Nigel Pearson interview: Leicester success, Belgian differences, and why reputations can be misleading

Former Leicester manager back in England after spell in Belgium

Exclusive: Nigel Pearson

Nigel Pearson enjoyed success at Leicester before embarking on a new adventure in Belgium. Now ready for his next challenge, he spoke to Adam Bate in an exclusive chat at his Sheffield home to discuss his experiences overseas, what motivates him and why perception is not always reality...

While the eyes of the world were on the Champions League final on Saturday, the focus of one former Premier League manager was elsewhere. He was making the journey from Ben Nevis to Scafell Pike as part of the Three Peaks Challenge, raising money for charity.

But then Nigel Pearson always has done things a bit differently.

He is just back from 18 months working in Belgium and is currently contemplating the third year of his history degree with the Open University. The topics range from religion and spirituality, music and poetry, art and literature, to the colonisation of Africa.

Speaking in the garden of his Sheffield home, not far from the Peak District - "I am out there all the time" - Pearson is a picture of relaxation. But the fire still burns within him. He would like a return to management and is confident that he is now better than ever before.

Before wasn't too bad either. Pearson took Leicester City from the third tier to the Premier League over two spells, twice winning the title, and his role in the subsequent miracle under Claudio Ranieri is widely acknowledged. He kept the Foxes in the Premier League in the previous season, a run of seven wins from nine games foreshadowing that future success.

Nigel Pearson celebrates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bolton Wanderers and Leicester City at Reebok Stadium on April 22, 2014 in Bolton, England.
Image: Pearson celebrates winning promotion from the Championship with Leicester

His time there was cut short in the summer of 2015 and a difficult spell at Derby left him disillusioned with the game. But it is apparent that the chance to work with Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha again at Belgian club OH Leuven played its part in reinvigorating him.

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"The Derby experience had not been good for me and the way it finished left a very bad taste in my mouth so I questioned whether I wanted to go back into management," Pearson tells Sky Sports. "Going to Belgium proved to be quite a cathartic experience for me because it eventually helped to heal the situation of leaving Leicester too."

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The tragic death of Srivaddhanaprabha in the helicopter crash of October 2018 opened fresh wounds for everyone involved with Leicester. The fact that he was able to reconnect with the late Leicester owner is something that has been a source of comfort for Pearson.

"It was a difficult experience for a lot of people," he adds. "Clearly, it has had a profound effect. One of the things I am grateful for is that I was able to make contact again with Khun Vichai and work with him again. I still have an awful lot of admiration, warmth and respect for how he worked. I still feel that connection to the people I worked with at Leicester."

Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson and owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha ride in an open top bus through the city centre during a victory parade in honour of the football club winning the SkyBet Championship League trophy on May 5, 2014 in Leicester, England.
Image: Pearson with Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha on an open-top bus in Leicester

Pearson's desire to have "an emotional attachment" was what took him to Belgium and he relished the experience. It was an all-encompassing role that saw him involved in everything from the colour of the training-ground walls to the team kit. But he embraced that and came to enjoy the quirks of Belgium. No shops open on a Sunday. A different pace of life.

"I enjoyed living abroad," he says. "I enjoyed the differences as much as anything. I enjoyed the fact that even though it's not a million miles away and it's a European country, things can be so different. Behaviours can be so different. They are sometimes small things but they change the way that you think and you tend to be more relaxed because of it."

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Wearing sandals and enjoying the sunshine, Pearson certainly appears relaxed enough on this summer's day, the bird song only interrupted by the sound of a distant lawnmower. But he is acutely aware that this is not the image that many have of him. For all the success at Leicester, for some he is instead defined by a couple of unusual incidents.

There was the time that he appeared to wrestle with Crystal Palace's James McArthur on the touchline. Then, after a game against Chelsea, he memorably suggested that a journalist was an ostrich. It is tempting to wonder whether things would be a little different had these events not become such an indelible part of the Pearson story for the casual observer.

Leicester manager Nigel Pearson speaks to the media during a press conference at the King Power Stadium on November 16, 2011 in Leicester, England.
Image: Pearson won two promotions before keeping Leicester in the top flight

"Am I the type of person who would be a fashionable appointment? No, because people have a view of what I am because of my year in the Premier League and a few interviews and a few situations that occurred. If that's how it is then I have to come to terms with that and accept that this is how they see me. But there's a damn sight more to me than that.

"I am actually a very flexible and tolerant person. I am someone who can flex my muscles as well and be more rigid but I think people would see me as being a one-trick pony in terms of how I work. It could not be further from the truth, as it happens. I don't expect to be top of everyone's shopping list but I do think my career stands up and my record is pretty good.

What I can't do a lot about is changing people's perception about who I am because I don't really let people in enough for them to see exactly who I am.
Nigel Pearson

"I have a wealth of experience as a player, coach and manager. I have worked in a diverse number of roles so I don't think I should be pigeon-holed in the way that some people see me, but that's how it is. What I can't do a lot about is changing people's perception about who I am because I don't really let people in enough for them to see exactly who I am."

Perhaps some will always see Pearson as the intimidating centre-back with the tough-guy reputation, but speak to those who have worked with him and he seems anything but old school. They talk not just of a forward-thinking coach but of someone with a collegiate approach who is willing to empower others rather than rule the club with an iron fist.

Manager Nigel Pearson applaudes the fans after victory in the Coca-Cola Football League One match between Southend United and Leicester City at Roots Hall on April 18, 2009 in Southend, England.  Leicester City are now crowned champions of League One.
Image: Pearson guided Leicester to promotion from League One in 2009

"People like leaders and people need leaders but leadership does not mean being dictatorial and it does not mean being overly strong," he explains. "You can lead people in many different ways and I do see myself as a facilitator as well as a manager. Empowerment is probably one of the most powerful leadership qualities that can be used."

At Leicester, Pearson put a level of trust in the club's technical scouts that was particularly rare at the time. It enabled the Foxes to identify and sign Riyad Mahrez for £400,000, their player of the year in the title-winning season who was subsequently sold for a fee of £60m.

"I have always been somebody who embraces change," says Pearson. "It's in my interests as a manager because it gives me a better chance of succeeding. The margins for error are getting smaller and smaller and because of that any marginal gains are becoming more and more important. If you get the recruitment wrong it can cost you heavily."

He is an advocate of sports science too, dating back to his years at the FA when they "were miles ahead of some of the clubs". Indeed, over the course of an hour-long conversation, the most striking thing is that Pearson has experienced just about everything in this game. As well as coaching abroad and at international level, he has managed in all four divisions.

Nigel Pearson took on the Three Peaks Challenge in June 2019 [Credit: Nigel Pearson]
Image: Taking on the Three Peaks Challenge in June 2019 [Credit: Nigel Pearson]

It has certainly been some journey since he took that first job with Carlisle more than two decades ago now. His time there is part of football folklore thanks to the stoppage-time strike by goalkeeper Jimmy Glass that kept the club in the Football League on the final day of the season. Even now, the memory of the moment brings a smile to Pearson's face.

There was little time for sports science back then. The players drank brandy before the game and Pearson recalls playing cricket indoors as preparation - it was all he could do to relax them. Things were so tough that assistant John Halpin would spend the mornings ringing around to find somewhere that the players could train. Then he'd clear up the dog mess.

Jimmy Glass: The Great Escape

Jimmy Glass: The Great Escape

The story of Jimmy Glass, the goalkeeper whose last-gasp goal kept his team in the Football League, is being revisited 20 years on.

"I don't suppose it did me any harm but it didn't necessarily feel that way at the time," laughs Pearson. "If you get relegated in your first job then who knows what is going to happen." Again, he is at pains to share the credit for Carlisle's survival and regrets the fact that there was no mention of Halpin in a recent documentary about Glass's goal.

But maybe the time has come for Pearson to make his own case. There are some prize jobs going in the Championship. Middlesbrough, the team he captained to two promotions, and West Brom, where he was once assistant manager, and are just two of the clubs in search of someone to take them to the Premier League. It's where Pearson wants to be too.

In the meantime, he plans to take up Brendan Rodgers' offer to visit Leicester's training ground some day soon. He is, he insists, as hungry as ever. "The problem with saying that you are a bit more relaxed is that then people could argue that I have lost some of the intensity that makes me what I am," he adds. "No, I haven't. Absolutely not."

And with that, he's off. The Peak District is calling.

Follow this link to donate to the Welsh Air Ambulance, CCU at Royal Stoke University Hospital and the MS Therapy Centre Wolverhampton, the charities for which Nigel is fundraising in the Three Peaks Challenge

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