x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Premier League: Questions for Adkins' Reading as they take on Southampton

The manager faces former club Southampton today with the Saints benefiting from his good work before his harsh sacking.

Nigel Adkins, now at Reading, did well at Southampton but lost the faith of his former boss. Ian Kington / AFP
Nigel Adkins, now at Reading, did well at Southampton but lost the faith of his former boss. Ian Kington / AFP

Perhaps Nigel Adkins is bitter. Perhaps he feels he was treated terribly. Perhaps he thinks that, as the Southampton manager with the best win percentage since the 19th century, he deserved much, much better than to be sacked after a run of only two defeats in 12 games.

But if he is, it would be out of character for him to say so.

The new Reading manager's persona is based on positivity. He relishes every challenge, learns from every experience and approaches every day with optimism.

He breezed into the Madejski Stadium, urging Reading to "dare to dream" and believe they could stay up when most others had consigned them to the Championship. Predictably, he does not deem it a lost cause.

Seven points from safety with seven games to go, few outsiders share his confidence. But few would have predicted that a man who was a physio in League One as recently as 2006 would become a Premier League manager, let alone for two clubs in the same season.

And, by a wonderful quirk of fate, they meet at the Madejski Stadium. Adkins's first home game as Reading manager is against Southampton, his former club.

The former Wigan goalkeeper, 48, says he does not hold a grudge. "We had a fantastic journey there and that can never be taken away," he said.

It is certain that he will be applauded by the Southampton supporters. There was no rebellion among the fans after his January sacking but many were unhappy that Adkins's achievements were not enough to keep him in a job.

"We had two-and-a-half years at Southampton," he said. "We were able to evolve the team and play some really good attacking football. We also won a lot of games and scored a lot of goals."

Nevertheless, as his successor, Mauricio Pochettino, quickly revealed, he had been studying Saints for weeks, before his arrival. In other words, Nicola Cortese, the chairman, had been talking to Adkins's replacement long before he got around to rubber-stamping his exit.

And yet, beneath the bonhomie, Adkins was realistic enough to know how precarious his position was.

Before November's game against Queens Park Rangers, he was calling it "el sackico", a joke that showed he was aware of the consequences if Southampton lost. They did not lose that day, winning 3-1.

Indeed, the fact Adkins left Southampton in the comparative safety of 15th place was because they beat Aston Villa twice, plus QPR, Reading and Newcastle United.

Their relegation rivals were defeated, even if no one else was.

It is there that Pochettino has had the opposite effect. Saints have struggled against their peers but overcame Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, impressively and emphatically.

While they have adopted more of a high-intensity pressing game, however, the Argentine is building on the foundations Adkins laid, rather than ripping them up. "Nigel has my full respect for the job he did here," Pochettino said.

And, while Adkins may find himself back in the Championship at Reading, now he finds himself transported back six months. While now he is tipping his former club for a top-10 finish, then Southampton were setting the wrong sort of records, a team whose defending was widely derided.

Last week, in Adkins's debut as Reading manager, there were common denominators.

Arsenal won 4-1 and had 26 attempts at goal. The manner of the result ought to have been more demoralising than defeat itself. Southampton duly improved but Reading are running out of time to effect a recovery.

Adkins's teams, past and present, have fundamental differences. Southampton spent more after securing promotion but they also possessed a group of players with the ability to acclimatise to the Premier League.

Unlike their Reading counterparts, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork and Jason Puncheon no longer look lower-league footballers.

But the ultra-ambitious Cortese could point out that two of Adkins's summer signings, Steven Davis and Jay Rodriguez, have delivered more for Pochettino. Cortese saw the switch as an upgrade. And so, much as Adkins denies it, this is his chance to prove him wrong.

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