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Nigel Pearson interview: Watford determined to avoid relegation
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Nigel Pearson discusses Watford’s fight against relegation, the unique challenge presented by the coronavirus crisis, and the tale of the Premier League representative found going through the club's bins…
Last Updated: 28/06/20 3:57pm
When Nigel Pearson was appointed by Watford in December, the remit was simple. His job was to keep a team then cut adrift at the bottom of the table in the Premier League.
Now it feels like he has been asked to do it twice in one season.
He had already pulled off an improbable turnaround in the club's fortunes. Watford had won only one of their first 16 games but went on to win four in a six-game unbeaten run.
The inevitable subsequent dip then ended with an emphatic 3-0 win over Liverpool in February - the first and only Premier League defeat for the newly-crowned champions all season.
Watford have picked up more points than any team in the bottom six since Nigel Pearson's appointment in December - ranking 13th in the Premier League during his reign.
But the restart has not gone smoothly and some Watford fans are worried momentum has been lost. With the team having spent almost four months outside the relegation zone, the psychology has shifted. By his own admission, Pearson would have settled for having a chance of staying up on the final day when he arrived. Now, that is a scenario some fear.
Speaking to the Watford boss before his side take on Southampton live on Sky Sports this Sunday, he acknowledges the change in mood but exudes an aura of calm even as others might be panicking in the wake of their 1-0 defeat to Burnley on Thursday evening.
"I think the players are generally speaking in a good place," Pearson tells Sky Sports.
"It feels like a mini-tournament now. It feels like a cup tournament, an international tournament. You have a small number of games and you have to win enough games to, in our case, avoid relegation. It feels different but it is still the same season.
"March is a long time ago. We just need to cope with those differences."
There have been challenges at Watford.
Troy Deeney was among a number of players who initially chose not to re-join training in May. Experienced defender Adrian Mariappa tested positive for coronavirus.
Just this weekend, reports have emerged of Andre Gray hosting a party in breach of lockdown rules - one attended by his Watford team-mate Domingos Quina.
Pearson's job is to navigate the club through these uncertain times.
He is acutely aware of the bigger picture.
"It makes you reflect on what's important, for sure. We have to keep everything within the context of what is happening out there. It is a very difficult situation, a world pandemic. Our country has been hit very hard. The death toll is shocking, let's be honest.
"There are 45,000 people at the very least who have lost their lives so this is a situation that is very, very difficult for me to sit here and just talk about football. It is not right."
As a result, the conversation takes in a variety of subjects that extend far beyond the matter of Watford's prospects of staying in the Premier League. He is unimpressed by "politicians who want to use footballers as leverage to get them out of their own difficulties".
There is concern too for those clubs in the lower leagues. "Those clubs rely so heavily on gate receipts that a lot of EFL clubs are going to find it very difficult to survive."
He also wants to address the notion that Watford - who sat one place above the drop zone prior to the restart - were less keen than others to resume playing football once more.
"It would have been a travesty if that had not happened," he says of Liverpool's title win.
"Everyone I have spoken to has wanted to get the season finished.
"It has been an unusual experience for everybody but now we are back into work mode and trying to negotiate our way through a relegation battle, which is a very tough one.
"We are working to achieve what we set out to achieve and that is retain our Premier League status. Believe me, these players are driven by performing and trying to get results."
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Pearson has something of a reputation as a contrarian - "I am not anti-establishment I just find things a bit odd at times" - and he has been able to find humour in unusual places, such as the visits from the Premier League officials observing the club at the training ground.
"I have found it irritating at times but also quite amusing that we have someone sitting and making notes of players' spitting when it is 32 degrees and giving us a slap on the wrist. You try going out there. They are making the best of what is a very unusual situation.
"I have to smile at myself now when I see the Premier League at the training ground marking us down on simple behaviours. We even caught one looking through our bins. That was hilarious. Our club secretary caught him doing that.
"The goalposts have been shifted on one or two occasions in terms of what is allowed and what is not allowed. It has not always been clear but what we try to do is work with a bit of a sense of humour as well and a bit of flexibility so we do not let red tape get us down.
"It means you have to be creative and find different ways of working. I think there is a public perception that this is not the case but I have found the players to be very adaptable and very open to finding different solutions. We do it with a smile on our face.
"They are strange times but I think they bring out the best in people too."
The hope now is that these strange times can belatedly bring out the best in Pearson's Watford players too. He has praise for the attitude of his captain Deeney as well as midfielder Will Hughes and it is clear that he trusts the character of this group.
Deeney himself revealed that Pearson delivered "a rocket" to the players during half-time of the game at Burnley and the manager was heartened that the improved second half showed evidence of a response. But what Watford need now are results.
The visit of Southampton is the first of a trio of home games that will also see Norwich and Newcastle travel to Vicarage Road. This is the time for Watford - and Pearson - to finish the job.
"The circumstances are different but we are still motivated," he says. "We are still focused on achieving our goals and that means keeping this club in the Premier League."