Inside the mind of the 'Alex Ferguson of University Challenge'

Stephen Pearson
Image caption Stephen Pearson has also taken part in Mastermind

"It is quite a compliment which I'm glad to accept, though even with the successes we've had, I don't think we can quite compare to those of United."

Calling Stephen Pearson the "Alex Ferguson of University Challenge" - which he has previously been described as - brings a suitably modest response from the well-spoken and charming librarian, but his achievements speak for themselves.

Under his stewardship as team manager, the University of Manchester team has hit an impressive vein of form.

In the last seven years, the Manchester team has made it to the semi-finals in every series, going on to win the title three times and finishing as runners-up once.

The wins - in 2006, 2009 and 2012 - have made Manchester the second most successful University Challenge team of all time, after four-time winners Magdalen College, Oxford.

The 47-year-old, a serial quizzer whose career started with an appearance on Ask The Family in the 1980s, says the success is "very pleasing", particularly as he is a former semi-finalist himself.

From player to manager

In 1996, while studying for a masters in Old English Literature, Mr Pearson was chosen to captain the University of Manchester team.

He said it was something of a dream come true as "University Challenge was the one I watched growing up and thought I'd like to be on that, but I never got the chance as an undergraduate".

In a nail-biting end to the semi-final, the team was beaten on the "very last starter", when their opponents buzzed first - a moment made all the worse by the fact Mr Pearson knew the answer.

Irrespective of the result, Mr Pearson had been bitten by the University Challenge bug and, knowing that the rules meant he could not compete again, he set about doing the next best thing.

"I thought 'I really enjoyed the experience and I'd like to still be involved', so the obvious thing was to become the team manager."

The early years of his management were split between two sides, those of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and the Victoria University of Manchester, and he guided one team from each institution to a semi-final.

However, when the two universities merged in 2004 to form the University of Manchester, he was given two student bodies to choose from and the team went from strength to strength.

'Nerve-wracking experience'

He says that extended pool is one factor in the success, but not the only one.

"It's a combination of things - we do have some very bright students in Manchester, but I think the fact that I organise the teams and give them a taste of the format helps.

"I used to organise a University Challenge-style competition for the halls of residence and I have a set of buzzers such as you'd get on the programme, so I use those to give the team practice before they go along to the studio.

Image caption University of Manchester's 2012 win made them the second most successful team in the series' history

"The friendly matches are against people who have been on previous Manchester teams, so that generates a team spirit and provides team building.

"It allows people to get to know each other - I think that really does help, because it can be a nerve-wracking experience, so the more comfortable you feel and the better you know the people competing alongside you, the more effective you will be.

"You can be a very knowledgeable person and be able to answer the questions, but you have to sit there and get ready to press the buzzer and it's a race, so practice is useful."

Tactical awareness, pre-match training, canny team selection - little wonder Mr Pearson has been compared to the legendary Manchester United supremo, and he admits he "would like to think that I'm like a successful football manager".

With only 16 years in the hot seat though, the university librarian still has some way to go before he echoes Sir Alex's longevity - not that he is ruling it out.

"I'm about 20 years away from retirement and I can't see a reason why I'd leave the library, so you never know."

The University of Manchester take on Imperial College, London, in the quarter-final of the 2013 series on Monday 4 Feb.

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