinking of all at his former clubs and those he worked with for many years. RIP.”

Pearson, from Seaham, was in the youth ranks at Sheffield United in the 1990s, and made his name as a competitive and tough-tackling midfielder playing for the likes of Gateshead, Spennymoor United and Whitby before getting a move into the Football League to Darlington in 2001.

Pearson made 52 appearances, firstly under Tommy Taylor and then Mick Tait, and was with the club for three seasons.

His scored in his first home league game, a powerful free-kick from 25 yards in a 3-2 home win over Luton Town in January 2002, and was in the starting XI for Quakers’ historic final match at Feethams in May 2003 against Leyton Orient.

After leaving Darlington in 2004, Pearson spent time playing for York City, before moving onto Bedlington, Durham City Spennymoor Town and Crook, becoming player/manager at Crook in 2011.

He guided them to promotion from Northern League Division Two in 2013, and a year later moved to Ryhope Colliery Welfare, where he was manager for eight years and last season enjoyed great success.

Alongside Craig Hughes and David Pounder, Pearson led Ryhope CW to a club record high of fifth place in Division One and victory in the Durham Challenge Cup final. But weeks later the club announced their resignation from the Ebac Northern League.

A statement from Ryhope read: "It is with most heartfelt sadness and devastation to announce that former player and manager, Gary 'Gaz' Pearson has sadly passed away. From all associated at Ryhope CW, we pass our condolences to all the friends and family.”

On May 29 he was appointed boss by Billingham Town.

A number of former non-league players have paid tribute. Stephen Thompson said: “Absolutely devastated. One of the very best. A proper bloke, a lunatic and an absolute gent. RIP Gaz. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Ian Clark: “My thoughts go out to all Gaz’s family and close friends, he was an absolute legend. He was a top class team mate at Darlington, playing pranks, having a laugh but no chance go 50/50, he would smash you. RIP Gaz.”

Neil Wainwright: “RIP Gaz, once a team mate, always a team mate.”

Barry Conlon: “Rest in peace Gaz. What a great lad and team mate.”

Ian Davison: “The heart of a lion and one of the best men in football I’ve ever met! I had the honour to play alongside and managed me as well. I’m absolutely gutted and this life is so cruel to take such a fantastic man! My thoughts are with his family at this horrific time. RIP Gaz.”

Amar Purewal: “RIP Gaz. What an absolute great bloke. Thoughts are with his friends and family.”

Gary Brown: "Such sad news about Gaz Pearson absolute legend of a man, thoughts and prayers with family."

Darren Richardson: “Awful news about Gaz. Always top crack. RIP mate.”

Jason Jones: “Played against him (hard as nails) managed against him (born winner). The world is a worst place without him, top man, always had time for people and would give advice. RIP Gaz, you will be missed by many.”

Pearson enjoyed success as a player with Sunday league side Hetton Lyons, winning the FA Sunday Cup final in 2008 at Anfield against Coundon Cons – he scored the winner with a penalty seven minutes from time at the Kop end.

Ian Watson, currently Gateshead assistant manager, was a team-mate that day, and he had warm words for Pearson, recalling: “He was not the designated penalty taker that day, but stepped up and scored. We asked him that night why he took the pen. ‘I can handle myself missing, water off a duck’s back, I couldn’t handle one of the lads missing.’

“A short story to give you an insight to the man.”

The Northern Echo:

Pearson, left, playing against York Cty in 2003-04