WATFORD appeared to be on a suicide mission to get relegated by March.
Yet Nigel Pearson, the club’s third manager of the season — but first English boss since Sean Dyche in 2012 — faces Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham today looking to extend an extraordinary run since taking over in December.
Ditching a 3-5-2 formation, Pearson has forced a seemingly dysfunctional team to put away their white flags, go back to basics and start believing in themselves.
Watford are now re-energised, better organised and have bagged 13 points from the last five games in the Premier League and an attention to small detail has helped improve the atmosphere.
After his surprise arrival at the club, Pearson held informal individual meetings with the players, telling them to approach him any time for a chat.
He eats with them at lunchtime rather than sitting on a separate table with the coaching staff.
Tomato ketchup is back on the menu at the training ground while cheese and bread are now allowed at the away hotel the night before a game.
Also, players are allowed to stay behind at away games after matches — rather than forced to return on the team bus — if they want to see friends and family.
Admittedly, Pearson, whose previous job in Holland with OH Leuven ended 11 months ago, does sometimes appear to have the character of a nightclub bouncer.
He has had a tendency to be aggressive and confrontational, particularly in press conferences.
At Leicester — while helping the club to safety in 2015, with seven wins from the last nine — he asked a journalist whether he was an ostrich in a bizarre rant.
Yet Watford’s players have been impressed by his positive man-management while he has got a clear message through without confusing matters.
After the mess left by Javi Gracia and Quique Sanchez Flores, the Hornets could not afford a boss with complicated ideas.
Pearson nearly missed the offer to take over because there was no phone signal where he was trekking in Derbyshire. The situation was not helped by the fact the 56-year-old does not have voicemail.
So it is probably a good job Watford’s owner Gino Pozzo and chairman Scott Duxbury persevered in contacting Pearson after he got home to Sheffield from Kinder Scout in the Peak District.
Watford’s players were given an instant impression of Pearson’s standards at half-time of that first game as they trailed 1-0 to Liverpool and the new boss let rip in the dressing room, urging them to work harder and play to their abilities.
Pearson has also insisted that, while his training sessions may be relatively straightforward, they must be of a high intensity.
Sacked by telephone after that Houdini act with Leicester in 2015, Pearson’s efforts in this corner of Hertfordshire would normally make him a candidate for manager of the season — had it not been for Jurgen Klopp’s formidable results at Liverpool.
Incredibly, a 2-0 defeat at Anfield in officially his first match as Watford boss has been Pearson’s only loss.
And the Hornets have won four Premier League games, including Sunday’s 3-0 triumph at Bournemouth, and drawn one.
After Saturday matches, Watford’s players arrive on a Sunday for a warm-down before a day off on Monday.
Midweek sessions are tough and — unlike other clubs — the players are given extra running sessions.
On Thursdays, they watch tactical video analysis and also work on their shape.
Pearson made a point of not changing too much of the coaching team when he arrived and kept on both Hayden Mullins and Graham Stack.
But one thing he has done is to bring in Craig Shakespeare as his assistant head coach.
Pearson worked with the 56-year-old at Leicester and Shakespeare carried on as No 2 to Claudio Ranieri in the subsequent title-winning season before stepping up to manage the Foxes in 2017.
And one of the most important things of Pearson’s new regime is that club legend Troy Deeney is buying into what was a final throw of the survival dice.
Skipper Deeney said: “For the first time in eight years I have been treated like a proper man.”
Keeper Ben Foster said: “We knew we’d got the players, we just needed someone to basically stick a rocket up us and that’s all it is.”
Club-record signing Ismaila Sarr, a £30million arrival from Rennes, is finally settling in. Abdoulaye Doucoure and Nathaniel Chalobah are also playing well.
Pearson, having succeeded a number of overseas coaches, said: “I think there has been a conscious decision to try a different direction because of the situation.
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“It is about structure. It is trying to bring some unity and galvanise what is already here.
“I smile inwardly when I hear people talking overly technical about football clubs. If you have a reasonably strong club it is about finding the right solutions for whatever problems.
“There was clearly a need for something different and so far it is going OK. I am pleased with how we have started to turn things around but I am experienced enough to know it is a tough job to maintain the standards we have set.”
This post written by Jack Figg originally appeared on Football news - transfers, fixtures, scores, pictures | The Sun. Read the full post here.