There are managers in the Championship who have taken charge of big Premier League clubs in the past; there are some who have had glittering playing careers on both the domestic and international scene; there are those who have formed an affinity with the club they are at whilst playing for them in their pomp. However, few managers in the Championship or at any other level can match the journey taken by (in my opinion) one of the best up and coming managers in the Professional game.
As things stand Nigel Adkins is on the brink of leading Southampton to back-to-back promotions, an impressive feat managed by Norwich City’s Paul Lambert who is now receiving well deserved plaudits for the Canaries’ impressive first season back in the top flight. Whilst Lambert’s footballing education was spent winning trophy after trophy with massive clubs like Dortmund and Celtic, Adkins learnt his trade in a slightly more modest environment.
The Birkenhead Sunday League Division Five may not have seen the likes of Wenger or Mancini patrolling the touchlines but it is where Adkins began his managerial career whilst in charge of Renbad Rovers. His professional playing career was still ongoing at nearby Tranmere Rovers but Adkins was looking beyond his life as a player and his managerial stint at Renbad produced some impressive results as five promotions saw him lead them to the Premier Division. His next port of call was the not-so-obvious step of the League of Wales as he took charge of Bangor City in the mid-90s. Success again followed in the form of back-to-back league titles.
Adkins’ career took a slightly surprising turn as he moved away from the managerial side of the game to become club physio at Scunthorpe United and spent nearly ten years in that role. When manager Brian Laws left Glanford Park, The Irons Chairman Steve Wharton turned to Adkins and made him caretaker manager, a move made permanent after only a month following some impressive results. Within a year United were lifting the League One title and would return to the second tier of the English League pyramid for the first time in more than forty years.
However they struggled to adapt at a higher level and were relegated after only one season in The Championship but bounced straight back at the first attempt via the League One play off route. There was to be no mistake as Adkins’ side survived reasonably comfortably, boosted by their prolific striker Billy Sharp. However Adkins’ time at Glanford Park was nearly over.
Admiring glances were made at the work done by Adkins from clubs of all statures. Once a staple of England’s top flight, Southampton had slipped down the leagues and were languishing in League One. Following the slightly surprising departure (from the outside anyway) of Alan Pardew, the Saints chairman Nicola Cortese turned to Adkins and saw his hard-working and professional manner as perfect to lead his club back to the big time. A slightly underwhelming start saw him take three games to notch his first three points with a 1-0 win at another former Premier League club, Sheffield Wednesday. However, things really took off from there and a remarkable run saw the club sitting in the play-off places by Christmas.
Whilst fellow South Coast rivals Brighton were running away with the League One title, Adkins’ Southampton were making great waves in the League with their best home form in nearly twenty years. On the day of the club’s 125th anniversary they beat a much fancied Peterborough side 4-1, their sixth straight home win. The January transfer window saw Adkins prove he was a shrewd operator and recruits were brought in to boost their promotion push. My first personal encounter with an Adkins side came over the Easter weekend of 2011 at the somewhat underwhelming surroundings of the Withdean Ground at Brighton. Gus Poyet’s side had sealed the League One title the previous week and Adkins was taking an earful from the Seagulls’ fans, relating to comments made by Adkins earlier in the season.
Going 0-1 down at a rampant Brighton didn’t seem to affect either Adkins or his side and the impressive Adam Lallana inspired the visitors to a 2-1 win, with Portuguese defender Jose Fonte getting a late headed winner. Three weeks later, on 7th May, the Saints’ confirmed their return to the Championship with a 3-1 win at St Mary’s over Walsall. Remarkably, the third promotion of Adkins’ professional career.
It’s safe to say Adkins’ managerial career in the second tier had been poor and his Southampton side were roundly tipped for a mid-table finish by many “experts”. Not that I would consider myself an expert by any stretch but I had seen enough of them in League One to realise that in keeper Kelvin Davis, defender Fonte, midfielder Lallana and the prolific Rickie Lambert, they had enough to achieve so much more than a mediocre mid-table finish. However, what came during this season far outweighed what even the most optimistic Saints fan could even have dreamt of.
The aforementioned Lambert hit the ground running and looked like scoring every time he had the ball; Lallana was proving that he could more than stand life at a higher level and their defence was looking even more solid than when they were keeping out the likes of Oldham and Exeter. Whilst many managers presume a promotion means an overhaul of their squad, Adkins ethos of “all in it together” came to the fore. There was some light tinkering of his squad as the impressive Jack Cork came in from Chelsea to add class and grit to the midfield and Celtic’s Joos Hoiveld came in to further boost a back four. The squad was singing to the tune of Adkins beat and the Saints fans couldn’t get enough.
An impressive run from mid-February to the end of March saw the Saints sitting pretty at the top of the table with nine wins in eleven games. Since then they have been slightly inconsistent and have been overhauled by a remarkable run by Brian McDermott’s Reading side who secured the Championship title earlier this week. However, on the eve of their final league game of the season (a home fixture against recently relegated Coventry City), Adkins knows that a win would secure his side’s return to the top flight ahead of the much fancied West Ham. Should they achieve that (and I firmly believe they will), they will complete another step of a remarkable journey for their manager that has led from a cold wet Sunday League touchline in Birkenhead to the away dugouts at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and The Emirates Stadium.