It may have been just a fleeting few months, but the paths of two future Premier League managers crossed at Gay Meadow in 1987, intersecting arguably the most successful era in Shrewsbury Town’s history. No, it wasn’t Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp but two coaches who have left their own unique mark on English football. When Watford and West Ham meet now, this is why you might hear about the blue and amber ties between the two dugouts.
Nigel Pearson joined Shrewsbury in 1981 as an 18-year-old from non-league football and made an immediate impression on a platform built for him by the toiling years that proceeded his arrival. The Shrews were promoted to the second tier for the first time in 1979 under Graham Turner, who would hand Pearson his debut a few years later with the club having maintained their Second Division status.
Home and away doubles over Chelsea and West Ham were highlights of their first campaign on the second rung that also included a third-round defeat to Millwall in the FA Cup. A second successive mid-table finish was complemented by a cup tie with eventual UEFA Cup winners Ipswich the following year.
Bobby Robson brought his Tractor Boys across to play in front of 18,000 at Gay Meadow having lost just two leagues games all season. However, there would be nothing to separate the two sides in the fourth round of the FA Cup. So much so that a replay at Portman Road was needed, with the hosts prevailing at the second attempt thanks to a brace from Eric Gates and a strike from John Wark.
The Shrews ploughed on and consolidated a 14th-place finish – just one position lower than 12 months before. Their away form was a problem and almost cost them their place in Division Two the season after, finishing just two places and two points above the relegation zone, with victory at Selhurst Park providing their only win on the road.
Having just turned 19, Pearson was handed a chance in the senior side and grasped it with both hands – but it could’ve been so different. Just two years before, he was playing for Heanor Town in the Midlands regional leagues, studying at college and going for walks with his mates. “I did the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-ghent, Whernside, Ingleborough – and then half the Pennine Way but the lad I was doing it with got called into the Air Force, so we binned it,” he told the Telegraph in 2014. “He went to the Falklands, helicopter mechanic. I would have gone into the Forces if it hadn’t been for football. RAF.”
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Instead, Pearson’s arrival in the Shrewsbury backline saw the team take off. His solidity in defence helped propel Turner’s men up the table in the 1982/83 season, finally falling into ninth when the curtain closed on the campaign, just one place behind Leeds. There was also a trip to Goodison Park in the FA Cup fourth round. Kevin Sheedy and Adrian Heath found the net in a narrow 2-1 triumph for Howard Kendall’s side as Shrewsbury were unable to repeat their giant-killing feats of the year before when they’d knocked Ipswich out on their way to the last-eight.
Although defeat was not the result Turner and his players wanted, they were now competing with the best after a squad shake-up, flooding the club with youngsters and keeping some experienced heads. Pearson was playing alongside Colin Griffin, a one-club man and Shrews legend, in the centre of defence so, although he’d now left school, he was still learning plenty of lessons.
Graham Hawkins, who would go on to take over at Wolves not soon after, was also there as Turner’s assistant passing on the coaching bug to Pearson. “I learned an awful lot, picking up good habits from the senior players I was playing with and the coaches,” Pearson said in 2014. “If you have good role models around you – and we had lots of good senior pros – it gives you a good education. For a club of our size, with a squad of only 16 or 17 players, it was a great experience.”
That great experience continued into the 1983/84 season, Turner’s last in charge, as Salop churned out arguably their greatest campaign to date. An eighth-place finish in Division Two was a club record, but that wasn’t the peak point of the season. Nor was a 5-1 thrashing of Leeds at Elland Road.
Shrewsbury and Ipswich met for the third time in four years in the FA Cup and, with one win each, it was level pegging. Once again, the tie was down to be played in Shropshire, where the hosts held an unbeaten record over their top-tier opponents. Pearson didn’t play in the previous ambush on Ipswich and neither did seven other of his teammates this time around, with Griffin, Steve Cross and Bernard McNally the only survivors.
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The Shrews struggled early on, with a miss-kick from Pearson allowing Gates to rush in, but Steve Ogrizovic was equal to the low shot that came his way. Shrewsbury grew into the game and had chances of their own. They might’ve gone ahead had Gary Stevens directed his strike either side of Paul Cooper in goal.
Gary Hackett, another youngster brought in from the depths of English football, was causing all sorts of problems down the left for George Burley. Hackett had the Scotsman twisting and turning again midway through the second half and, with the space afforded to him, he bent the ball into the far side of the goal to give Shrewsbury the lead.
As the sun set on that January afternoon, Ipswich almost found an equaliser, but Ward could only blaze his half-volley over the crossbar from close range. The defender who’d headed the ball down to him got an earful from a finger-pointing Pearson as the ball sailed into the crowd. As Shrewsbury looked to see out their victory and another upset, they took the ball up the other end and found the net again as substitute Colin Robinson poked in from inside the six-yard box. Turner and his team were heroes once again, headlining Match of the Day that evening.
Goodison was the graveyard for Shrewsbury’s wildest cup dreams again as Everton dispatched them on their way to lifting the trophy against Watford at Wembley. There were no cup journeys the following year under new boss Chic Bates, but the Shrews did seal another eight-place finish in the Second Division – a comfortable position that would’ve been craved the following seasons as relegation-threatened. Bates’ side avoided the drop by five points in 1985/86 before evading a relegation play-off spot by three points the campaign after.
Solace was found in the League Cup as Crewe, Stoke, Hull and Cardiff were dispatched on Salop’s way to the quarter-finals where they fell at St. Mary’s. There was a sincere lack of goals, with a splattering of 1-0 home victories keeping the Shrews afloat in the league.
Veteran strikers David Geddis and Jim Melrose were brought in alongside a Scottish defender from Bristol City. David Moyes, then in his mid to late-20s, would ultimately replace Pearson in the centre of defence after Sheffield Wednesday splashed out £250,000 to take him to Hillsborough. The pair only played together a handful of times in 1987, but it was at Gay Meadow where Moyes’ coaching career took its first steps.
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To supplement his wages with Town, he would take charge of nearby Concord College’s football team. There was a change in the Shrewsbury dugout towards the end of the year as Ian McNeill was the chosen one to follow Bates. The Glaswegian managed to hold off relegation for a further season before the inevitable happened in 1989 as Shrewsbury returned to the third tier a decade after leaving it.
Moyes stayed for another season before heading back up to Scotland to play for Dunfermline while Pearson’s reputation kept climbing in the blue and white of Wednesday. He lifted the League Cup as captain in 1991, putting in a man of the match display to help deny Sir Alex Ferguson his third trophy in charge of Manchester United. A few months later, Pearson was a First Division player, leading Wednesday to promotion as the Premier League popped up on the horizon before moving to Middlesbrough in 1994 where further promotion success and cup finals followed.
Moyes, meanwhile, was back in English football with Preston, hanging up his boots towards the end of the century to suit up as Lilywhites manager. Pearson was in a similar part of the world not long after, in the same profession too, taking his first coaching job as Carlisle boss where he was sat, well probably stood shouting, on the touchline as Jimmy Glass scored that famous goal to keep United in the Football League.
There was drama down in Lancashire too as Moyes, having already earned promotion with Preston to the First Division, came so close to the promised land. Sam Allardyce’s Bolton prevailed in that playoff final at Wembley to leave his opposite number mulling over what could have been.
Where one door closed then, another opened the following year – the one to the manager’s office at Bellefield to be more specific. As Moyes installed consistency into Goodison, Pearson took on a number of assistant roles under the likes of Gary Megson and Gudjon Thordarson at Stoke, Bryan Robson, who he’d played under at Middlesbrough, at West Brom, Glenn Roeder and Allardyce at Newcastle, and Stuart Pearce with the England under-21s. Then came stints in charge at Southampton, Leicester and Hull before returning to the Foxes in 2011. Promotion, survival, sacking – we all know the ins and outs of that story.
Curiously, Pearson and Moyes have never faced off as managers. The only season Pearson was in the Premier League with Leicester – 2014/15 – was the time Moyes decided to take an English football-sabbatical in Spain with Real Sociedad. By the time Moyes was appointed Sunderland boss, Pearson was in the Championship with Derby before leaving for Belgium. Now they’re both back in the big time and, come their first-ever meeting in April, they’ll both be hoping to be clear of the foot of the table.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08