Some aspects of Nigel Pearson remain as familiar as ever and you get the sense they always will. The handshake is still robust; the grip not quite so tight as to cut off all blood supply around your knuckles but strong enough to make you understand it is as much a test as a greeting.
The hair style has not changed either. Still short and clipped. The sergeant major look. It comes as little surprise when the former Leicester manager reveals when he was younger he was close to embarking on an assessment to join the Royal Air Force.
And then there is his deep love of the outdoors. Most people, by now, know the story of Pearson fighting off a pack of dogs in the Carpathian mountains. The 55-year-old recently spent three days on a small island in Badachro, a fishing village in north-west Highlands of Scotland. No dogs this time, just Pearson ‘mooching about’, staying alone in a bothy with trips back from the pub on a local fisherman’s boat. About as far removed from the intensity of football management as you can find. And just the way Pearson likes it.
Nigel Pearson has been out of football management since OH Leuven sacked him in February
‘Whenever you are out of work, you need to take the opportunity to do things you like to do,’ says Pearson. ‘I know people immerse themselves in football and go and watch a million and one games. I’m a bit the other way. I tend to do the things I like doing, which is trying to get used to being back at home.’
Pearson is having to do just that, having been sacked in February as manager of OH Leuven in Belgium’s second division. Leuven are backed by King Power, the same company who own Leicester and who also sacked Pearson in 2015, the season before they won the title under Claudio Ranieri.
Those who know Leicester know that much of that squad and culture had been built by Pearson, over two spells, starting with hauling the club from the depths of League One.
What also has not changed is Pearson’s reputation. Not yet, anyway. He spoke recently to sports journalism students. The youngsters came away surprised at the easy, engaging Pearson. ‘I’m sure they had fixed ideas of me before I walked through the door,’ he says.
Pearson spoke with James Sharpe about his career and what he’s done away from the game
There is good reason for that. The back end of this tenure at Leicester, one which saw him keep the club up despite 140 days at the bottom of the table, was marred by high-profile incidents: throttling Crystal Palace midfielder James McArthur on the touchline, telling an abusive Leicester fan to ‘f*** off and die’ and calling a journalist an ostrich.
It is this side of Pearson that does seem a little different now. He is calmer, more relaxed, less snappy in the face of questions.
‘Maybe I’ve changed a bit,’ says Pearson. ‘Yeah, I’m not managing a club and I don’t need a win to keep my job but I also think I’ve changed. We all change.
‘I accept that, in that year, I was under pressure, from myself too, and I did some things that I’d probably choose not to do again. Not all of them. Some I would gladly do again, actually — and do them with a smile on my face.’
He refuses to say which.
‘Look, I have not become a big softy overnight. I’m still me. But, in four years, when you experience different things, you have to reflect on what happens in your life.’
On his time at Leicester, he said: ‘I did some things that I’d probably choose not to do again’
Pearson says working in Belgium changed him. It is a different football life over there. Things move much more slowly than in the Premier League and there is far less scrutiny. It was also a chance to reconnect with former Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Pearson found the whole experience, while ultimately unsuccessful on the pitch, cathartic.
He believes his short, combustible tenure at Derby changed him too. He only lasted four months with the Rams amid conflict with owner Mel Morris. That experience almost made Pearson give up management. ‘It might also be what happened at Leicester and then losing my job and the subsequent success they had,’ he says.
For Pearson, the end of his Leicester tenure was hard to take. After winning seven of their final nine games to survive, Leicester’s players and staff travelled to Thailand, the home country of the club’s owners for an end-of-season tour. Pearson’s son, James, was one of three of the club’s youth players involved in an incident with some local women. James was dismissed and Pearson was later sacked.
‘It was tough,’ says Pearson. ‘I’m not condoning what happened but we are a close family. When you lose your job and it’s about football, I can quickly put things in order and move on. When things are more complex, it’s more difficult.’
It became more difficult still as Leicester went on to win the title the following season under Ranieri. Pearson is willing to discuss it but you sense the lingering frustration.
Pearson pictured at Wembley, where he won the League Cup with Sheffield Wednesday in 1991
‘I’m at ease in my role in the story,’ says Pearson. ‘It was painful at the time as I had invested an awful lot of time and energy. Not to do with jealousy, it was just quite raw still. But there was also a feeling of pride.
‘I have been asked a few times if I had still been there would you have still won the title? My honest answer is that it probably wouldn’t have happened. We would have done really well but … I don’t know. By the same score, I’m not in the head where I’m snapping your head off for asking a question I have heard a million times.’
He laughs. Maybe he has changed. Pearson also believes Leicester have changed. Since that title win, Ranieri has been sacked. So has Craig Shakespeare, Pearson’s deputy during his time. So has Claude Puel, replaced in February by Brendan Rodgers.
Pearson believes Rodgers is the man to take their development on. ‘He is the best appointment they could have made,’ he says. ‘He has the credentials. He will have the skillset to redefine the identity that is needed. They want to be back in Europe as soon as possible. They will do well.’
But what next for Pearson? He is keen to return to management and says: ‘Do I want to do it again? Of course. But it has to be an opportunity that suits and stimulates me.’
If and when Pearson gets back under the spotlight, it will be then that we see how much he has really changed.
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