Unless you’re an ostrich, you’ll be aware of the most bizarre recent news story.
Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson apologised to regional journalist Ian Baker after comparing him to the flightless bird in an attack on the reporter, who asked him to specify the criticism of his team. This was followed by a quite surreal press conference the next day led by broadcaster Pat Murphy.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Pearson is an arrogant so-and-so after this episode. This may be the case, but he knows what he is doing. Above all, he is a man fiercely protective of his players in the highly pressured situation of trying to keep them in the Premier League. A combination of these two factors has led him to react aggressively at times. This is his unique way of protecting his players; his players know what is expected of them, and likely feel valued in the knowledge that he will stand up for them throughout the journey of a Premier League season.
Admittedly, he took it slightly too far two weeks ago – not so much the ostrich comment as the patronising delivery of his dressing down – for which he has been big enough to apologise. His track record of outbursts this season has attracted accusations that he is hot-headed and slightly unhinged. But his subsequent press conference showed that he isn’t as reactive as he may seem. Quite the contrary – he came across as a rather shrewd individual. It leads Murphy to almost beg Pearson for a reaction – a massive misjudgement – and allows the Leicester boss to justify his position quite convincingly. Exactly as he would have hoped the conference would turn out.
Whether the Leicester players have come in line for too much criticism will always be a matter of opinion. Given the club’s position for much of the season, the publications that cover them were bound to question their ability to stay up. If Pearson engages in a discussion about this at the start of the conference, as is attempted, the whole thing is in danger of going round in circles with time wasted going over technicalities, which in turn increases the likelihood of each party tripping himself up. This is more dangerous for Pearson than it is for Murphy.
The same goes for when the accusation of his charge sheet is levelled at him. There aren’t many better ways to stick two fingers up at somebody trying to outsmart you by rocking from side to side in your chair, cutting an utterly relaxed figure and calmly replying with short answers. The broadcaster is knocked completely off his stride, and in his increasingly desperate attempts to get a rise out of Pearson, ends up making a borderline unacceptable remark about anger management.
And the point is that all this is so important for Leicester’s players because it will serve to reinforce their trust in their manager. There can be little doubt that Leicester’s players share Pearson’s view, and he will have been telling them in no uncertain terms to ignore what the media say. After their winning run came to an end, he had to ensure that he kept his team’s spirits high; for players it doesn’t get much more reassuring than your manager smirking when being asked about his conduct, letting everyone know exactly whose side he’s on.
Call it arrogant or disrespectful if you wish; its key label is acting in your team’s best interests while under immense pressure. The pressure element is obvious – Leicester have been in a relegation battle all season. If he didn’t feel pressure, he wouldn’t make the comments which show up on his charge sheet. The problem is that Pearson is the only one who knows this. It follows, therefore, that an outsider looking in approaches discussions from another angle. This leads to misunderstandings, which sometimes surface quite explosively.
In December last year, I wrote a piece saying that Pearson was right to refuse to apologise for telling a fan to “f**k off and die”, which isn’t as bad as it seems if you watch the build-up to this moment. Then in March, he was shown on video appearing to call a journalist a “p**ck” after being asked whether his team deliberately tried to get an opponent sent off.
Again, Pearson isn’t stupid; he has a plan for his team and it frustrates him if people make remarks at or ask questions which show they don’t realise this. He’s smart enough to understand that these things get said in the heat of the moment, and absolutely crucially, justify his position without tripping himself up. Whether you agree or disagree with his actions, his thinking is clever and strategic enough to cover all the necessary ground and bat off any potential comebacks.
What’s more, keeping his players’ belief at a reasonable was vital during Leicester’s poor mid-season run. He doesn’t want to undermine their trust in him by conceding he behaved unfavourably, knowing that he’ll likely repeat the offence in the future. Rather than lecture everyone on why he has done these things, he lets them figure it out for themselves. I’d like to have a manager like that, knowing he has my back provided I do what’s asked of me.
To illustrate how crucial Pearson’s handling of ostrich-gate was, Leicester have since dispatched Newcastle and Southampton 3-0 and 2-0 respectively, playing with the same energy and confidence we’ve seen in their revival. If that press conference had been a disaster, there could have been far more uncertainty around the King Power Stadium from players and fans. If Pearson keeps his team up, nobody will be able to argue with him.
You would have to say that, given Leicester’s current run, Pearson’s protectiveness looks like it’s paying dividends.