Nigel Pearson is back. On a cold, overcast December morning he supervises OH Leuven’s practice session at a modest training complex enclosed by woodland. The canteen has received a lick of paint and Pearson selects a few photos to dress up this home from home for the manager and his players.
A small group of journalists quiz the former Leicester coach about his move to Belgium. He looks content and relaxed, even when the questions become repetitive. Leuven is a provincial town, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and, perhaps more famously, Stella Artois. The local team, playing in the Belgian second tier, boasts an average gate of 4,500 and a budget of roughly €5 million, buttressed by new Thai owners King Power. It’s a world away from the razzmatazz of the Premier League, but Pearson is relishing his first stint overseas.
“I had opportunities to stay in the UK but I wanted something different, a different type of challenge,” he explains. “This is a totally different footballing environment. I recognise that I have come into a club, which at the moment has good foundations, but there is room for growth in terms of our facilities and our potential as a football club. But, you know, it is more wide-ranging for me: it’s more about the experience. I am in the mid 50s now. I wanted something that was slightly different and to have a go at living abroad.”
Pearson returned to management in September after a year of unemployment following an unhappy spell at Derby County. His Belgian adventure is as much about professional development as it is success, tweaking his British blueprint of coaching with continental philosophies and styles. Pearson follows in the footsteps of a raft of British coaches who managed abroad; Roy Hodgson, Bobby Robson, Steve McClaren, Tony Adams, Gary Neville and David Moyes among others. Few, however, left a lasting impression.
“Historically, there have been some successful managers working abroad from the UK, but not a high volume,” says Pearson. “It begs a few questions of the problems that English managers have breaking into different top leagues – mandatory coaching qualifications have only really been in existence in the UK for 15 years, and so in terms of being able to work in some of the leagues it’s been problematic. When David Platt went to Sampdoria, it was a problem because he didn’t have his licenses at that point. He wasn’t able to work in the role they wanted him to go into.”
But Pearson sees another, perhaps more profound, problem that explains the paucity of British managers abroad. “Some leagues in Europe have a strong home culture influence. Go to the Bundesliga, France and Italy, and there is a very strong identity, with the majority of the coaches probably still from the home nation. I don’t think there is as much foreign ownership in some of those countries. All of those things together mean that for the British coach in England to get jobs in the top league, it is quite rare. There are a few English coaches, but not too many. It has a knock-on effect for English or British coaches – there still haven’t been as many coaches working abroad.”
In the UK that home culture influence is almost non-existent, or so is the widely held view. The stats suggest differently: eight out of the 20 Premier League managers are British, following the recent appointments of David Moyes at West Ham United and Sam Allardyce at Everton. All top six clubs, aspiring to Champions League football, have foreign coaches. Sean Dyche is the highest ranked British coach in 7th place with his valiant Burnley side, while Eddie Howe, Alan Pardew, Hodgson, Moyes and Paul Clement linger in or just above the relegation zone.
“Well, they [foreign coaches] are not all top coaches,” Pearson suggests. “The assumption is that all the coaches going there are the top coaches and that’s for people to make their own judgements about that. You have to understand sometimes that there are trends that apply.”
At OH Leuven, Pearson replaced Dennis Van Wijk, a Dutch coach and journeyman in Belgian football. Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha offered Pearson the job over the phone and the 54-year old didn’t hesitate, even though his relationship with Srivaddhanaprabha had been strained after his dismissal by the Foxes in controversial circumstances in 2015. Pearson watched Leicester’s Premier League title success from afar as they battered the prevailing dogmas and cliches of the game.
“The story of going on to win the Premier League was unbelievable. It’s something which is good for football. It’s a really good story; a culmination of a lot of hard work [and] a club which maximised its position.”
Pearson coached Leicester from 2011-2015, winning promotion to the Premier League and inspiring their top-flight survival with seven wins in the final nine games of the 2014/15 campaign. In part, he helped form the core of Claudio Ranieri’s eulogised outfit, yet he has taken little credit for Leicester’s remarkable rise. “It doesn’t matter what other people think. I do think that there are people who recognise the work I have done there. It doesn’t matter, I know what I have done myself. I don’t need public recognition. I don’t need sympathy or anything like that. The work that I do is enough.”
In his new environment Pearson will need to match his drive with results, because King Power have big ambitions in Leuven. He has been tasked with winning promotion to the Belgian top flight. It’s a complicated assignment: the league format is complex with a narrow pathway to the top. The division has eight clubs and the season is split in two tournaments, with the winners meeting in a two-leg promotion play-off to decide who goes up. In the autumn Pearson and OH Leuven just missed out on top spot to Beerschot Wilrijk.
“I am a bit of an optimist,” Pearson continues. “I am not somebody who spends time dwelling on negative aspects of life or football in particular. We will have to wait and see, but we will have to be very, very good. I have seen some improvements: the club is developing on a lot of levels. That’s the bigger picture. Everybody who is interested in football will want to know the results and that’s what we have to keep a perspective on. Although this is a project which has long-term possibilities, when you are involved in the sharp end of football management you have to maintain your focus very much on the present and make sure results stay positive to buy time.”
The Thai model worked at Leicester City; can it be copied in Leuven? That is now Pearson’s aim as he continues his journey in the Belgian leagues.
“OH Leuven has the potential to develop. When King Power decided to go to England, they could have very easily bought a Premier League club, but they decided to buy a Championship club that had potential on a slightly bigger scale. For them, it’s very much a project they want to invest time and money in. So it’s not a quick fix. It’s something they want to work on over a period of time.”