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Nigel Pearson sacked by Bristol City: Results far from only issue behind veteran manager's departure

Bristol City forced back to square one after Nigel Pearson departure; club never replaced £25m star man Alex Scott in summer, but had been on verge of play-off places barely a week before

Nigel Pearson's two-and-a-half-year tenure at Bristol City was ended with his sacking on Sunday
Image: Nigel Pearson's two-and-a-half-year tenure at Bristol City was ended with his sacking on Sunday

“We all wanted Nigel to achieve our ambition to be promoted but, with our recent results, feel that now is the time to make a change to give the club the best possible chance of success.”

Bristol City chairman Jon Lansdown's forthright comments announcing Nigel Pearson's sacking were a notable departure from the football-ese of empty platitudes and mutual agreements.

The Robins are 15th in the Championship and have lost five of their last seven games after a 2-0 defeat at rivals Cardiff on Saturday. The goals from a talented forward line have dried up and the club now sit one place below where they finished last season.

Though the conviction of City's statement is unusually clear, its rationale is not.

City's five-point gap to the play-offs, especially in the Championship, is immaterial with barely a third of the season gone. A growing injury list stopped them naming a full bench in his final game, their best player has not been replaced following his summer departure, yet they were a point off the top six barely a week before Pearson's sacking.

He retained the support of the club's fanbase, normally the harshest judge of any manager, until the final day. It is no absolute guarantee but the numerous personal thanks from players on social media suggests he still commanded the support of the dressing room, too.

Instead, it is the comments and actions of recent weeks which have hinted at a growing chasm between the management and hierarchy at Ashton Gate, because on results alone his removal feels a cruel blow.

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But many, if not most, of the issues which have led to this point will not be solved by a change at the top.

As one leading football phone-in asked on Sunday night, "What is wrong with that city?", the largest by some distance to have never hosted Premier League football.

The club regularly pulls in gates of over 20,000, has a gleaming new training ground and a billionaire owner. But Bristol City have spent 14 of the last 16 years in the Championship and finished in the top six only once - the very first, back in 2008.

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Watch the pick of the best goals from the EFL Championship from the weekend including stunning strikes from Harry Winks, Jay Stansfield and Morgan Whittaker.

They have long been an enigma; one that Steve Coppell walked out of after two games, one Steve Cotterill was sacked by months after delivering a first league title in 60 years and one which has had to deliver significant financial savings throughout Pearson's tenure, despite amassing over £80m in player sales in the four years before he arrived.

Covid does play its part in some of that book-balancing. But even then-CEO Richard Gould admitted in January the club had become "unstuck" from seeking value for money under previous regimes and the buy-low, sell-high approach which had funded some significant spending of their own could not last forever.

Pearson's tenure becomes the latest chapter in a confusing saga of a club perpetually searching for its identity. They have sought out rough diamonds. They have been the big spenders. They have utilised the academy. What now?

For the first time in a long time it had felt like something tangible was being built under his management, slowly and steadily through those financial pressures, just as he had at Leicester a decade ago. Where that plan lies now is questionable.

The £35m raised from home-grown Alex Scott and Antoine Semenyo earlier this year is both a testament to the gradual progression being overseen at Ashton Gate and in hindsight lays bare the first signs of tension between manager and club, when less than a tenth of that figure was spent replacing them.

"Nope," was his curt response when asked if any of Scott's £25m windfall would be spent in August. "It doesn't matter how I feel about it, that's how it is."

Pearson is an old head who understands the media game, and has often kept his powder dry despite the financial pressures shackling him. And when he does want to make his feelings known, the man who turned ostriches into a viral footballing insult knows exactly what he's doing.

By the time of England U21 Scott's departure, the budget restraints his manager had worked under since his arrival were meant to be easing.

Two strategies had been drawn up internally for last summer's transfer window - one with Scott, one without. It is difficult to imagine the latter did not anticipate a direct replacement for the reigning EFL Young Player of the Year.

Without him, many would say City's squad is not built to compete with six teams who still receive parachute payments, let alone when their bench is reduced to four players without a minute of professional football between them, two goalkeepers and a 17-year-old as it was in South Wales on Saturday.

Alex Scott, Bournemouth
Image: Alex Scott was sold to Bournemouth in the summer for a fee of £25m but has not been replaced

That is not a view shared universally. "Luton got promoted with a squad with far less talent than we have in our squad," owner Steve Lansdown, Jon's father, said publicly in the summer, suggesting Pearson should be more content with his lot despite the significant net profit he has generated.

In the same interview and seemingly contradicting that point, he suggested the likes of Scott's sale would help build a "nest egg" to one day rival the resources of those relegated clubs. That comment was not well-received by supporters, who felt the purse strings had been kept tight for long enough.

Pearson never referenced the description publicly, but his feelings were perfectly clear and more robust discussions will have been held within the club.

Still, there was always a feeling he wanted to stay even while his barbed comments would, though still infrequent, increase to a crescendo just a week before his sacking, when he openly questioned why his contract had still not been renewed beyond next June.

"My position's not been secure, which irritates me," he said unprompted. It was a risky move. He sensed something was awry, and he was right.

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Watch highlights of Pearson's last game, a 2-0 defeat at Cardiff in the Severnside derby.

This was a far removal from the script he had stuck to throughout the previous two and a half years. Managing Bristol City was a challenge, but one he had signed up for. Previous managers may have spent more, but he enjoyed the personal reward of being allowed to sculpt the club like few can in this era.

"It is a unique club," he admitted to Sky Sports' Adam Bate in 2022. "It has its ways of working but whoever gets this going, it will take off.

"One of the benefits is that in today's world of many sackings, I think you have a chance here. They give people the opportunity to turn things around."

At the time, that was to City's credit. There were times when it would have been tempting for the plug to be pulled. Nerves were held through spells of particularly dour football, an eight-month run without a home win and several flirtations with the bottom three.

It felt as though the club, like the fans, could see the long-term vision. By the time of his sacking, he was the Championship's second longest-serving manager.

Tommy Conway has been one of the successes of Bristol City's academy in recent years, scoring 15 goals last season and becoming a Scotland U21 international
Image: Tommy Conway has been one of the successes of Bristol City's academy in recent years, scoring 15 goals last season and becoming a Scotland U21 international

Scott and Semenyo are prime examples of its output but so too Tommy Conway, Sam Bell, Zak Vyner, Cam Pring and others, who became home-grown mainstays of the team in a time where local loyalty is an exception.

All of this was achieved while gradually cost cutting, window by window, year by year. Last season, City finished nine points off the play-offs with seven academy players making 10 or more league appearances.

Behind the scenes, perhaps it was in this period the die was cast. Gould, whose calming influence had helped oversee the rebuild right from the very bottom in 2021, was poached to take up the same role with the ECB in February this year.

He appeared a savvy diplomat as much as a logistics man, one who could tread the path between a manager defiant over his resources and an ownership still stung by previous expensive tastes.

Phil Alexander, Gould's replacement, took the reins but was back out of the door by September and has never directly been replaced.

His quote in the statement confirming the sudden departure appeared one of a Pearson ally, name-checking the manager as keeping the club in "safe hands".

The political waters were muddying publicly. Privately, the growing disaffection was clearly far greater.

The man who was happiest when allowed to "manage people and an operation - to lead it" was becoming involved in an ever increasing clash of personalities.

Though choice in his words to the press, Pearson is no 'yes man' and would not have hidden his feelings about the situation at Ashton Gate, a decision which looks to have ultimately cost him his job.

Many feel he was never a good fit for the club. He and Chris Hughton had been the front-runners for the job when Lee Johnson was sacked in 2020, but both were beaten by relatively untested caretaker manager Dean Holden.

When Holden was sent packing less than a year later the club did turn to Pearson, but without any great fanfare.

A clue as to City's reluctance came from Steve Lansdown in another interview over the summer when he admitted he had "not always seen eye-to-eye" with Pearson in the role, adding "he's got his views, we've got ours". He is not the first straight-talking manager whose tenure has ended prematurely.

Whoever follows Pearson now, until City can work out what kind of club they want to be, it is difficult to know who exactly can finally provide the answers to those kind of vague questions on radio phone-ins.

The perennially restless Robins looked like they finally had a patient blueprint for long-term, financially prudent growth at their fingertips. It had the fans on board, but not the people whose approval matters most.

Truly, whatever comes next is anybody's guess.

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