“The two couldn’t be more different, to be honest,” says former Leicester centre-back Spencer Prior. “The highs and lows were incredible under Martin (O’Neill). If you won he would give you three days off. And if you lost? You'd be back on the bus and straight back in for a rollicking on Sunday morning.”
Prior is speaking to FFT from the Gold Coast in Australia, and Leicester’s former Essex boy clearly sees more silver linings than dark clouds as his former club continue to make a mockery of their status as relegation candidates before the season kicked off.
Far from scrabbling around Premier League bins in search of points, the Foxes have been this season’s surprise package, picking up eight points in five matches against Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Stoke and Manchester United.
“To be honest, when the fixtures came out I thought we would do well to get one point out of those first five matches,” laughs club legend Steve Walsh, smile still fixed firmly to his face after Sunday’s 5-3 demolition of Manchester United.
The two questions everyone is asking, of course, are whether Leicester’s start to the season is a flash in the pan, and if Nigel Pearson is really Martin O’Neill in disguise – just a bit taller and perhaps 115% less excitable.
But while Pearson can at times make Jack Dee look animated, there’s no doubt that the Leicester team he has created is intent on playing football regardless of the opposition.
PEARSON'S FOXES GONGS
- League One winner (2008/09)
- Championship winner (2013/14)
Mind you, it’s a sign of the times that putting five past Manchester United no longer constitutes a seismic shock: after all, even MK Dons managed to score four against a backline that’s beginning to resemble a travelling circus troupe.
“They’ve got the front end of a Ferrari and the back end of a Fiat Panda,” says Prior. “When we went 2-0 down I was thinking the Man United machine was going to kick in but there’s no fear when it comes to them anymore. That said, Leicester aren’t scared of anyone and that showed on Sunday.
“They looked like scoring every time they went forward. You look at some of the players and they haven’t really changed too much from last year. That just shows that if you have a successful squad you only need to add one or two players to it to keep building it up. That helps you develop a culture within a club and that can breed success.”
All of which makes Pearson’s recipe for success remarkably similar to O’Neill’s.
Walsh, who played 369 matches for Leicester in a 14-year career, and made seven appearances at Wembley under the Northern Irishman, agrees.
“There’s no comparison in the style of play or the tactics used between this side and the team that I was in,” he says. “But it’s the team spirit that’s very similar. That’s a vital component in any team’s armoury because if you have the right team spirit and the bond between the players, manager and staff, that can get you a long way. There would never be wholesale changes at Leicester during Martin’s time at the club; players were brought in and developed gradually.”
If you have the right team spirit and bond between the players and manager, that can get you a long way"
- Former Leicester skipper Steve Walsh
O’Neill’s Leicester managed four top 10 Premier League finishes despite the team lacking the star names of many of the sides that ended up finishing below them.
In many ways the prosaic talents of Walsh and Prior epitomised the way that O’Neill wanted his team to play, with the rugged Neil Lennon in central midfield and the endless energy of Muzzy Izzet providing the base that launched Leicester as a Premier League force.
“The modern game of football is passing through the three thirds of the pitch. In our day it was all about not taking any chances – and smacking it into Row Z if you had to,” admits Walsh.
The work ethic that Leicester exhibited under O’Neill, though, is still clearly in evidence. And with the promise of more investment to come, Prior suggests that Pearson’s 2014 vintage could be ready to re-establish the club among the elite.
O'NEILL AT LEICESTER
- First Division play-offs (1995/96)
- League Cup (1997, 2000)
- Four consecutive top 10 finishes
“Nigel Pearson has done a wonderful job and it’s brilliant seeing what they’re doing so far,” he says. “During my time there no one really wanted to leave the club and now it has even more potential. The owners are minted.
“We always hear the stories of when they get to the Premier League they’re going to spend a lot of money, but even in the Championship they were spending significant coin on a wage bill that was probably bottom half Premier League anyway.
“These players obviously want to do that at the highest level they can but they now know they can do that here. Are they really going to leave Leicester and go to Hull? Southampton? I don’t think so.”
Pearson himself only signed a new contract shortly before the start of the season – a signing that looks like one of the shrewdest pieces of business that the club’s Thai owners have carried out – and with his feet firmly under the table he’s allowing his players to perform with a freedom that’s both courageous and refreshing.
“Martin O’Neill ruled by fear,” says Prior, now working for the Australian Football Federation in Tasmania. “As a player you played under a fear of failure – a failure to get results, a failure to perform to the best of your ability, a fear of letting him down and letting your mates down. You were driven by that.
As a player you played under a fear of failure. You were driven by that"
- Ex-Foxes stopper Spencer Prior
“Nigel Pearson seems to be very much driven by motivating the players to perform to their maximum. I think he’s allowing them to be more creative and fulfil their potential. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong because I really thrived under Martin O’Neill and the way he went about things. I was successful under him at Norwich and at Leicester through that fear of failure. I still work on that now.
“Nigel himself has his own motivation because he left the club and then came back – he’s probably still feeding off what happened before.”
Now, with Leicester looking up rather than down the Premier League table and with their hardest fixtures already behind, rather than in front of them, Walsh believes Pearson can build on his burgeoning reputation as the season progresses.
“He can take over O’Neill’s mantle,” he says. “They are the two best managers we’ve ever had at the football club without a shadow of a doubt.”
More Leicester fans would probably agree.
Steve Walsh’s autobiography ‘Fifty Shades of Blue – The Truth Uncovered’ is available from November 8 here