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Bowler's Delivery: Perception isn't everything

20 May 2015

Making plans with Nigel

FOOTBALL is a devil for throwing up odd coincidences and bits of synchronicity, and it was at it again last weekend.

Ten years ago, May 15 2005, the Albion completed the Premier League’s first “Great Escape” defined, it seems, as staying in the top division despite being bottom of the pile on Christmas Day. Albion were the first team to do it in Premier League history, making it a pretty big deal at the time.

Then, on May 16 2015, ten years and a day later, Leicester City became the third team to achieve what statistics suggest is the near impossible, the Foxes doing it in even greater style, with a whole 90 minutes in hand, which, if you ask me, is showing off a bit.

The common denominator in those two acts of escapology? Nigel Pearson, assistant to Bryan Robson at the Hawthorns, then the man at the top at Leicester. 

I was lucky enough to work with Nigel over a couple of years here and I’m here to tell you that the Nigel Pearson you think you know from his media appearances is light years away from the one who made such a huge impression – and contribution – at The Hawthorns.

One thing that does come across is his intensity. Nigel is a very focused individual, passionate about his work and with a very clear idea of just what he wants to achieve and how he wants to achieve it.

Internally, within the football club, that creates a great sense of calm. In our “Great Escape” season, it was very evident that Pearson believed in Bryan Robson, believed in the players and believed that our fixture list provided opportunities. There was no sense of panic but instead, while Robson dealt with the public face of the club, a very clear line – work hard, believe in what we are doing and we will get there. Things must have been similar at Leicester in recent months.

Of course, at Leicester, he has had to be the public face himself and clearly he is less than enamoured with that. I’m not keen to speak on his behalf – he’s a lot bigger than me – but I suspect that while he understands that it’s the media that funds the game, theirs is a game he doesn’t much like playing.

While away from the game he is good and lively company, at work, he is a serious man who, I think, finds it hard to take seriously the questions he gets asked week after week. Given I’m on the questioning side of the fence and have, believe me, asked more than my quota of stunningly stupid questions over the years, I have sympathies in both camps, with the journos and with Pearson for having to put up with us.

But here is the great inconsistency with which we live these days. We bemoan a lack of characters, we complain that people never say anything, that he game is reported under strict Pravda guidelines. It’s a reasonable point. But why then, when someone speaks his mind, calls a spade a great shovel and simply tells it as it is, are they immediately treated as some kind of leper by the same media that should be lapping it up? It’s an oddity of the age that’s not restricted merely to football, but one that we would all do well to contemplate.

Of course, some can get away with being a bit maverick when it comes to dealing with the members of Her Majesty’s Press. Take a look at the current Albion boss for instance. Tony Pulis might well be the most maverick of the lot in many ways. There are few managers who can better turn a press conference in the direction he wants it go than Pulis, no small feat in front of a pack of baying hacks. 

Whenever he meets the press, Pulis is in command, dictating the agenda either without his audience realising it, or with them full complicit in it. Take the written press conference after beating Chelsea. Some managers might have milked beating the champions for all it was worth. Pulis? A conference clocking in at 36 seconds. Thank you and goodnight. He doesn’t stand up to do his pressers for effect you know. He’s on his marks, getting set and going. 

Where Tony scores over Nigel is that before he’s sprinting up the corridor, he has dropped out something the press can use, be it a nugget of information or a smart one liner. He may not have been there long, but he’s ensured that scraps have fallen from the table for the pack to feast upon.

Nigel Pearson won’t play the game on any terms though and as such, he is characterised by some as a dinosaur. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is a coach who, to quote Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, wants to 'add up all those inches' to make the difference. Innovative to the nth degree, it was that speech that played a big part in Albion’s survival – look it up on youtube but beware, the language is a shade fruity.

Pearson it was who took that speech and brought it into the media office to broadcast guru Scott Field – whatever became of him? – and ordered him to put the speech to some inspirational footage of the players scoring goals, making saves, winning tackles. Pearson pored over it again and again until it was right, making changes throughout, and then it was played, again and again, on the team bus and in meetings ahead of those key games. It might not have been a deciding factor, but it was one of those inches that counted.

There’s a great warmth to Nigel Pearson too which doesn’t always come across on screen. On Astle Day for instance, he went out of his way to talk to the Astle family, both before the game and at half-time, when his side was losing, showing the greatest respect for the occasion and its meaning.

On a day to day basis, that warmth extends beyond his players and takes in the whole club. If you have worked with him, you can understand why Leicester kept faith in him because up close, he’s the kind of person for whom people want to go the extra mile, a characteristic that he has in common with the man he might well succeed as the Manager of the Year. You all know who that is, and there’ll be plenty more about him next week…

So, yes, he did bugger up Astle Day for us, but let’s forgive and forget shall we? Nigel Pearson, the Houdini of modern football (and a thoroughly decent bloke), we salute you. 

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