x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The hardest job is done for Southampton manager

Mind games with Ferguson will be nothing compared to the hardships Nigel Adkins faced in his rise to the top, writes Richard Jolly.

Southampton were in League One when they hired Nigel Adkins, but after back-to-back promotions they are in the top flight.
Southampton were in League One when they hired Nigel Adkins, but after back-to-back promotions they are in the top flight.

In the blue corner, Roberto Mancini, the manager of Manchester City, the Premier League champions. In the red corner, Nigel Adkins, who oversaw Southampton's promotion from the Championship.

Sunday provides a meeting of managerial winners - one has won Serie A three times, the other the League of Wales twice - but also offers a clash of complete opposites.

If Mancini was groomed for greatness from an early age, Adkins may be the least likely candidate for Premier League management among the 20 men in the dugouts. He may also be the most deserving. In one respect, success has come quickly. In another, nothing has come easily.

Because while Adkins has won back-to-back promotions in two seasons on England's South Coast, it has taken him almost three decades to reach the top. The 47 year old's first triumphs on the touchline came as teenager with Renbad Rovers.

"From the Birkenhead Sunday League fifth division we went up to the fourth, third, second, first and premier divisions, so I got the taste for winning promotion at a young age," he said. "I've kept all the team sheets, all the different formations, who scored the goals and my notes of how we played."

But management was a hobby, goalkeeping the day job for the Merseysider. Adkins made his debut for Tranmere at 17 and later played for Wigan Athletic. A promising playing career was curtailed at 31, however, after umpteen injury-enforced interruptions. A double fracture of the spine was the most serious.

"It took me three months to touch my toes but I got back in the team," he said last year.

When his body failed him, Adkins moved into management. He won back-to-back titles in the League of Wales with Bangor, the first in their history. Then misfortune struck again. With his wife seriously ill after the birth of their second son, Adkins opted for the guaranteed income and more secure lifestyle on offer as the physiotherapist of Scunthorpe.

"I had to pay the mortgage somehow," he said in 2010. "But life's not all about money, you only need so much of it. Billions of pounds can't buy your family's health."

Thankfully his wife recovered during his time at Scunthorpe and Adkins's thirst for knowledge was apparent as, besides being a qualified physiotherapist and having a business studies degree, he took courses in psychology, finance and applied football management.

For a decade, however, his learning was camouflaged. Adkins was only known to a select few at Glanford Park as the physio and, latterly, also the goalkeeping coach. Then the manager Brian Laws left for Sheffield Wednesday, taking his assistant Russ Wilcox with him. Adkins was installed as caretaker manager and, after impressing, appointed on a permanent basis in December 2006.

The newcomer soon became a crowd favourite, a chant of "Who needs Mourinho? We've got our physio" the soundtrack to a promotion. It was the first of four in six seasons; in one of the others, he defied footballing gravity by keeping Scunthorpe, much the smallest club in the division, in the Championship.

It was an achievement that Southampton noticed. After Alan Pardew was dismissed, Saints languished in the League One relegation zone when Adkins was appointed in September 2010.

He proved an inspired choice as Southampton surged through the division to go up. A second successive elevation was earned last season after a campaign in which Saints were in the top two from start to finish.

With both Manchester clubs and Arsenal among their first four opponents, a repeat is not so much improbable as impossible.

But Adkins argued: "When we were bottom of League One, we'd gladly have taken those fixtures."

He has become famous for his optimism, but his background makes his relentless positivity more understandable. A man who lay in a hospital bed wondering if he would walk again, let alone play professional football, pits his wits against Mancini, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger in the first month of the season.

It is a reason why Southampton are among the favourites for relegation but Adkins has a lifetime of experience as an underdog and remains a great enthusiast.

"Aiming for 17th place is wrong," he said. But aiming for the stars has become a profitable habit for this least glamorous of managers.

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