A club who started out the season poorly and is looking to end their time in the top-tier of football gets saved by a new manager who was signed in the middle of the season in an attempt to save them. Sound familiar? Here’s another clue: 2015, Leicester City. That’s right, we’re talking about Nigel Pearson. Funnily enough, a few years later, he finds himself in familiar territory.
When he was signed, Watford players were kind of wondering what Pearson’s motives were and what his goal for the club was. All that seemed to disappear into dust during the half-time break in their match against Liverpool. For 38 minutes, they held the league leaders under control but would eventually fall. Heading into the dressing room at half-time, they felt like they had accomplished something. But that was them, and not Pearson.
As goalkeeper Ben Foster says, he (Pearson) blasted one player in a manner that was akin to ‘sticking a rocket up him like you wouldn’t believe’. After half-time, the players reappeared on the field as if nothing happened. However, to them, their new manager had made his point. Even though they would lose that match which would leave them six points away from 19th place, it was clear that Pearson wanted them to get their act together. Since then, they haven’t lost a match.
Before Pearson took the helm, Watford had only won one of their 16 games under two managers – Javi Gracia and replacement Quique Sanchez Flores. Under the two combined, they took nine points from a possible 48. Under Pearson, the club has taken 13 points from a possible 18. They’ve beaten the likes of Manchester United and the Wolves, and have won both matches against Aston Villa and Bournemouth who are also facing relegation. Most importantly, they are a single point above the 18th place. All this happened after no more than a month when they were expected to be relegated.
When Watford players speak of Pearson and the strategy he implemented in them, three words usually sum it up: discipline, clarity, and respect. Because that’s just it. Pearson’s message is clear, focused, and powerful for being the way it is. How’d he do it?
Well, first, he addressed the absence of discipline in the club. In an interview, Foster said, ‘Sometimes you need to treat footballers like school children and be harsh with them. The difference between the previous two managers and Nigel… they were coaches but this club has been calling out for a manager. Nigel is a manager and takes complete control – timings, logistics, everything. Off the field, things started to creep in – sloppy things – and it gets worse and worse. It’s like a bacteria’.
‘The current manager has pulled everybody together. He makes an example of you if you do something wrong, so everybody thinks: “I’m not going to be that guy next time.”’, he continued. ‘When he gets you in a room, he holds the room and everybody stops talking straight away’.
Instead of fighting the change, they chose to accept it – willingly – and use it as motivation to get better. ‘If you don’t buy into what the gaffer wants, you won’t be here’, said captain Tory Deeney. ‘He has hammered me a few times but he has been brilliant with me. For the first time in eight years, I have been treated like a proper man. When you are captain, you do as you are told. If you are treated like a man and with respect, then you reciprocate that’.
Pearson isn’t just a strict manager. He is adept at assessing what his team needs, when they need it, and how he should give it to them. This is especially useful when points are critical. On his second day as Watford’s manager, he introduced himself to every department and every employee, showing off qualities that are similar to those that the late Graham Taylor displayed when he was manager.
‘His people skills are brilliant. He can talk to people and gets to know everyone around the training ground’, says Foster. ‘He is just doing laps around the place keeping tabs on everybody. In training, it’s different sessions. We’ve had Spanish coaches, so it’s going to be different. Nigel’s way of doing it is that you give everything for those sessions. Shorter sessions – but more intense’.
Troy Deeney shares the same thoughts and said, ‘His man-management is massively underrated. His technical team, too. You’ve got him, Shakey [Craig Shakespeare] as well – but then also he’s implemented Hayden Mullins and Stacky [Graham Stack], who have got bags of experience’. His ability to manage the players shone during the 3-0 win against Villa at the end of December. He substituted Nathaniel Chalobah a mere 15 minutes after he came onto the pitch at half-time. Foster said, ‘He brought him off and everyone was like: “That’s not nice.” But the first thing Pearson said was: “I have to apologise to Nat. I had to do it for the team.” Nat was gutted at going off and close to tears, but he made a point of saying that in front of everybody, and Nat can respect that and he has come back from it’.
A change in approach off the pitch can also help in improving the club. Pearson made changes to how Watford approach things which is now slowly giving back. The effect that a determined manager has helps the players psychologically. ‘The thing that has changed totally: the work rate. Everyone is working hard for each other’, said Craig Dawson. ‘If someone is slightly out of position, the person next to them is helping them out. You can see that throughout the pitch. Everyone has got each other’s backs’.