The Monday Profile: Nigel Adkins
When former Scunthorpe United boss Nigel Adkins was confirmed as the new manager at then League 1 Southampton, eyebrows were raised amongst the St Mary’s faithful. Eighteen months later and Southampton are looking to win back-to-back promotions, with Adkins’ managerial record for the 2010-11 season bettered only by Sir Alex Ferguson. The statistics certainly suggest Adkins has what it takes to carry Southampton back to the Premier League – but is he the man to keep them there, asks Saints season ticket holder Nicky Borowiec?
The former goalkeeper from Birkenhead started his playing career with Tranmere, making over 300 appearances for Rovers, Wigan and Bangor City before a series of serious injuries brought the end of his career in 1996, at the age of 31. Adkins had joined Bangor three years earlier, stepping almost immediately into the role of player-manager. He led the team to two league titles and a shot at European football, before being dismissed following an early exit in the Welsh Cup in the 1996-7 season. Bangor fans were up in arms, and Adkins was reinstated. Days later he left the club for good – resigning due to disagreements with the club’s owners over team selection and playing style.
His managerial career had actually begun 12 years earlier, however, when at the age of 16 he took his local Birkenhead Sunday League team from the 4th to the 1st division. A mark of things to come.
While at Bangor, Adkins was gathering qualifications as back-up to a career in football. A degree in Business & Finance, Psychology Diploma, physiotherapy credentials and graduation certificate from the LMA Applied Management course sit alongside his UEFA Pro Coaching badge. This Plan B allowed a change in Adkins’ career when his wife was taken ill and a job with the flexibility to care for his family was required.
Ten years as Physio at Scunthorpe followed (something Adkins himself credits with giving him an understanding of how to get the best from a player), his role increasing to include goalkeeping coaching duties before the departure of Brian Laws in 2006 presented an opportunity as caretaker-manager. He became permanent after taking 7 points from his first 3 games in charge. A change of style from the long-ball of Laws to the free-flowing 4-4-2 favoured by Adkins, alongside his enthusiastic post-match interviews, quickly won over the Glanford Park faithful.
Four years followed, during which Scunthorpe twice achieved promotion from League 1. At the second attempt, despite working with the smallest budget in the Championship, Adkins took the Iron to 9th in the division. He also demonstrated an aptitude for spotting goalscoring talent that remains with him – having lost Billy Sharp and Andy Keogh early into his tenure, he signed Gary Hooper, Martin Paterson, Grant McCann and Jermaine Beckford (loan) during his time at Glanford Park. When Southampton Chairman Nicola Cortese called, Adkins proved himself a man of principle – refusing to resign, instead urging the clubs to agree compensation. His reputation as one of football’s good guys was backed-up by Bangor club Secretary Gwynfor Jones in an interview with The Guardian: “He was always enthusiastic about the game and a perfect gentleman as well: he hasn’t changed.”
He joined the Saints in September 2010, bringing with him long-serving assistant and former Scunthorpe captain Andy Crosby. An immediate impact was required – the team of talented players inherited from Alan Pardew (who narrowly missed promotion but lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy the previous season) sat just above the relegation zone. Heads had dropped following rumours of training-ground arguments, and Saints had failed to pick up a point in 3 games under caretaker boss Dean Wilkins. Adkins had to wait two weeks for his first win – a 1-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday – but swiftly began to implement his plans for a passing game. By November, Saints were hitting their stride, a 4-0 win over Dagenham & Redbridge followed closely by 4-1 victories over Peterborough and Huddersfield.
The fans were onside; Adkins’ influence paying dividends far earlier than they could have imagined. Promotion to the Championship as runners-up behind Brighton followed. Another acrimonious South Coast rivalry had developed during the season, prompted by a typically wry Adkins response to being asked if Brighton and Southampton would go neck-and-neck for the title – “if they can keep up with us”. Gus Poyet retaliated with comments about Southampton’s ‘direct approach’, but anyone who has listened regularly to Adkins’ interviews would struggle to suggest any malice in his initial comment – his typical character that of good humour, tongue usually firmly in cheek.
Even so, his interviews have prompted a mixed response. An unwavering positivity and repetition of favourite mantras – “together as one”, and “we’re all on the bus” among others – his trademark. He can also be elusive, a refusal to be negative or deviate from his core message leaving supporters and journalists none the wiser. At other times he can seem risible; “I wake up in the morning, open the curtains and say ‘hello world, what a great day to be alive!’”. But his obvious enthusiasm for the game and his players is infectious, and while he leads a winning team the Southampton fans will hang on his every (buzz)word.
Cortese and Adkins have secured signings that make Southampton a force in the Championship. Jack Cork, Jos Hooiveld, Richard Chaplow and Danny Fox are all key members of the first eleven, and Steve De Ridder, Tadanari Lee and Billy Sharp will add to the team’s impressive attacking threat. There are less successful names on the list, however – Jonathan Forte and loanee Danny N’Guessan failed to make a significant mark. Forte, signed on a three-year deal from Scunthorpe, was sent out on loan following just 10 appearances for the Saints, scoring 2 crucial goals but ultimately failing to show enough quality to warrant a place in the first team.
Tactically, Adkins has only very occasionally been questioned by Saints fans – seen at times to be slow to make changes mid-game, and team selection (particularly in away games) has been debated. This is a symptom of Adkins’ steadfast refusal to change how his teams’ play but while his win rate at Southampton remains as high as it is (almost 45% at time of writing), the doubters will be in the minority.
At the age of just 46, the future certainly looks bright for Nigel Adkins, and the combination of an ability to man-manage, tactical expertise and seemingly limitless positivity will ultimately see him to the Premier League. Cortese clearly sees Adkins as a long-term prospect, signing him to an improved 4 year deal in 2011, so perhaps the biggest threat to any long-term tenure with Southampton would come if Adkins was offered the chance to manage his beloved Liverpool. Cortese is foremost a businessman, and like any other chairman will act should results not meet his expectations. However Southampton are two years ahead of the 5-year plan to attain top-flight status set out by Cortese and former-owner Marcus Liebherr in 2009, so Adkins has perhaps bought himself some time.
Norwich and Swansea have proven that success in the Premier League can come through consistency, sensible work in the transfer market and the same good football that won promotion, and Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers have responded to their challenge, proving that a lack of top-flight experience is no barrier to success. Southampton and Adkins would join them in good shape – with a stadium capacity, facilities and financial set-up surpassing that of many current Premier League sides. These factors, alongside the promise of free-flowing football have so far attracted gifted players from abroad and young, British talent, and if Saints do secure promotion would surely attract those with Premier League experience. It should also stop the flow of Southampton’s Academy stars to Premier league clubs, and ensure the latest home-grown talent remains outside the M25.
So draw back those curtains, Nigel – the Premier League is calling! Having watched their team recover strongly from a worrying dip in form, those on the South Coast wearing red and white will keep the faith and trust the Saints will go marching on with him.