Nigel Pearson has admitted he thought his managerial career was on its last legs before he was asked to save Watford’s season and that the idea he would be facing José Mourinho and Tottenham on Saturday is something he could never have countenanced when he was out of work last year.
The turnaround in Pearson’s fortunes has been even more remarkable than that uptick he has overseen at Vicarage Road given that in February 2019 he was sacked as manager of the Belgian second-tier club OH Leuven. The following month he spent what was ostensibly a walking holiday in Gairloch, in the north-west of Scotland and reconciled himself to the idea his time in the dugout could be over.
“I wouldn’t have been thinking it was possible, of course I wouldn’t,” he said when asked whether managing at Premier League level again would, on a vacation whose weather conditions meant Pearson spent more time holed up in the pub than hiking the nearby mountains, have crossed his mind. “It really is a situation that’s come out of nothing. I was semi-retired, more or less.”
It was to widespread surprise that Watford made Pearson their third manager of the season on 6 December, with the club bottom and seven points adrift of safety. Seven games and 14 points later they are a point clear of the teams in the relegation zone. It has evoked memories of the “great escape” he engineered with Leicester in 2014-15 and Pearson said he had no problem with being labelled a specialist in hauling teams out of trouble.
“I’ve been asked whether I was worried about getting a reputation as a firefighter and it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “If that’s how people want to look at it, fine. From my own perspective, coming into a situation like this, it’s just a good opportunity to work back in a league I didn’t think I’d be working in again. In terms of risk to my reputation or anything like that, I’m not bothered about those things. I wouldn’t have taken on the challenge if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of succeeding.
“It’s just one of those situations where clearly there was a need for something different. So far it’s going OK; I’m pleased with how we’ve started to turn things around but I’m also experienced enough to know that it’s still going to be a tough job to maintain the standards we’ve set and push on again.”
Pearson was amused by an invitation to reflect on similarities between him and Mourinho, lightheartedly making do with the idea both men “probably get into trouble a bit”. They are also both 56, at least until Mourinho’s birthday this month, and – perhaps most pertinently – have both been tasked with reviving flailing sides’ fortunes in mid-season.
“It’s never a straightforward thing to do, to be able to inherit a squad,” he said. “When you’re mid-season it’s never easy to get a team or a squad of players to function exactly the way you want them to.
“Our circumstances are different: this is where we are and we’ve got to do everything we can to stay up. I don’t know what the expectations are for Spurs this year; all I know is we’re going to play against a side with a lot of talent, against a top manager who’s had incredible success throughout the world, and we need to be at our best to come out on top.”
The pair have faced each other twice, Mourinho’s Chelsea team winning on both occasions in 2014-15 en route to the title. Their 3-1 win at the King Power Stadium that April was Leicester’s only defeat in the last nine games of that dramatic battle against the drop, although Pearson still pipped Mourinho to the manager of the month award.