It was a huge surprise.
All the more surprising was the opponents who accomplished the feat. It wasn’t Manchester City or United who halted the run, nor any of the London giants such as Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham.
Watford were the ones to deliver the shock blow, a team who prior to the game sat in the relegation zone. Even Hornets fans themselves hadn’t given their team much chance of a positive result prior to kick off.
Not only did Watford win but they spanked their illustrious opponents with relative ease and fully deserved the victory.
The man masterminding this unlikely success, Nigel Pearson, had not long ago resigned himself to the fact he had been castigated to the managerial scrapheap and had no further future in the game.
“I wouldn’t have been thinking it was possible, of course I wouldn’t,” he said to The Guardian when asked whether managing at the top level again was something that had crossed his mind.
Pearson guided Leicester City to top-flight promotion in 2014 and engineered the “great escape” the following season to avoid relegation. Many credit him as laying the groundwork for the Foxes’ spectacular title success in 2016.
He was sacked by the club on the eve of that campaign due to disputes with the board and then largely drifted out of the game, sacked again in Feb 2019 as manager of the Belgian second-tier club OH Leuven.
Pearson then spent a month in the north-west of Scotland on a walking holiday in Gairloch although due to the adverse weather conditions most of his time was spent in the pub. It gave him plenty of time to reflect and it was then he all but accepted that football management was a thing of the past for him.
“I was semi-retired, more or less,” he conceded.
Then, out of the blue, Pearson became Watford’s third managerial appointment of this season in early December, a leftfield choice for many although his track record of saving teams no doubt a deciding factor.
“I’ve been asked whether I was worried about getting a reputation as a firefighter and it doesn’t bother me,” he said.
“If that’s how people want to look at it, fine. From my own perspective, coming into a situation like this, it’s just a good opportunity to work back in a league I didn’t think I’d be working in again.
“In terms of risk to my reputation or anything like that, I’m not bothered about those things. I wouldn’t have taken on the challenge if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of succeeding.”
‘Ostriches and wild dogs’
He is, by his own admission, a no-nonsense character. He was as a player, a rugged central defender who had 11 relatively successful years at the top level with Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough.
His management style is no different. Everyone knows he is tough: the press know it (recall the infamous “ostrich” rant to a journalist while at Leicester), players know it (recall Pearson grabbing Crystal Palace midfielder around the throat after a touchline altercation), fans know it (recall Pearson swearing at one of his own supporters to “F*** off and die”), opponents know it, wild dogs know it. Yes, wild dogs!
Arguably the best story to encapsulate Pearson’s character was when he encountered a pack of wild dogs whilst hiking alone in the Carpathian mountains.
“There was five of them,” he recalled to Sky Sports, “and what they do is that one goes for you and the others [circle] around until one of them can bring you down – what they essentially do is rip the throat out.”
He escaped a first time by diving into “a patch of brambles and nettles”. The second time the dogs attacked he was forced to back up against a tree and use his walking poles to protect himself. He didn’t disclose how exactly he survived, saying only that he “managed to get rid of them” before walking out of the forest.
This mountain man toughness is evident in his management style. He certainly exudes a prickly exterior, the self-fashioned stern sergeant major. Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster has stated Pearson likes to have control over all playing affairs at the club and is a strict disciplinarian.
The approach is working though as Watford have endured a fine run of form under his stewardship, save a mini-blip last month. The result against Liverpool proved how much he has improved the team and exactly what they are capable of with many citing them as falsely positioned in the table.
“The current manager has pulled everybody together,” Foster told BBC Sport. “He makes an example of you if you do something wrong, so everybody thinks: ‘I’m not going to be that guy next time.’
"When he gets you in a room, he holds the room and everybody stops talking straight away.”
Despite the tough exterior, however, Pearson is shrewd, clearly possessing an emotional intellect that allows him to assess and connect with the needs of his squad.
“His people skills are brilliant,” Foster added. “He can talk to people and gets to know everyone around the training ground. He is just doing laps around the place keeping tabs on everybody.”
Hornets captain Troy Deeney has also embraced Pearson’s methods, telling BBC Sport: “If you don’t buy into what the gaffer wants, you won’t be here. He has hammered me a few times but he has been brilliant with me. For the first time in eight years, I have been treated like a proper man.
"When you are captain, you do as you are told. If you are treated like a man and with respect, then you reciprocate that,” Deeney added.
‘Change is inevitable’
Pearson was fully conscious of being the third manager in just over three months at Watford and the negative impact this can have on players.
“If managers come and go so quickly, people go into survival mode,” he told The Coaches Voice.
“It becomes very difficult to ask them to pin their loyalty to your way of working. If you’re going to be gone in six months why should they side with you?
“Sometimes you only change the culture by changing players.” he added.
“It’s not straightforward to get people to change those attitudes. For that, you need a bit of patience.
“Believing in what you do is one thing, but believing in what may be happening over a period of time is more difficult.
“It’s not easy for people who are involved in it to get it, or believe it, or think that it’s the way forward, and you can’t force it. Change is inevitable, but there are subtleties involved in how you do it. Sometimes you need a strong hand, and sometimes it requires more of a subtle touch.”
Watford sit just outside the relegation zone by the skin of their teeth and there is still a long way to go to ensure they are competing at the top level again next season.
It will be tough but for a man who managed to stave off a pack of wild mountain dogs, saving Watford from the drop should be a walk in the park.
Watford play at Crystal Palace in the Premier League tonight (Mar 7), kick off 10pm Phuket time (3pm GMT).