From Belgian’s second-tier to the Premier League: How Watford boss Nigel Pearson has revived his managerial career

Callum Pragnell by Callum Pragnell / 17 January 2020, 09:52

“Are you an ostrich?” - the four words that have defined Nigel Pearson since the bizarre question escaped his lips back in 2015. 

It was a question posed to helpless journalist Ian Baker, after the Press Association reporter asked the then-Leicester City boss to elaborate on what he meant when he said that his side had faced “negativity and criticism” from the media for large parts of the 2014-15 campaign. It will go down in history as one of the most unusual post-match press conferences of all time - scroll down for the video.

It was one of many incidents which has gained Pearson the reputation as a bit of a strange character within the footballing world. The astonishing grapple with James McCarthur, just months before “Ostrich Gate”, where he appeared to throttle the Crystal Palace midfielder after the Scot accidentally collided with him on the touchline, is another situation which will live long in the memory of the football fans from our generation. 

Pearson is an ominous character who has the ability to effortlessly place people on edge. Even watching him during interviews on television, you get that feeling from him. 

He is an imposing man, standing at over 6ft with broad shoulders and a stare that has the ability to peak through to your soul, it is no surprise that McCarthur admitted to The Telegraph that he was “scared” when Pearson grabbed him by the throat five years ago - anyone would have been. But, it is also what makes him hugely endearing, and undoubtedly helps when controlling a dressing room in desperate need of authority and guidance.  

Throughout the whole of his managerial career, Pearson has been a troubleshooter. In English football, there are a cluster of managers frequently mentioned when clubs find themselves in disarray, in need of a calm head on experienced shoulders to steer them away from impending disaster. 

Sam Allardyce has forged an entire career out of it, while Mark Hughes and Tony Pulis are two more managers firmly placed in that bracket. Pearson is another; no frills, potentially underwhelming to supporters upon first reveal, but, in the end, effective. They are the Ronseal managers: consistently doing exactly what it says on the tin, occasionally more. 


What. A. Man.

From Saint to Sinner

At Southampton in 2008 - his second spell as a manager after Carlisle - Pearson kept the Hampshire club in the Championship after it looked as though relegation to League One was to be the only result of an underwhelming campaign in the second-tier. 

Ironically, in keeping the Saints up, he sent his next employers - Leicester City - down. He immediately made amends, however, firing the Foxes to the League One title in his first season at the formerly-named Walkers Stadium.

In 2010 Pearson took charge of Hull and obtained an 11th-placed finish with the cash-stricken Tigers, breaking a 66-year record in the process by going 14 games unbeaten away from home. 

A return to Leicester in 2011 yielded positive results; the Foxes were promoted to the Premier League in 2014 and have remained members of it ever since - the East Midlands club owe large parts of their recent success to their former mysterious enforcer. 

In summary, Pearson gets the job done. He always has and probably always will. A brief spell at Derby in 2016, which lasted less than half a year due to disagreements with Rams owner Mel Morris behind the scenes, looked as though it would spell the end for Pearson and top-level management, though. 

However in 2017, he was offered a route back into management with Belgian second division outfit OH Leuven - a club owned by the same proprietors as Leicester - but, despite a promising start, it was a far from memorable journey in unfamiliar territory for Pearson. 

Sacked 18 months later after a short-but-bitter spell at the Den Dreef Stadium, there was an overwhelming feeling that that would be it for the Nottingham-born manager. Surely he couldn’t come back from such a fall from grace. 

Into the Hornets Nest

So to hear his name mentioned as the replacement for the departed Quique Sánchez Flores at Watford - a team fighting for their lives at the foot of the Premier League - was unfathomable to most. 

‘If they weren’t down already, they are now’ was the general consensus among the neutral onlookers and, probably, the majority of the Hornets faithful, who had to take to Wikipedia to find out what their new manager had been up to for the last five years. 

Remember, though, this is a Ronseal manager. 

One of few people on this earth who have the unassuming ability to pull results out of the bag when hope elsewhere had been well and truly abandoned. This is a man who strikes fear into anybody who crosses him; a man that can get his players to perform to the peak of their ability, probably because they are absolutely terrified of what will happen to them if they don’t. 

Fans of Watford would have been forgiven for breathing a deep sigh of disbelief when they heard the news that Nigel Pearson would be their next manager, and the man tasked with steering the club clear of relegation from the Premier League. 

Since his appointment on 6 December, though, he has lost just one game - to the unbeaten, flawless current league leaders Liverpool. Everyone has succumbed to the Reds’ jaw-dropping power this term, so it doesn’t even count, not really. 

Four wins, two draws and that solitary excusable defeat has seen the all-but-doomed Hornets climb to the dizzy heights of 17th in the Premier League, now a point above the relegation zone and eight above Norwich City - the team who not long ago perched above them in the frighteningly-depressing league table. 

Brimming with confidence, with the talismanic Troy Deeney now back and firing on all cylinders, Watford are a different animal at the moment, driven by the wonderfully-eccentric Pearson, as ravenous and as weird as ever, ready for the next challenge. 

A string of mysterious European, new-age managers, who look more like detectives from an ITV drama than they do Premier League football coaches, did for a time improve the situation at Watford FC.

Slaviša Jokanović’s work at Vicarage Road will never be forgotten, he is the reason that the Hertfordshire club find themselves in the best league in the world and for that his name will always carry respect in that part of the world.

However, times are tough now and the club are not fighting for promotion with the luxury of confirmed safety in the back of their mind - like they were in 2015 - when Pearson was metaphorically burying an innocent journalists head in the sand. 

The club were crying out for a hardened leader, who was more Bond villain than ITV detective, and they got him. Pearson may be an anomaly, but he is exactly what Watford Football Club needed.

No fuss, no frills. A bit weird, sure. But he’ll get the job done, just like Ronseal.

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Odds Correct as of 2020-02-28 16:30:41

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Last man down

Graham Westley
Graham Westley
16th February
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