BY BENJY NURICK
Nigel Adkins is a devout believer in, well…believing. On his first day at Southampton in September 2010, he held a meeting with the players to outline his goals – or rather goal – for the rest of the season.
A rough start to the campaign had cost Alan Pardew his job at St. Mary’s but that didn’t matter to Adkins who only had one ambition: promotion.
He ended up taking Southampton to the Premier League in two seasons and his CV includes a further two promotions to the Championship. Now, Charlton are hoping he can do the same at The Valley and the South London Press sat down with various players Adkins has managed to get an understanding of what he’s all about.
Dean Hammond, captain of that illustrious Southampton side, explained over Zoom how Adkins’ arrival completely revamped the feeling around the club.
“Nigel came in, breath of fresh air, very positive in his approach, and wanted to change the style and the philosophy at the club. He was very ambitious in terms of what he wanted to achieve at such a big club. I think the main role when he came in was just to try and put a smile back on the players’ faces.
“He brought energy back to the training ground. And that was really good. And I remember the first training session was all football-related. He wanted to watch the players, he went around individually and spoke to the players…just a few comments. And that was well-received. Because it showed good man-management skills and that personal touch. So coming out of that meeting I was motivated to obviously play for Southampton and play under this new manager.”
Southampton lived up to Adkins’ lofty objective, recovering from their slow start to finish second in League One. The following summer, when his players returned for pre-season – this time as a Championship side – Adkins held another introductory meeting. The message was exactly the same from 11 months earlier. There was no talk of staying up or consolidating their place in the second-tier. In Adkins’ mind, success would mean promotion and nothing else.
Once again, the manager’s faith was rewarded as Southampton reached the Premier League for the first time since 2005. England international Rickie Lambert, who led the Championship with 27 goals, believes the improbable feat of consecutive promotions wouldn’t have been possible without Adkins.
“He really knew how to get the best out of the squad,” Lambert says. “He really knew how to get everyone in the right places. And the best thing I can say about Adkins is that he got the maximum out of that group of lads. The pressure was on us to get promoted out of League One but the outlook, the team, and the mentality he put us in the Championship with was the main reason why we got promoted, went straight up, two promotions back-to-back.
“We believed how we played in League One could get us from the Championship to the Premier League,” Hammond says. “So, look, it comes down to the players in the end, but we were guided by Nigel brilliantly. And again, his vision, and it being clear that we were going for promotion, it just didn’t leave any doubt in our minds.”
Adkins was eventually sacked midway through Southampton’s first season in the top flight, despite his side sitting a respectable 15th and on a five-game unbeaten run. The players were said to be devastated when they found out, although the arrival and success of his replacement, Mauricio Pochettino, softened the blow.
It was during the two-and-a-half-year period on the South Coast when Adkins really announced himself to the wider world. But much of the manager who made those successive promotions possible was educated during a 14-year spell at Scunthorpe, first as physio and then manager, twice winning promotion to the Championship in the process.
When Charlton academy graduate Josh Wright was released by the club in 2009, Adkins was determined to get him. They met at a hotel halfway between London and the north-eastern town of Scunthorpe where Adkins set out his vision for both Wright and the team.
“He spoke very well,” Wright recalls. “He spoke very highly of me and his ambitions for the club and us. I liked what he was about. It was nice to sit down with a manager at that age, a young age, and for him to show that he wanted me. We seemed to be on the same page.
“He wanted to play the right way, which was a big thing, it suited me as a footballer. And obviously, at that time, we were probably a smallish club in the division but he assured me that we were going to give it a go – which is exactly what we did, staying up that year. He just seemed a joy, a positive man. He looked like he was going to be a joy to work with, which he was. And he had a great outlook on the game and football and just life in general.
“That is him in a nutshell. He was the one who made me want to sign for the club because of that energy and drive and everything that comes with it. And, listen, he was a good guy to work around, win lose or draw, he’d always try to be positive and if you can be happy and positive and have a good outlook in life, you’re always gonna have a chance.”
Just as promised in their chat, Adkins’ Scunthorpe “gave it a go”, eventually finishing five points clear of the relegation zone.
“He just gave us belief,” Wright says of Adkins’ impact. “And we found that he made it one big family, and made everyone feel part of it so whoever played gave it their all and we found momentum. And we had enough that year, probably against the odds, to stay up. And that’s what he’s all about: belief.”
For Wright, a 19-year-old living away from home, Adkins’ genuine care forged an important bond that paid off on the pitch as the midfielder made 35 Championship appearances.
“He was always someone that would lift you,” Wright says. “He was always someone who would bring happiness, whether it be in your home life, he’d always pay attention, try and make sure that you’re okay as a person. He wanted it to be an enjoyable place. And that’s exactly what it was. He brings a great happiness and buzz to the place.
“Man management is bigger than any other part. If you’ve got a group of players or an individual that wants to play for you, wants to run through a brick wall for you, then you’re always going to have a chance. When someone cares about your home life and looks after you, that makes you like them and care for them in exactly the same way. So if you do that, it works both ways.”
“He was always there if you needed to talk to him,” Hammond says of Adkins’ openness at Southampton. “If you had issues or something that you wanted to ask, he would always answer your questions and be very approachable, which was great as a player.
“He cared about you as a person, which is really really important. You know, he was always asking questions: ‘How’s the family? How’s everyone? How’s the dressing room? What did you think of this performance? What do you think about this idea?’ And I liked that as a player. Because you felt included. That’s one of his strengths – Nigel was very much open to your opinion. He wanted the players to express themselves on the pitch and off the pitch as well.”
Adkins’ personal touch has already been well received at Charlton, with one source explaining that the manager has impressed many with his decision to hold one on one meetings with each player. Meanwhile, every member of the Charlton squad, even those injured, traveled the short distance to Wimbledon prior to the international break, Adkins reasoning that “together everyone achieves more.”
Adam Curry played twice for Hull City in the 2018-19 season under Adkins before getting released at the end of the campaign. Still, he was happy to chat at length about the manager who gave him his professional debut but also delivered the news of his release.
“I think he made you feel more involved than probably you were from a fan’s perspective,” Curry says. “He definitely made you feel like you were part of it.”
There’s one memory of Adkins that stands out in Curry’s mind. It was after a EFL Cup first-round tie against Sheffield United, also the 23-year-old’s professional debut.
“We beat a good Sheffield United team that day. And I played the full game. And after he made an effort to say in the changing room: ‘That’s Adam’s first game in first-team football’ and the whole changing room was giving me a round of applause.
“In moments like that managers have a massive opportunity to put fire in someone’s belly, make them feel really good about themselves. And I did, I felt amazing.”
While Adkins may have had time for acknowledgment in the dressing room after matches, the actual analysis would wait until the following Monday. Adkins has always felt its best to let emotions cool slightly before discussing games in detail. His open policy didn’t just apply to the way he developed relationships with individuals, but also in these structured team meetings where players were always given a chance to voice their opinions and defend themselves.
“Whether we won, drew, or lost, we had a meeting on the Monday where we would go through all the errors,” Lambert recalls. “It was embarrassing sometimes, especially if you made an error. But he would make sure you sat through it. You would get asked in front of the lads, ‘What happened there? That’s not good enough.’ Stuff like that. And you would have a right to reply. Sometimes there were arguments, sometimes it kicked off. But as soon as that meeting was over, the line was crossed, everyone stepped over it together and then that game never got spoken about again – it was on to the next game. I’ve never come across that before and it worked really well.”
As was clear in the rather blunt group meetings, Adkins’ natural positivity doesn’t stop him from making tough calls.
“Nigel was quite happy to make a decision,” Hammond recalls. “That doesn’t always come from being loud and shouting and having altercations and confronting people. But if he needed to make a decision, he’d make a decision. He used to make big decisions at Southampton, at times he would drop me, he would drop Ricky, Adam Lallana. But you’d understand – he would tell you why.
“If we weren’t playing well, he wouldn’t mind making a change at half-time, change the shape. So it wasn’t all bawling and screaming and trying to put fear into players, he was just very proactive in terms of ‘right, I want to win a football match. This is nothing personal, you’re not performing well today, I’m going to make a change.’”
“Him not being very aggressive acts as reverse psychology,” Curry says of Adkins’ methods. “It makes players take responsibility for their own actions, rather than only doing it as a reaction to someone being aggressive towards you.
“He probably used to get described as quite unorthodox. He’s ahead of the curve in terms of putting psychology with football management. A lot of managers have never really realised the connection, but he’s always had an awareness of it.
“It’s becoming commonplace now. But even five years ago, it wasn’t really a topic that was getting talked about. With a lot of the initiatives now about mental health, physical health, managers have got to start taking notice of what a player’s feeling psychologically, not just physically. You could be 100 per cent fit, but you could be feeling absolutely crap in yourself, or opposite. I think if managers end up taking notice, they’ll have a better hold on the squad and what players are actually thinking and feeling at any one time.”
Adkins’ unique style helped Hull stave off relegation and carry Southampton up the leagues in minimal time, but Hammond’s own ride to the Premier League came with an upsetting end when he fell victim to one of those aforementioned “decisions.”
“He pulled me before we traveled away to Manchester City, for the first game of the Premier League,” Hammond explains. “He informed me that I wasn’t going to be captain any longer because I wasn’t going to be a regular in the team. But he told me, and that was the biggest thing. Look, I didn’t like it. And I didn’t necessarily agree with it. But I accepted it because he told me face to face. So there was no surprise. And that’s what I mean about Nigel – he’s honest. And he makes decisions, he won’t hide away from that. I was frustrated at the time but it lived with me, to think ‘no, that’s a good human being to do that,’ because it may sound strange, but not all managers would do that.”
Undoubtedly Adkins’ choice to drop his captain, came in part due to the confidence he had in his replacement, even if it may have looked a massive risk from the outside.
“We got promoted from League One to the Premier League and the first game in the Premier League season against the champions, James Ward-Prowse at 17 is making his debut,” Hammond continues. “Now that’s a brave decision. That’s probably one of the reasons why he was attracted to the (Charlton) job. And why the club were attracted to him – because of his history of bringing younger players through. James Ward-Prowse, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, there’s others I’m missing out there. It’s a really strong list, but Nigel is brave enough to play them in the first team.
“So obviously, I fell victim to that. And I was the one that was left out. It’s what happens but Nigel believes if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. You’ve got to prove yourself, he won’t just drop somebody in. James trained with us for probably six months when we was in the Championship and he didn’t play a game. But he was around the first team, Luke Shaw was the same, they’d come and train with us. So they proved themselves for a longer period of time and it may have just looked as though they were chucked in, but they weren’t.
“He likes bringing younger players through and I think every football club should do that because fans enjoy watching one of their own come through the academy.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adkins’ best managerial spells have come when his teams have reflected his brave, positive, approach. During Southampton’s first promotion they finished second in League One in goals scored, before topping the Championship the following season.
“He’s very forward-thinking,” Hammond explains. “You’re always looking for that forward pass, you’re always looking to try and attack. But there’s a defensive discipline there, there’s a foundation there – he’s very conscious of keeping clean sheets because that’s how you win games. That’s how you build a foundation of a team. But he wants players to be brave. I think that’s his personality as well. Nigel’s brave in terms of how he speaks and comes across. And his mentality. He wants players to be brave, he wants players to take risks in the right areas of the pitch, to express themselves.”
Lambert was one of many attacking players to flourish in Adkins’ system, the striker racking up 56 of Southampton’s 196 goals throughout the manager’s tenure.
“He’s possession-based, very modern-day thinker the way he went about it,” Lambert says. “He likes to be in control of the game from the very first minute. He wants to get the ball back very early and he wants to keep the ball. So, the best way is he opens up when we’ve got it, from the goal-kicks or from whatever position, he opens the whole team up, and he puts the confidence in the players to play.
“Fairly on we made a few mistakes, but he was adamant – and this is what I was very impressed with – the results weren’t going his way straight away, but not once did he back down from his philosophy and the way he wanted to play. Even some of the players were questioning. We were coming up against teams we knew were going to press high, but he was adamant that he still wanted us to play out from the back. And it did cost us early on.
“In the end, I think I might have pulled him aside and said ‘Look we know they’re going to press, can’t we change the tactics?’ He just smiled and went ‘Listen, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon’. It did take a few weeks but as soon as the lads started gelling and getting what he wanted put across, the results started coming. And we didn’t change. We went through the bad period and then we got what we deserved in the end.”
After losing eight of their first 10 games in the top flight, Adkins eventually did adapt – he and his team realising Premier League opposition were too good to continue trying to pass through. They went on to lose just two of the 12 games leading up to his dismissal, but outside of this successful case of fluidity, Adkins has almost always adopted the same principles of play. His perseverance with his beliefs doesn’t come from blind faith, but from intense attention to detail and a studious outlook on both life and football itself.
Josh Wright explains how Adkins’ thorough preparation helped build the confidence his manager was so determined to curate. “He’d leave no stone unturned. He’d know everything, he gave us every chance, he gave us every bit of detail, every bit of encouragement, drive, determination, and all these words…desire and hope…that we could win enough football games.
“I know times can change and the bigger club you go to the more staff you’ve got to help, but he was very hands-on. His enthusiasm and energy was exactly the same on the training ground. He was a fit guy himself, he liked to work out, look after himself, and that all rubbed off on the team. And he was very thorough, he would always make sure every single box was ticked and no pages unturned, if you like. We’d go through every bit of detail you’d need to for your own team. We would even be in, for a Tuesday evening game, we’d be in in the mornings to go through shape and detailed set plays so we knew exactly everyone’s roles, responsibility.
“And then we’d always go through the opposition with analysts, analysing them on screen and watching it and dissecting it and taking in what their strengths or weaknesses were. And also debriefing the game on a Monday. Everything was ticked, and everything was done, so there were no excuses.”
Disappointing spells at Reading and Sheffield United followed Adkins’ time at Southampton and he has been out of work since leaving Hull in June 2019. But before departing the KCOM Stadium he led them comfortably clear of the Championship relegation zone. Curry laughs as he remembers the almost ridiculous level of detail Adkins went into in order to make that possible.
“Adkins had been a physio, and I think he’s quite big on studying life, reading, and stuff like that. So he hones his craft, he does his research.
“Talk about preparing his players…he used to, before every game and I’m not sure if other managers do this, but we always found it quite peculiar. The three things that always stood out to me: he would preview the weather. He’d preview the size of the pitch, he’d give the exact dimensions of the pitch, and then if we practiced shape it would be on the exact same size as what the pitch would be. And he’d also preview the referee…if he was card happy, if you could sort of put more tackles in. So he did go into a lot of detail. And if it was a referee who gave lots of cards, he’d say in the meeting, ‘be nice to him, call him by his surname.’ We all just used to laugh. But it did work. It really did. He tried to get as many points as he could within a game that could give you an advantage and that was a big thing.”
— Nigel Adkins (@TheNigelAdkins) March 26, 2021
Throw-ins are another example of the seemingly minor elements of football Adkins analyses in great depth. But for the 56-year old, detail and complexity aren’t synonymous with Hammond explaining that his tactics work “because the message is clear.”
In recent years Adkins has taken his trademark positivity to the world of social media, and Charlton fans have already become accustomed to accompanying their new manager on his daily walks via Twitter. Curry says the social media persona is a totally accurate portrayal of the man in front of the camera, chuckling when he recalls the times he and his former Hull team-mates used to look out at the training pitches while eating breakfast to see Adkins “getting his steps in.”
A source inside Charlton feels Adkins’ positivity has already had an infectious quality on the players and staff. That in itself shouldn’t be a huge surprise. What you see on the outside is what you get with Adkins and it’s this authenticity that has helped his players buy-in to him as a person. And if you’re buying into Nigel Adkins, then really you’re buying into one thing above all: belief.
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