Nigel Adkins: 'I was very privileged to have been given the opportunity to manage Southampton'

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Adkins celebrates Saints' promotion from League One. Image by: PA
Adkins celebrates Saints' promotion from League One. Image by: PA

One week after Nigel Adkins received the gut-punch of his managerial life - sacked by Southampton after leading them from League One to 14th in the Premier League - he was in Hamburg preparing for his next stage.

For those who know the Saints legend, this would come as no surprise.

“Always learning” is one of Adkins’ favourite - of quite a few - mantras and it’s something he passionately sticks to in good times and especially in bad.

READ MORE: Saints winger closing in on new 'long-term' contract

“I was gutted, gutted,” he says. “We were doing great, there was no reason why. I put my heart and soul into everything I do. That’s life - it happens. You can turn around and be a victim and wallow - it’s not going to get you anywhere. Or you get on with it.

“Go away for a few days, write down everything so you’re reflecting, learn the lessons and then you have to move on. I ended up as Reading manager but when I left Southampton me and the family went away for a couple of days.

"When we came back I went to Hamburg and we had a week there with the football club, just learning. With the first team, reserve team, youth team, commercial department, the whole lot. It was brilliant. I couldn’t speak highly enough, they were brilliant.”

Daily Echo: Adkins pictured at St Mary's. Image by: PA
Daily Echo: Adkins pictured at St Mary's. Image by: PA

Adkins pictured at St Mary's. Image by: PA

A month after Mauricio Pochettino arrived on the South Coast, Adkins was back in the Premier League with Reading. His time at the Berkshire club came with another sour ending after being “promised one thing and then after a couple of months the owner leaves, there’s no money, no owner.”

He was sacked by the next owners midway through his second Championship campaign following Reading’s relegation from the top flight in 2012/13. Spells at Sheffield United and Hull City followed before Adkins was relieved of his duties at League One Charlton Athletic in October - his last managerial post.

The 57-year-old chose to depart Hull but bitter endings are frequent in this line of work. But through all of it, Adkins’ supreme positivity has cut a sharp contrast to the harsh world he operates within.

“Why do I have a smile on my face? Because I’m lucky. I’m lucky. I love being involved in sport, I love helping people. I’m a dad, I’m a professional grandad now. I was very privileged to have been given the opportunity to join Southampton and for how it went.”

READ MORE: What next for Saints' youngsters?

So where does the positivity come from?

The truth is, it’s probably always been there. But in his football life, perhaps it can be traced back to the age of 23 when Adkins suffered a double-spinal fracture after a collision while playing in goal for Wigan Athletic.

Daily Echo: Adkins pictured in his playing days. Image by: PA
Daily Echo: Adkins pictured in his playing days. Image by: PA

Adkins pictured in his playing days. Image by: PA

Lying in his hospital bed, Adkins contemplated whether he would walk again let alone play football again. He went on to make another 200 professional appearances and while rehabbing, he started to get his physio qualifications.

‘Always learning’, Adkins took the injury as an opportunity to add a string to his bow. He’s also become a qualified coach and sports scientist in the years since.

“I did really well as a youngster but I got a lot of injuries,” he says. “I made my debut for Tranmere at 17 and you’re thrown into the big bad world of professional football. Especially as a goalkeeper. That’s helped me with my resilience, when you get knocked down pick yourself back up.

“I broke both my cheekbones, broke my left cheekbone when I came out at Southend and the centre-back came right through me, I broke my other cheekbone when a lad stamped on my face at Wigan. I broke my wrist, I broke my fingers, I tore my patella tendon in my knee - that required a big operation.

“And the biggest one - at 23 I fractured my spine. The physio had left so I basically rehabbed myself from the instructions of the surgeon and I got myself back and got myself playing again.”

READ MORE: How will new signing Romeo Lavia fit at Southampton?

As a player, the Birkenhead native made 241 appearances for Tranmere and Wigan Athletic before joining Bangor City as player-manager in 1993. 95 games and two promotions later he left Wales and retired from football at the age of 31.

Always learning, the next step was heading back to school where he earned a degree in physiotherapy from the University of Salford before joining Scunthorpe as a physio.

In 2006, Adkins was offered the management role at Scunthorpe and thus his coaching career fully took off. But the roots can be traced back two decades earlier at the age of 18 when he started managing his mates’ sunday league side.

Heading from the youth to the men’s league, the team was set to disband after the coach departed. That was until Adkins excitedly stepped up. He went on to do the job for ten years.

“What a great experience!” he says. “We had our own clubhouse, our pitch, washing the kits, getting the subs together and over ten years we went from Division Four to Division One and Cup winners. A group of guys and we all bought into it. Invaluable experience for me. It was fantastic.”

It might seem a far cry from the Premier League, but for Adkins, the core is all the same.

“For me, it’s about people,” he says. “You just want to see how people can develop and help navigate through the world. And how can you extract every ounce of potential for people to be the best they can be.

This is the centre of Adkins’ philosophy: people. Unsurprisingly that was what was at the centre of his epic triumphs on the South Coast.

When Alan Pardew departed the club in September 2010, Saints replaced him with Adkins who had achieved two League One promotions over the previous three years with Scunthorpe’s shoestring budget.

“I was approached to come and speak to the Chairman, I stayed at Scunthorpe for a bit because things have to be done properly but you just knew things would move in the right direction. There’s a great book called Move Your Bus it’s just like you’re on a journey, get good people on the bus. You might change the seats around but get good people on the bus. And that’s what we had at Southampton - really good people.

“We were the fittest team, good senior players, massive pathway for the youngsters to come through, great connection with the fans, the fans still are fantastic.”

“I had the unique experience of ten years as a physiotherapist and that helped me a lot as a manager. A lot of times you get a closer relationship with a player - person because they’re all people.

“You’d have players come in saying they have an injury and then when you assess them you realise they don’t have an injury. So you break it down, you peel all the layers of the onion if you like, you find out what’s really going on and then you find a way to help them.

“That’s what life’s about, you’ve got to help everybody. You’ve got to understand, put yourself in their shoes.”

Personalisation is something Adkins brings up repeatedly, treating everyone with the uniqueness they need to tick. He uses Rickie Lambert as an example.

“Rickie! The legend, the talisman, the king! He was so unfit it was unreal. He needed to realise and he did, through many conversations we’d have one on one.

Daily Echo: Adkins and Lambert during Saints training. Image by: PA
Daily Echo: Adkins and Lambert during Saints training. Image by: PA

Adkins and Lambert during Saints training. Image by: PA

“We had to set the culture in place. A common goal, this is what we can achieve together. It takes a little bit of time, everyone’s part of it and everyone sees what everyone else is doing.

“James Ward-Prowse, we had him training with us as a 15-year-old. He could watch Dean Hammond every day train. And see how he trained. Dean was the ultimate professional. So James can see the standard that’s expected of him. I’ve been at clubs where the senior players are poor role models to the young players - you’ve got to move them on. Then you’ve got senior players who might not be the best players but they’ve got the best standards and that rubs off on the youngsters.

“When we joined Southampton we were in the bottom four. And we were always playing catch-up because we were behind on games played. Southampton was fantastic because it was culture, environment, and talented individuals coming together as a team.”

Catch-up they did and a 3-0 victory at Plymouth on the penultimate day of the season saw Saints all-but promoted to the Championship . The fun was just getting started.

“We then went into the Championship and were in the top two for the whole season. We smashed Leeds on the opening day and those first ten games were some of the best football you’re ever likely to see. The team just blended, that year was phenomenal.

“We as a staff believed we had done really well in pre-season and we could see good things but the players needed that belief and once we beat Leeds we just had to keep that momentum going. We dealt with the adversity of losing a game or a player, it was really good. We had a really good environment, good food, good training facility, the fans were instrumental. We went 364 days unbeaten at home. The fans were enjoying it, the players were enjoying it, we were together as one.

After a chuckle he continues. “That’s what I used to sign off my programme notes with!”

Eight months later he was out of a job. Perhaps one slight regret is not fully relishing the joy of the moment.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to celebrate,” Adkins says of himself and his staff. “We were going around Europe looking at players.”

So what’s next for the Saints legend? Following his Charlton dismissal he says he’s been offered various roles but nothing that has struck him as the right project. Patience is not something commonly afforded in football these days and Adkins believes he needs a project that can give him the time to really build something.

Daily Echo: Adkins during his time with Hull City. Image by: PA
Daily Echo: Adkins during his time with Hull City. Image by: PA

Adkins during his time with Hull City. Image by: PA

“I could have stayed at Hull, I took my time, been offered loads of jobs, I thought things would have gone differently. My last job, I was really excited about the challenge at Charlton but you need a little bit of time. But that’s the way it is. Now I’ve been offered several things…but you want to build something. You don’t want to think ‘I’ll just go here for a couple of months and if things aren’t right you’ll be out the door.’

“I look at the Reading job as an example, one of the best jobs we did. We’d been headhunted for weeks after I left Southampton, promised one thing and then after a couple of months the owner leaves.

“So for me, keeping the football club alive was one of the biggest things. And we played the youngsters, we missed out on the playoffs in the last game of the season and having kept the club going. The following season we played the youngsters and then the new owners came in, as with everything when new owners come in…and now Reading are in a right mess.”

Adkins concedes that the Reading sacking hurt more than most as he felt he was on the cusp of something rather special. But alas…that’s football. And at this point in his football life Adkins has come to expect the brutal nature of the sport he loves - even if he doesn’t love that element.

As he searches for the right opportunity, Adkins will continue learning. He’s learning how to be a professional grandfather while also mentoring young coaches, acting as a “truth-teller”. And a return to management?

“It’s a great question, I love it. I love being in the game. I love managing. I love football,” he says with his arms held out wide - seemingly in embrace of whatever future greets him.

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