Nigel Pearson chooses to speak slowly. Anyone regularly in his presence comes to expect the pauses of deep contemplation, one-word answers and occasional laughter at those questions he is dismissive of. He is one of football’s alpha males, someone for whom fools will not be suffered.
Here is a man who once boasted of fighting off a pack of wild dogs in the Carpathian mountains while on a solo hike, who “managed to get rid of them” with just his walking poles for support. He is also the man who, in February 2015, pinned Crystal Palace’s James McArthur to the ground, later claiming it as a piece of banter with a “likeable lad” who himself admitted he had been “scared”.
And then there was the infamous “ostrich” rant at a member of the press after an April 2015 defeat to Chelsea. Those in the room recall an atmosphere that went from sarcastic to sinister in a flash, a moment of unpleasantness that, in mitigation, was followed up by an apology the very next day.
The madness of King Nigel has been absent for a long while. His rather surprising appointment by Watford on December 7 came five seasons after his last stint in the Premier League. Before Leicester’s miracle of 2015-16 came something almost as miraculous, their escape from what looked like certain relegation, having been bottom at Christmas.
Aside from N’Golo Kante, all of the stars of that title team had been members of Pearson’s team, and pulled themselves from the mire. It was Pearson who gave the world the snarling, scoring Jamie Vardy that continues to pull up trees for the club.
Vardy is a confirmed admirer of someone who eased him through a crisis of confidence in his first season in the top division, one in which he went six months without a goal.
“Nigel’s a straight talker, which is exactly what I am,” wrote Vardy in his 2016 autobiography. “There’s no bullshit. He tells it how it is, and if you do the business, he’ll look after you. He’s fiercely loyal and very protective of his players, not just by defending you against criticism but by putting himself in the line of fire.
Since a dispute with Leicester’s owners after an incident on the club’s post-season tour that led to the sacking of his son James, he has been a stranger to the top division. He became one of the many casualties of Derby County’s revolving door for managers after falling out with the club’s owner, Mel Morris, being removed after just weeks of the 2016-17 season.
It was later reported that Pearson, a football man through and through and not someone overly keen on interference from above, had objected to Morris using drones to spy on training. At Derby, Morris, the man behind the Candy Crush smartphone game, rules the roost, and Pearson was the man taking his leave.
That Pearson is a one-man awkward squad is a common view, but Leicester’s Thai owners, the Srivaddhanaprabha family, were well disposed enough to him to employ him for two years at OH Leiven in the Belgian league. There, he worked with George Hirst, son of David Hirst, his former Sheffield Wednesday teammate, on the youngster’s circuitous route to Leicester, a move that angered the Owls, powerless to stop Hirst Junior’s from being flipped from club to club without them seeing much in the way of compensation.
Pearson is no stranger to dominant owners, so perhaps his link-up with Watford’s Pozzo family might not be so much of a surprise. With Javi Gracia having been sacked in early season only for Quique Sanchez Flores to be recalled and struggle as badly, Watford’s owners turned to someone with the pedigree of being one of English football’s safety valves. It was not just at Leicester where Pearson had pulled off a great escape; he had been an influential assistant to Bryan Robson when West Brom escaped at the end of the 2004-5 season.
With Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis both pushing into their 60s, Pearson, not too much younger at 56, should he rescue Watford, may find himself as the manager to turn to in case of emergency, kitemarked for safety. Watford since he arrived have shown the signs of a manager who expects his players to work for each other, but also get the flair players like Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr on the ball.
Ten points from a possible 18 have followed, when Watford had gained just nine all season under their previous two managers. As bad as Manchester United were on December 22, they were beaten by a far better side, one in which Troy Deeney, an alpha male in the image of his manager, led the fight from the front. Wolves were on the end of similar treatment on New Year’s Day.
And that gives Watford chance to escape, with Sunday’s trip to Bournemouth a chance to leapfrog further up the table.
In Eddie Howe, Pearson is coming up against a manager with a very different public image. Howe is the ingenue manager respected for playing the game the right way, where Pearson is the hard-bitten crew-cutted sergeant-major type that was supposed to be going out of fashion.
This, of course, is not the true picture, since Howe is just as tough in his own way and no less sarcastic when asked a silly question. He has also kept his team in the Premier League since the summer of 2015, a record that is the envy of many of those supposed safety specialists.
This season, though, as injuries mount up and a couple of his mainstays have withered with age, Howe is in deep trouble, and his team have been susceptible to sides of greater physical presence. Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Burnley and Brighton, peer clubs, have each been able to overpower them, and the same might be expected of Watford at the weekend.
Pearson, though he did have two spells over six years at Leicester, is not seen as an empire-builder like Howe, and has never been handed the keys to the door in the same manner the man 14 years his junior has, but he has made an impression wherever he has been.
The nature of Watford, a club happy to shift managers around, and where it was felt Gracia was persevered with for far too long, is that Pearson may not be at Vicarage Road forever. He has, though, already gone some way to making sure another call will come soon.