Leicester City go back to the future with Nigel Pearson
Sometimes you don’t want to plan what you write. Sometimes you just want to start the clatter of keys and see what comes out the other end. Sometimes that can be the best way to sum up exactly how you feel. This isn’t something that can be meticulously planned. It would take the passion out of it. And that’s the only thing that matters here. Nigel Pearson is on the verge of a return to Leicester City.
Standing in the corner of a wooden stand in East London. Still getting used to being the big fish in a small pond. Dreading defeat. Enjoying the sun. Seeing Lloyd Dyer cut in from the flank, take a through ball in his stride and race clear of the Leyton Orient defence. Celebrating wildly in a place I had never been to before. There would be a lot more of that over the months to come. Nothing was taken for granted, even though the budget was there to make victory an expectation rather than a hope. Leicester City still won up and down the country. It took some getting used to at first, and then we savoured every moment.
You have to. Any supporter has to enjoy winning any league title, no matter which division it relates to. Unless you’re very fortunate, it doesn’t happen very often. This felt like a one-off. Max Gradel’s injury-time free kick to keep the unbeaten run going in Milton Keynes. That feeling of witnessing something you thought only happened in films.
Sat at half time in Carlisle, a goal down hours from home and contemplating a rare defeat. Either way, it felt like it was going to define our season. Either we would roar back to win or there would be a reality check that told us this division wasn’t going to be as easy as it had looked at times. We roared back to win.
We tried to be humble about it. It wasn’t us out on the pitch scrapping for every ball and straining for every header. Most clubs couldn’t just go out and sign the best midfielder to play in the third tier that season when they had a couple of injuries in the squad. We did and we were grateful for it. We had spent most of the previous three or four years sculling around the lower reaches of the division above, with plenty of fruitless away days to show for it.
During that period, I lost count of the number of times we lost 2-0 at Southampton. It could only have been twice but it felt like ten times that number as the Itchen and the Northam delighted in our downfall. When our luck finally ran out and we trooped away from the Britannia Stadium in that strange state of parallel-universe mourning associated with relegation, Southampton fans were dancing on their pitch in jubilation.
To cut a long story short, we took a chance on the manager their suits discarded and steamed back to the Championship as they slid down to fill the place we had vacated. Two and a half years on, that manager seems to be arriving again because the man who will shortly become his predecessor couldn’t cope with the startling pace set by the Saints. Football will always be one big circular narrative.
So we’re back where we were just over a year ago, in a sense. Maybe it feels like a backward step to some. It feels more like going back to basics to me. It was a phrase Nigel Pearson used on several occasions after defeats had shaken his side’s confidence. I wondered at the time why we had to go back to basics. We never seemed to veer too far from basics to start with. And even if we did, why did we bother if the answer was always to return there if our supposedly complex new approach didn’t work? We’ll have all these questions again by the looks of things.
While we’re here, let’s get the negatives out of the way. The “favourites” he had, the allegedly dour football and the media’s perennially unsuccessful expedition to find an interesting soundbite. “Back to basics” was as interesting as it got. After Ian Holloway, though, few truly cared about that. Most of his favourites deserved both the tag and their place in the team each week. And the football really wasn’t that bad. Pearson’s detractors talk about the brand of football we played during those two years as though we were Crazy Gang-era Wimbledon crossed with Stoke, that Athletic Bilbao team that kicked Maradona half to death, Uruguay at their most uncompromising and Harlequins.
It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t even bad. Sven-Goran Eriksson was popular and his teams either tippy-tappied it around for ten minutes before someone got bored and committed a howler of Arctic Wolf proportions to gift the opposition a goal (season one) or seemed to play for a goalless draw in most games (season two, cut short by exasperated “execs” after a few samey episodes). I exaggerate, but Pearson’s detractors really grill my goat. And I’m vegetarian.
There were good times under Eriksson. There was even a good “moment” (a word very deliberately employed) or two under Sousa. But nothing to compare with the two years that preceded their brief reigns.
You want more? Beating Scunthorpe to go top of the league on a freezing Lincolnshire day. Where’s Izzy Iriekpen now, eh? Celebrating three points on each of the terraces at Yeovil and Bristol Rovers and Hereford. Steve Howard’s last minute header against Leeds. Packing the ground to see the trophy lifted. And the following season? Improbably, more of the same. Smashing and indeed grabbing at Middlesbrough, finally getting a win at Selhurst Park after all those years and clinching a play-off place at Preston. Still celebrating Paul Gallagher’s free kick against Nottingham Forest when Andy King made it 3-0. I couldn’t remember celebrating two goals at once before and I certainly haven’t had the chance to do it since.
The way it all ended – heartbreaking but perfect. We knew that team wasn’t quite good enough. Blackpool would probably have won the play-off final anyway but it wouldn’t have been the same. It had to happen the way it did, with an agonising penalty shootout defeat in another country entirely. Tears on the pitch and then the sighing inevitability of DJ Campbell, ill-advisedly farmed out to the Tangerines on loan, helping to fire Holloway’s men to the promised land.
Sure, we’re not the same any more. We have big screens at either end of the pitch. Our all-in-one ticket office and club shop puts even the most rampant commercialism to shame (“Want to come and see us play? Why not do it in style with this must-have item of official clothing?”) We play at the King Power Stadium, for pity’s sake.
And yes, it probably isn’t going to work. The Thais want the Premier League as soon as possible and seem frustrated at having to wait until the end of each season to secure our inevitable place in the big time. I’m still not sure they even realise we need to be among the six best teams in the division rather than the biggest spenders. Our brave new world seems entirely incompatible with Nigel Pearson’s gift for turning a band of limited footballers into a well-drilled team of enthusiasm merchants. And I don’t care.
There is no divine right to success in any division, least of all the Championship where even the most pitiful opposition can turn the big boys over at the drop of a hat. Any new manager walking into the club at this stage would have struggled to hit the ground running. By recruiting the only man alive (who isn’t called Micky Adams – and even Micky Adams ruled Micky Adams out of the running, using that very phrasing) to have brought success to Leicester City this century, the Raksriaksorns look to be employing someone who knows the club inside-out and achieved things with many of the current squad.
As has been said by one or two fans, heaven knows what Pearson will make of Sol Bamba but he will identify with the no-nonsense style of Matt Mills and relish the untiring workrate of David Nugent. He will give a knowing nod to several players who, to a large extent, owe their bulging wage packets to him. He will clash repeatedly with Jermaine Beckford, who will be sold or loaned in January to a rival club who will subsequently be fired to the promised land by Beckford’s goals at Leicester’s expense. It’s all so inevitable.
It’s not going to work, you shouldn’t go back, we’ve moved on, we’re a different club now, we could have done better – all of the above with bells on. Bring it all on and more. This isn’t about any of that. This is about the moment and the emotion and what it feels like to be proud of a football team. It’s about that ludicrously optimistic reaction a managerial appointment can give you, even if you know deep down that you have no idea how it will pan out. It’s about having a blog that you set up to try to give unbiased opinion on the entire Football League – then shamelessly abandoning that idea when your own football club does something that makes you feel so strongly that you just start writing and forget to stop to have a drink even if your throat is a bit sore.
I think there’s a lump in it.