A week with Nigel Pearson in Belgium: "Seeing Leicester win the Premier League wasn’t particularly enjoyable – but I also felt pride in it too"
It’s Nigel Pearson’s pre-match press conference and he has a question of his own for one of the Belgian journalists facing him.
The scribe had accidentally referenced a punk-rock lyric in a question about one of OH Leuven’s fringe players: “Maybe if I was him I might think, should I stay or should I go?” Frankly, it’s a different sort of Clash than we were expecting when the former Leicester, Hull and Derby manager plonked his glasses down on the table ready to talk to half a dozen media men at the club’s training base.
Back in England, such situations have occasionally led to fireworks, but today it’s all good-natured. The journalist laughs it off, resisting any further encouragement from Pearson to break into song. Another writer then jokes that they’ve previously heard him on the karaoke, and it’s really not a good idea...
This is a relaxed Pearson, still keeping the media on their toes as he fends off January transfer window speculation in his inimitable style. Now he's doing it with a glint in his eye, seemingly free of the intense stress that turned some press conferences during his Premier League days into decidedly confrontational affairs.
He’s spent the morning on the training pitch, delivering instructions to his squad ahead of the weekend’s fixture with Union Saint-Gilloise. Pearson has been a boss in Belgium’s second tier since September and FourFourTwo is spending a couple of days in the small city of Leuven to find out how it’s all going.
Thankfully he’s happy to see us, warmly shaking hands before sitting down with the Belgian media, then inviting us into his office for a chat once the press conference is over.
Because of how things finished at Leicester, it was important for us to sit down on a one-to-one basis and just chat in a sociable manner. It was important in terms of how I felt about the situation, and I think it would have been the same for Vichai
It’s the first time Nigel has managed outside England – and the move was doubly unexpected given that he’s employed once more by King Power, who fired him as Leicester boss in 2015 but didn’t hesitate to call back after buying Leuven last summer.
“I was contacted in September about whether I would be interested in working with them again,” says Pearson. “It very much came out of the blue. It wasn’t something I’d even contemplated might happen.”
Given the circumstances of his exit from Leicester – he’d kept them in the Premier League, only to be sacked that summer after a variety of off-field incidents – the first thing Pearson wanted to do was meet up with his former Foxes chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. He was keen to establish whether the personal relationship between them could work a second time, and decided not to involve an agent in any of the discussions at all.
“That's quite unusual in today’s football climate,” he explains. “But because of how things finished at Leicester, it was important for us to sit down on a one-to-one basis and just chat in a sociable manner. It was important in terms of how I felt about the situation, and I think it would have been the same for him. It was amicable and things didn’t take long to get sorted once we’d had that chat.”
The appointment actually made a lot of sense. Pearson’s task at OHL is more or less to repeat the job he did for King Power during his second spell as Leicester manager – take the club from the second tier to the top flight, and keep them there. “There are similarities,” says Pearson. “It’s about hopefully getting back into the top division and establishing ourselves. But we’ve got to get promoted first, which is really difficult because of the format of the division.”
Pearson's not wrong – the Belgian league system is mind-boggling. The second division season is split into two halves – similar to the Apertura and Clausura system used in some Latin American countries – with the winners of each half of the season going head-to-head in a play-off for the solitary promotion place. There’s another play-off competition for a Europa League spot, involving nine teams from the top division and three from the second tier.
Pearson was unbeaten in his first seven matches in charge, but OHL were pipped to top spot in the first half of the campaign by Beerschot Wilrijk after a defeat in their decisive final match. In the second half of the season they finished third in the eight-team tournament, having lost only three of 14 matches – one against league winners Cercle Brugge, who they thrashed 7-1 in the first half of the campaign. Promotion, then, has eluded OHL this season, but Pearson has signed a three-year contract and sees the job as a long-term project at a club who flirted with relegation to the amateur leagues last season.
He’s not viewing it as a stepping stone to a job back in England. “I’ve got no intention of just coming over here and seeing how it goes,” he stresses. “It’s a chance to do something over a period of time, but you have got to get results to buy you the time to do that – that’s how the game is. We’ve not had enough wins in the second part of the season and it’s going to be difficult to get promotion this season, although we still have seven matches left.
“I’d like to be a success here, and then outside of that I don’t know. I’ve not thought too far ahead. People want me to say: ‘Yeah I’ll do it here for a while, then step to something else’, but I’m not looking at it like that. Whatever job you go into, you have to commit yourself to it, and I think there’s potential here.”
One thing is clear as FFT observes training: coaching remains Pearson’s passion. Fans are welcome to watch, and we’re joined pitchside not only by one man and his dog but one man and his two dogs. “I live locally so I’m here every day,” explains Willy Vanautgaerden.
Pearson is chuckling along with the banter between players during the rondo, and then encourages his squad as they take part in a drill focused on getting the ball out wide and putting crosses into the box. “Well done! Good!”
Training is conducted in English, which isn’t a problem for the players. Belgians don’t all speak the same language, with the country mainly a mixture of French and Dutch speakers. Among the side are defender Elliott Moore, on loan from Leicester, and Scottish forward Tony Watt, once a match-winner for Celtic against Barcelona.
I’ve got no intention of just coming over here and seeing how it goes. It’s a chance to do something over a period of time, but you have got to get results to buy you the time to do that – that’s how the game is
On a new pitch funded by the club’s owners, and laid with the help of groundsmen from Leicester City, Pearson soon sets up an 11-a-side, where he asks for a combination of passing and the odd ball over the top to stretch play – like he did with Jamie Vardy and his team-mates back in England. There’s a moment’s irritation from him when players go against his instructions and try to play the ball out from the back a tad too riskily. He’s not afraid to get angry with his troops, although the emphasis is on explaining things rather than just barking at them. The two dogs on the touchline can do that.
“I enjoy coaching,” he tells FFT afterwards. “Here I’ve probably spent more time on the training field than I have for quite a while.”
Pearson had been out of football for nearly a year before joining OHL – his previous job an ill-fated spell in charge of Derby. He lasted only nine league games before being suspended on the day of a game at Cardiff, amid reports of a breakdown of his relationship with owner Mel Morris. He departed a few weeks later, and admits it was a mistake to take the Rams job.