INTERVIEW: Nigel Pearson admits his time in charge of Bristol City has been ‘really tough’ but believes ‘anything is possible’ in FA Cup clash against Manchester City… and he’s looking forward to a reunion with Riyad Mahrez
- Nigel Pearson has spoken of the difficulties of his tenure at Bristol City
- Pearson’s side have had to balance the books but are showing good signs
- The Bristol City boss is relishing the FA Cup tie against Manchester City
Nigel Pearson thrusts out his hand and, by this point, there’s no turning back. He’s going to shake yours so buckle up and brace yourself. This is as much a test as a greeting.
‘Y’all right, lad,’ he says, smiling, as the grip tightens, the blood drains from your fingers and you wonder if you’ll ever type again. ‘How’s it going?’
Pearson’s in good spirits as we sit at a quiet table in the Avon Gorge hotel near the Clifton Suspension Bridge on the day Pearson celebrated his two-year anniversary in charge of Bristol City. And why not, things are on the up.
The Robins are 12 games unbeaten in all competitions and victory over Pearson’s former club Hull on Saturday ended with the 59-year-old dancing his way down the tunnel. Not a bad run of form for the visit of Manchester City in the FA Cup on Tuesday night and a reunion with former Leicester City star Riyad Mahrez.
Pearson’s in better shape too. Covid-19 left him with rheumatoid arthritis and a heart condition that caused an irregular, often rapid, pulse. An operation in November fixed most of the problems, though his shoulder’s still giving him a bit of stick.
Nigel Pearson has admitted that his time in charge of Bristol City has been ‘really tough’
The handshake is firm as ever but there’s no doubt Pearson’s mellowed over the years. It’s eight of them since he called a journalist an ostrich and throttled an opposition player on the touchline. He’s 60 in a few months, even if he’s ‘still 25 in my head’. He’s a granddad, too. He’s ‘Poppa’ to Isabella, who is two soon, and his daughter Hannah is expecting her second child in May.
‘It melts your heart when she calls me Poppa,’ says Pearson, unable to hide the grin spreading across his face. ‘Life changes all of us.’
If he’s being honest – and with Pearson that’s always a given – he didn’t think he’d still be managing at his age. And he certainly wasn’t sure he’d still be managing Bristol City.
‘Sometimes the job is wider than people think it is,’ he says. ‘This job has been far more complex because of our circumstances. It’s been really tough.
‘I have had to find energy from somewhere I didn’t know I’d got it at times, the mental strength to find the answers to some of the questions. It’s been a big drain but it’s worth working hard to find the answers.
‘I’ve had moments where I’ve thought it’s not going to last but I’m not going to give up on it.’
Pearson had to get the wage bill down at Bristol City in order to comply with Financial Fair Play
Pearson had to get the wage bill down to comply with Financial Fair Play. He’s had to ship out players who didn’t want to be there and who he didn’t want there. Some left on free transfers in January, others Pearson reveals the club paid to go. And he’s had to get results while he did so, results his side have not always earned.
When the Robins lost 2-0 at home to West Brom on Boxing Day, some of the home fans chanted for Pearson to be sacked. ‘I’m sure it crossed [the owner’s] mind about what the potential changes could be,’ admits Pearson, who is, incredibly, the third-longest-serving manager in the Championship. Eighteen of the 24 clubs have changed their manager in the last 10 months.
‘It’s been a frustrating time for the fans,’ he says. ‘It must be hard for them to keep faith because we talked a lot about trying to get to the Premier League and yet a lot of the work has been to cut back, trim the squad and cut costs.
‘Now we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve got young, exciting players and moving in a better direction. I suppose on Boxing Day a second anniversary looked a bit unlikely but we’ve done all right since that!’
There’s academy lads coming through. Young forward Sam Bell is in the goals, 19-year-old midfielder Alex Scott is a star of the future. They are learning off experienced heads like Leicester title winners Andy King and Matty James as well as Nakhi Wells and Andreas Weimann. The £10.5million sale of Antoine Semenyo in January helped fill the coffers.
Pearson drew a comparison with the work that he had to do in order to improve Leicester
Those who follow Leicester will hear a familiar tune from Pearson’s current tenure and his previous spell with the Foxes, where he laid the foundations for their title win but only once he’d cleared up – and cleared out – the expensive mess left behind by Sven-Goran Eriksson.
A club with Premier League ambitions but one with too many players, on too much money, with not enough desire to do the stuff that’s needed to get you there.
‘That season nearly broke me,’ says Pearson. ‘I think this job has been similar. There have been moments that have been really tough. It’s been hard to make progress. Sometimes, it’s been like swimming against the current while wearing a lead jacket. But we are making progress. And it’s rewarding now to see some of the young players coming through and having success and seeing people enjoying the football.’
Pearson believes anything is possible when Bristol City face Manchester City in the FA Cup
Does it bother him, though that, outside of Leicester, he perhaps doesn’t get the credit he deserves for their title win in 2016, the season after Pearson had kept them up against the odds before being sacked in the summer?
‘It matters to me to know that what I’ve done is worthwhile,’ says Pearson. ‘I appreciate what people say about Leicester but don’t under-estimate how the team was managed [by Claudio Ranieri] the year they won it. That was crucial as well. I don’t think there needs to be a black-and-white solution.’
It’s been 43 years since Bristol City were last in the top flight. Billionaire owner Stephen Landsown has invested in the infrastructure. Their multi-million-pound high performance centre opened in March 2021. The potential is huge. ‘Whoever gets it to take off, it can take off – providing that we stay true to what we are trying to do now.’
Pearson, unsurprisingly, refuses to get too excited about the prospect of facing Man City for a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals. ‘It’s a one-off game, which should be great for the players and the fans – but they will only enjoy it if we play well,’ he says. ‘Even then we’ve got it all on to win the game. Can we win the game? Well, anything’s possible. If they turn up in a rampant mood we’ll have to be brilliant on the night.’
Pearson is looking forward to a reunion with Riyad Mahrez, who he worked with at Leicester
One of those players who’s often in those moods is Mahrez, who Pearson signed for Leicester in 2014 for just £400,000 from the French second tier.
‘The first training session you could see how special he was. The acid test is always when the players go “oo, he’s a bit tasty”. He just had something that wasn’t coachable, it’s just “f***ing hell, that’s a bit special”. He didn’t speak the language and was very shy and quiet to start with – he livened up, don’t worry about that! These types of story – like the Jamie Vardy one – gives fans of other clubs something to dream about that, actually, there are different routes to being successful.’
Whatever the result on Tuesday night, Pearson will invite Pep Guardiola and his staff into his office after the game. It was always a bottle of red for Sir Alex Ferguson, but what can Bristol offer the top gaffer from the other side of Manchester?
‘A Thatcher’s? He can have a Thatcher’s cloudy.’
Source: Read Full Article