“ONEn image for my world,’ says Nigel Pearson, pulling out his phone after digging up a video of himself, Scott Murray, Bristol City’s world-loved grueling player, and player liaison officer Matt Parsons out in the sticks. The scene? Almost three acres of ancient woodland in the Somerset countryside which Pearson bought last year. For Pearson it’s a welcome and scenic retreat, full of biodiversity but clear of the turbulence and heat that comes with life as a manager. “They came down to help me pull out a tree,” he explains.
“Timber!” comes the call as the chainsaw bites. “My sister-in-law passed away two years ago from cancer, so I’ve put a bench in there,” says Pearson. “It would have been her birthday in October and her daughters had visited her. I have made a path to the top – it is quite steep. The view is fantastic.”
Pearson spends odd afternoons camping in the grounds. What does it lift? “It doesn’t work like that,” he says with a smile. “The point is to be there. I will manage it in some time.” Last year’s Christmas gifts inevitably had a theme. “I had a leather robe, some chisels, a wooden divider.”
An hour earlier Pearson, who last week celebrated two years and 100 games in charge of Bristol City, was admiring the view of Brunel’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, the skeleton of Ashton Gate visible in the background. In the background the sun’s rays are hitting the horizon, perhaps a good omen for his 12-match unbeaten side when they host Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Tuesday? “I think it’s just rain,” says Pearson, laughing. “I saw the game against them [Nottingham] Forest. They drew 1-1, but then you watch the highlights and go, ‘Wow, that [result] it could have been anything.”
“I want our players to go out there and be as good as they can be on the night and hopefully Manchester City won’t be anywhere near their best, and then you never know.”
Pearson is the third longest-serving manager in the Championship, but the past two years have not been without challenges. “Sometimes I wonder if I’d make it this far, if I’m honest, because it’s been a lot more work than I thought it would be. I guess in the first few months I didn’t recognize how complicated [it would be] and how much change we needed to make… It was equal parts frustrating, infuriating, rewarding. All these things. But it still has a catch, and the catch is that when it really takes off, it will take off massively. En masse.”
There is much more to Pearson than meets the eye. He has spent almost all of the last 13 years on the touchline, but his interests run much deeper. “I’m the only person in our house who doesn’t watch football religiously,” he says, lighting up as he recalls cycling the Hebridean Way, a 185-mile trail in the Outer Hebrides, and the pain of missing the two-week tuk-tuk challenge in India he signed up for with his friend John because he got the job at Watford.
“The polish was Dukla Prague’s away kit,” he says. What is the case? “Nothing to do with it [Half Man Half Biscuit] song,” smiles Pearson. The Mongolian Rally, a 10,000-mile journey to Siberia in one car, has also been mooted. “It used to start in Prague and end in Ulaanbaatar, but now there’s a leg that starts in London and everyone goes to Prague for a purse and then to Ulaanbaatar.” Closer to home, a Bristol City partnership meeting is on the agenda. “We’ve talked about canoeing on the River Wye.”
A few years ago Kasper Schmeichel revealed Pearson’s ability to ballroom dance, speaking of his surprise when his former Leicester manager did the splits seamlessly. The 59-year-old doesn’t take himself too seriously. he gave friends prints of David Squires’ cartoon of him hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. Since then Pearson has given riding a whirl. Oil painting is a hobby. “I’m a cartoonist,” he says. These days he tries to spend as much time as he can with his granddaughter, Isabella, who is almost two. “It gives you a different perspective on life,” he says.
The bigger picture at Bristol City is also worth it. Pearson cut wages significantly and built a young, hungry and largely home-grown squad full of experience, including workaholic captain Andi Weimann and midfielder Matty James. “It was quite a difficult journey. But at least right now I feel like we’re in a situation where a lot of the really hard work is done. We’ve steadied the ship a bit. We’ve still got some big earners but they’re not as ridiculous as they were and we’ve got a squad with a bit of an identity for that.”
Bristol City’s latest starting line-up featured five academy graduates, including Alex Scott, who was signed as a 16-year-old from Guernsey FC after scoring a perfect hat-trick against Yate Town while on trial. The powerful midfielder has since developed into one of the most exciting talents outside the Premier League. Another academy player, Antoine Semenyo, joined Bournemouth for £10.5m in January. Brian Tinnion, the former academy director and now technical director, encouraged Pearson to watch Scott soon after the manager was appointed. Pearson made his Scott debut two months later. “He was a 17-year-old who looked very thin, but he caught the eye very quickly,” she says. “He will go on to great things. He will play for England, the senior team, there is no doubt.”
Pearson took the job with the aim of returning the club to the top flight for the first time since 1982 and the city, as well as the task, have taken to him. “It’s a bit of Notting Hill meets… I don’t know what, but it’s a really interesting place, exciting and so different. Of course, during the lockdown, quite a few stories hit the national press with the slave market as well, statues being pushed into the harbor etc, which was very interesting. There is a lot of history, heritage and the surrounding countryside is beautiful. I really like the Mendips.’
Last week he watched the Lionesses win at Ashton Gate with club president Marina Dolman, who went to her first match in 1961. Pearson is a deep thinker and honest in his thoughts. “There’s a part of me that realizes I’m not the easiest to work with sometimes… but in some ways I think now I’m a bit more relaxed and easy. I’ve slowed down a bit. I’m less confrontational. I am much more thoughtful than I used to be and can see things in a different way. I guess it’s part of growing up,” she laughs, “but I’m okay with that, too.”
The arrival of the Premier League champions promises to be a special occasion and, despite expecting a sell-out crowd, Pearson is reluctant to overplay the game. “I would like to enjoy watching my team play well against one of the best teams in the world,” he says. “Other than that, I don’t think too much about it. I’ll have a cup of Bovril before the game on the sidelines.’
As for afterwards, Pearson regularly invites opposition staff over for a post-match drink. Will Pep Guardiola be offered a staple in the West Country? “He can have Thatchers Hayes if he wants to,” says Pearson, smiling.