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"
“Bloody hell, is this resurfacing again?!” chuckles Pearson. “I was just walking by myself in the Carpathian mountains. When you’re up in the high pastures in the summer, there are these dogs. They weren’t wild. They are kept with flocks of sheep to protect them from bear attacks, but you’ve got to be careful with them. I got into a very tricky situation that I was able to get out of, but there have been fatalities and some very nasty occurrences in the past.
“For sure it wasn’t a pleasant experience, and because I’ve been daft enough to share it, it’s something I keep getting asked about. It’s one of those life experiences that some people would say is a good yarn. But I don’t look at it in any sort of flippant way and it’s not something I’m proud of – it’s just something I experienced that I wouldn’t want to experience ever again.”
I don't think about whether it could have been me with Leicester in 2016. You need to be able to get past whatever happened. You need to move on to the next part of your life
A different way of life
There are no such dangers in Belgium. “Not around here, fortunately,” says Pearson. “I’ve not had many chances to go walking – to be honest I spend most of my time here at the training ground. But it’s good for cycling. I’ve got a couple of bikes and I get out and about.
“Where I live it’s quiet – a village about 10km from here – and I feel at home. Since I arrived I’ve been back to the UK twice, and once was over Christmas. I’ve not come here to flit backwards and forwards, I’ve come here to live. I have a Belgian ID card and you have to get into the local culture. I’ve heard of people who’ve worked abroad, then spent all of their time living in hotels. I can’t do that.”
The quiet life suits Pearson, but moving to Belgium was never about getting away from it all. It was the fulfilment of an ambition – he said no to jobs in England before accepting OHL’s offer.
“I’d had discussions about several jobs that either didn’t happen for me or weren’t things I was that interested in,” he explains. “I wanted something a bit different after my previous job. Something where I felt I could enjoy myself, a challenge. I like anonymity, but that’s not what this is about.
“I needed something that was going to stimulate me. For years, I’ve always had aspirations to work abroad at some point. Early in my coaching career I worked for the FA, working with the under-16s through to the under-21s, and I would spend a lot of time working at tournaments and travelling abroad to see games. It opens your eyes. I wanted a different experience.”
Whether working abroad becomes more difficult for English bosses after Brexit, only time will tell. “God help us, yeah...” adds Pearson. “I’m Remain, absolutely. But unfortunately Brexit’s going to happen. I don’t even watch any of that stuff from afar now, to be honest. We get BBC News over here and I read the papers from time to time, but even back at home I don’t think it’s particularly clear what’s actually happening, is it?”
Pearson is hardly in exile in Leuven – his wife splits her time between England and Belgium, and he received a visit at a recent match from 100 Leicester fans, all singing his name. Did that mean something to him? “Yeah that was great,” he says with a laugh. “Some of our fans are going over there too. It’s a good initiative.”
But while Leicester have provided OHL with some assistance, Pearson is eager to point out that the Belgian side aren’t seen as some sort of feeder club. “The owners are an obvious link with Leicester and it’s natural for people to talk about the two clubs in the same breath,” he explains. “But it’s important we establish ourselves with our own identity and keep the identity the club already has – and that’s OHL.”
A potential return?
Pearson has been tempted back to the Leicester job in the past. After departing for Hull during Milan Mandaric’s reign in 2010, having lifted the Foxes out of League One as champions and then immediately steered them to the Championship play-offs, he agreed to return 17 months later. Now that he’s being employed by King Power again, could a third spell occur one day?
“I would think that’s highly unlikely,” says the 54-year-old, as our chat draws to a close and we let him get on with his day. While he never looked entirely at ease talking about the turbulent times at Leicester, he has been friendly throughout and offers a handshake once more as we depart, before putting his glasses back on and attending to business on his office laptop.
Two days later and it’s matchday at OH Leuven’s smart home ground, renamed the ‘King Power at Den Dreef Stadium’ following the summer takeover. We’ve made our way out onto the concourse, where Jochem Sterckx is among the supporters supping Stella Artois, the beer brand founded in Leuven in 1926.
“I knew a bit about Nigel Pearson before he arrived because I follow the Premier League and the lower divisions in England – and also I play Football Manager!” says Sterckx. “I didn’t know his whole resume, or about any press conferences he had done, but he was introduced as the man who took Leicester from the third division to the Premier League. I can imagine if you’re the owner of the club you believe, ‘OK, maybe he will lift this club up’.”
Around 3,700 fans are here for the match against Union. Pearson is prowling the touchline, offering claps of encouragement. OHL need to win to keep their slim promotion hopes alive, and they’re in front early on when former Motherwell striker Esteban Casagolda sweeps home a left-wing cross. It’s a move reminiscent of the ones Pearson worked on at training a few days earlier.
The manager is hugging his assistants on the touchline when goalkeeper Nick Gillekens makes a crucial save to preserve the home side’s lead, and 15 seconds later their left-back Derrick Tshimanga surges forward to make it 2-0.
Pearson offers a thumbs-up to the crowd on the way to the dressing room at half-time, and it’s 3-0 soon after the interval as new signing Samy Kehli sets up Nikola Storm to put the game beyond the visitors. Supporters sing along to Sweet Caroline with gusto and then cry: “We want four!” after Elliott Moore sees his strike ruled out for offside. The English chant is not for Pearson’s benefit – fans of both teams largely sing in English. “Your support is f**king s**t!” Union fans cheekily chant during a lull in the atmosphere. The visitors pull one goal back but OHL run out relatively comfortable 3-1 winners to go third in the table – six points off top spot with six games left.
Pearson heads off to the media room for a press conference next to his opposite number, as is the tradition in Belgium. Both managers are invited to give their thoughts and Union’s Marc Grosjean kicks things off, speaking at length in French as Pearson sips his coffee, unaware of what’s being said. When it’s his turn, he talks slowly and deliberately, but without a Steve McClaren foreign accent.
“I think we deserved to win the game – we created opportunities throughout,” he opines. “It was a game that we needed to win. There’s not a great deal of margin for error at the moment. It’s going to be very tough for us but the win keeps us in with a possibility.”
Pearson speaks for three minutes uninterrupted, covering off all likely questions. When he’s done, there’s silence in the room – not one reporter asks a question and the bosses bid a cordial farewell. It’s all rather different from the cut-and-thrust of a Premier League press conference, and Pearson doesn’t look entirely unhappy about that.
In Leuven, he’s largely been able to concentrate on the key part of football management he actually enjoys: managing footballers. After the events of his previous two jobs, that suits him just fine.
This original version of this feature appeared in the March 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!