It is a beautiful autumnal morning at OH Leuven’s training ground, the sunshine beaming down over the top of the trees that flank the practice pitches as eight men, one woman and a black labrador watch Nigel Pearson’s players put through their paces. Give it a few more weeks and OH Leuven’s coach will probably know the spectators by name. “Normally I’d spend five minutes having a chat with them,” says Pearson, smiling. “They were a bit down this morning, on the crest of a slump, bless them.”
Back in work since the end of September after the best part of a year in the wilderness – quite literally in one respect given that some of it was spent walking the 87-mile Ridgeway Path that stretches from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire – Pearson is anything but downbeat. Managing abroad for the first time in his career has put a spring in his step as he pulls up a chair in the canteen to discuss everything from Brexit and beer to ostriches and open training. “I find it quite amusing that it’s feasible that your opponents can have somebody watching you,” says Pearson, chuckling.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, the 54-year-old looks and sounds like a man who has rediscovered, via the modest but welcoming surroundings of a Belgian second division club, just how much football means to him. “That’s what this has done for me; if I was questioning whether I had fallen out of love with the game, then maybe this has given me a bit of perspective back on that,” Pearson says. “There’s a realism to it here, a humility.”
Working at OH Leuven, where the average attendance is around 4,500 and the players share a drink with the supporters after a match, has been liberating in that sense. “When I first saw that, it just made me smile,” Pearson says. “It’s fantastic. The way football has evolved in some of the bigger leagues in the world, you’d have to say there has become a bigger distance between the contact that you have, for everybody really. It’s quite refreshing actually to experience something as simplistic as enjoying winning a game, and the players and the fans being together.”
Pearson has always fancied a stint overseas, yet he could never have imagined his opportunity would come about in this way. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester’s chairman, had not spoken to Pearson since firing him in 2015 after their relationship broke down in the wake of an unsavoury incident on an end-of-season tour in Thailand, where the manager’s son, James, was one of three players sacked for taking part in filmed sex acts with local women.
A little more than two years later, and not long after completing a takeover at OH Leuven, Srivaddhanaprabha was at the other end of the phone again – this time with a job offer. “It did come very much out of the blue,” Pearson says. “I had some contact with the owners and they asked me if I’d like to meet up and discuss the possibility of coming out here, and I said: ‘Why not?’ It was done in quite a low-key way because I think what was going to be important for myself and Vichai, especially with what had happened with the Leicester situation, was just to do it between us. There will be a number of people out there who might be slightly taken by surprise by the fact that we’re working together again, albeit in different circumstances. But I think there was an element of that which made it even more attractive.”
In between working for Leicester and OH Leuven, Pearson had an unhappy five-month stint at Derby County that ended with him departing by mutual consent after a furious row with Mel Morris, the club’s owner. “I think all I can say about that is that it was a bad choice by me and it was a bad choice by them probably,” Pearson says. “We all make decisions which turn out to be not necessarily the right ones, but this feels a lot more like what I’m looking for. It’s got a different feel, there are possibilities here, and I think it’s a stimulus that I need.”
Football is not the be-all and end-all for Pearson, who seems to disappear from the game whenever he is out of work. He gives the impression that he would prefer to be trekking across the countryside for days on end, losing himself on national trails, rather than in a TV studio as a pundit, which he describes as “just not my scene”.
Although he remains good friends with Steve Walsh and Craig Shakespeare, his former assistants at Leicester, Pearson gives an interesting insight into his personality when he explains why the other two see each other more. “I like my own space and they’re more gregarious people – I think that would be a fair way of putting it,” he says.
Critical self-analysis appears to come easy to a man who has been involved in his fair share of scrapes in the dugout. Honest and candid about mistakes he has made in the past, Pearson acknowledges that the pressurized world of football management “brings out the best of me and the worst of me as well”.
“I’ve been in a few tangles in my time,” he says. “And a lot of them have been of my own making because of how I feel I need to protect the people I’m working with – that is the players. And if sometimes that manifests itself into doing rather strange things then, yeah … I have to accept the trouble I’ve got into. A lot of it has been either decisions I’ve made, or probably not thought long and hard enough about. But that’s what it is.
“When I say it brings the worst out of me, it doesn’t matter where and at what level you work, if you are totally committed to doing something, what you have to accept is that some of the trade-off for getting a buzz out of doing what you do is that it can be all-consuming, and that can be detrimental to your health and sometimes your behaviour and how you interact with people, because I can be very, very intense in those sorts of situations. Part and parcel of trying to understand and recognise your strengths and weaknesses is to be brutally honest with how you reflect on what you are yourself. I can’t fundamentally change what I am. But if you said to me: ‘Would you do one or two things differently?’ Yeah, of course I would. But anybody can say that.”
The night that Pearson called a journalist an ostrich springs to mind and it is arguably one of the first things people think of whenever his name is mentioned these days. “I can’t do anything about that, so there’s no point worrying about it. And if that is how people remember me,” Pearson says, breaking into laughter, “then I’ve probably not done very much in the game, have I?”
His track record suggests otherwise. As well as enjoying a distinguished playing career, Pearson won the League One and Championship titles as Leicester’s manager across two separate spells, and masterminded the remarkable great escape that culminated in the club winning seven of their last nine matches to survive in the Premier League in 2015. In Pearson’s eyes, however, his greatest achievement at Leicester was building a new team after “dismantling a side that didn’t function” when he replaced Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2011.
Shakespeare was his assistant in those days and Pearson hopes that his former No2 will “be bitten by the bug” despite being sacked only four months after his appointment as Leicester manager. “I was really disappointed for him,” Pearson says. “But there’s no damage done to his reputation, so he’ll be fine. And your earning power as a manager is considerable compared to being a coach, so it’s hardly been a bad experience for him. He’ll have learned an awful lot and he’ll have a bit more money in the bank than he would have done – and good for him on that.”
For Pearson right now the primary focus is on adapting to his new life in Belgium. The fact that everyone speaks English is a huge help, and keeping in touch with his family should be easier once the internet is connected at his apartment in nearby Ottenburg. As for Leuven, which is less than half an hour on the train from Brussels, Pearson smiles when it is pointed out to him that as well as having a reputation for being a vibrant student city, it also happens to be the home of Stella Artois. “It’s interesting, because it’s the weakest beer I’ve drunk here,” he says, laughing.
His expression is rather different when asked how an Englishman working abroad feels about Brexit. “I’m a remain man. Absolutely. I think it’s a travesty, personally,” Pearson says. “It’s all right for the Scots and the Welsh to say that they’re Scots and Welsh. But I’m an English-European. I don’t agree with it [Brexit]. I was bloody annoyed, if I’m honest.”
Getting out of the Belgian second tier seems only marginally more straightforward than exiting the European Union. There are only eight clubs in the division and the season is split into two separate tournaments, with the winners meeting in a two-leg promotion play-off. There are also relegation and Europa League play-offs based on an aggregate table. “To guarantee automatic promotion you need to win both halves of the season, so clearly we can’t do that,” says Pearson, whose team are about to start the second 14-game tournament after finishing runners-up in the first. “Last season Lierse were the side that won the most points overall and they didn’t go up. It is complex but there’s no point getting bogged down with all that.”
Not when life in Belgium is ticking so many other boxes for Pearson. He smiles. “I was asked by somebody: ‘Are you still ambitious?’ I replied: ‘Yeah.’ So they said: ‘What are you doing here then?’ People will have their opinions about the level of football – ‘Why there?’ – but there’s more to it than just football. For me it’s very much a case of embracing the whole idea of being involved in a different culture. It’s been a very refreshing experience and I suppose it’s what I needed as well.”