Nigel Pearson’s year of hell: Why Watford sacking ‘did not sit easy’ and the terrible impact of Covid on his health

Nigel Pearson has particular reason to want to see the back of 2020

Credit: CHARLIE FORGHAM-BAILEY

With remarkable understatement, Nigel Pearson admits it has been “an unusual year”.

That is one way of putting it. If 2020 is unlikely to be remembered with much fondness by anyone, Pearson has particular reason to want to see the back of it. 

It started with the loss of his mother and then saw him surprisingly sacked by Watford. Having already suffered a bout of coronavirus while still employed at the club, he then struggled with secondary symptoms that at one stage were so extreme he was struggling to even move. 

To cap it all, last month his son James retired from professional football at the age of 27 after a knee injury.

Pearson is now preparing himself for Lockdown 2.0, with the world still gripped by the pandemic, and is here conducting his first interview since that controversial dismissal from Watford. 

He is fully recovered and in good form, covering a wide range of subjects from his fears for the lower leagues, horse-riding and memorable quotes from actor Tim Roth, but it is clear that 2020 has taken a lot out of him.

“I’ve not been particularly well and it’s been good to have time to try and get back on track,” he says.

“We had a lot of cases at Watford and it transpired that I had Covid. I’m presuming I had it at the start in March when I was unwell for a couple of days, though I never had a high temperature.

“I’ve had some other problems which have developed since April. I had an irregular heartbeat at Watford and since then I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis, which is really not a nice thing to have.

“A couple of months ago I was really not well and there were times when it was very difficult. My heart is fine now but I’m still experiencing difficulties. The medication has been helpful and it’s an ongoing process.”

The last few months have enabled him to reflect on his tenure at Watford, which was brought to an abrupt end towards the end of last season. 

Pearson’s departure was a shock to many, especially to him and his assistant Craig Shakespeare. Appointed in December as the club’s third head coach of the season, he secured seven victories from 20 games – including the 3-0 win over Liverpool to snap Jurgen Klopp’s long unbeaten run – and gave Watford a chance of scrambling to safety.

Even after the chastening 3-1 defeat at West Ham, Watford were three points clear of the relegation zone with two games to play, but he was sacked less than 48 hours later. 

Nigel Pearson (right) was sacked after the chastening 3-1 defeat at West Ham

Credit: REUTERS

“How it ended didn’t sit easy with me, because I don’t think we were treated particularly well. I don’t know the reasons for it [being sacked], I was never given an explanation,” he says, speaking for the first time about his departure.

“If you look at the shelf life of head coaches at the club, it’s not exactly a long one is it? It’s like Marks & Spencer throwing away their best products that are coming up to a day before their sell-by dates. 

“I don’t have a bitter taste in my mouth because when I took the position I’d already accepted that it was going to be potentially quite volatile.

“The only thing that really rankles with me is the amount of commitment and energy I’d given to the job, to try and turn it around. 

“On a personal level, my mother had a fall on December 28 and died on the 3rd of January. I didn’t really break stride with my work so I’d have liked to have been treated with a little more respect.”

Watford lost both their remaining games, against Manchester City and Arsenal, and were relegated to the Championship.

Despite the bitter ending, Pearson still reflects on his experience positively. “If you go back to the start, Craig and I spoke about it and just wanted to enjoy ourselves, make an impact and embrace the challenge,” he says.

“I said on day one that if we could go into the last week and still have it in our own hands, we’d take that now. I said that to the owners at the time and they would have been in agreement.

“We’d had a disappointing result at West Ham but statistically we still had a great chance of staying up.

“We were still in a competitive situation, three points above the relegation zone with two games – two difficult games, granted – to play.

“It always hurts when you get sacked and I would have loved to be part of a positive story but I’ve not been scarred by it. It’s a part of the fabric of what the modern game is like.”

Pearson is now focusing on the future, and has fully recovered from his health issues. Since leaving Watford, he has spent much of that time at his bolthole in Dartmoor with wife Nicky. He is a keen horse-rider, regularly taking treks across the hills and relishing all aspects including “mucking out”.

He is already planning to complete the Two Moors Way, the 102-mile stretch from Exmoor to Dartmoor with his friend John when rules are relaxed. He is also eagerly awaiting the third season of Sky Atlantic series Tin Star, with Roth as the main character.

But if the Watford experience taught Pearson anything, it is that football management still gives him that adrenaline rush.

“I don’t think you ever lose the competitive edge: the ‘fix’ of what wins do, or how down you get after defeats. They are the real driving forces for anyone involved in sport. Watford reassured me that I’m still capable of doing it,” he says.

“I’ve really got an open mind on the future. Whether it’s abroad or here, or a different job, I don’t know. 

“When you’re not working, your priority is your health, for yourself, your family, friends and loved ones.

“We’re still living in really testing times. The first lockdown was a new experience and people embraced it a bit more, but now it’s going to be more of a test for all of us. The next four weeks are going to be difficult, but we need to do it.”

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