Yesterday we witnessed the Premier League’s basement battle; Loftus Road played host to two sides with just one win and one clean sheet between them so far this season. Conventional wisdom tells us that QPR manager Mark Hughes and Southampton’s Nigel Adkins could not be far from a decisive meeting with their chairmen, and a further loss for either in the game dubbed ‘El Sackico’ was touted to be that one disappointment too far.
I’m here to tell you that in this case I do not prescribe to ‘conventional wisdom’, or to any wisdom, for that matter, which suggests that the best course of action for Southampton Football Club would be to remove Nigel Adkins from his post. Subsequently, I decided to write the bulk of this piece before a ball was kicked in west London – to my mind the result is practically immaterial given that Adkins’ influence at the football club far transcends a couple of months of disappointing results. (Although I must admit, eventually I found it too tempting not to make reference to such a thoroughly satisfying away victory to help illustrate my point.)
“Every game in the Premier League is a big game”, said Adkins in his press conference this weekend, downplaying the significance of yesterday’s fixture; “I’m pretty sure that come Monday both managers will be in situ.” For those not well versed in his ‘Adkinsisms’, his display of confidence and calm might be seen as a vain attempt to put up a united front at the club before what was undoubtedly their biggest game of the campaign so far. Those same observers might also have argued that Southampton’s early-season results increasingly render their manager’s position untenable, but I can only presume that those onlookers do not know enough about the man, the job he has done and the difference he has made. His media-persona remains unchanged from his very first day on the job, and the message is made explicit time and again: ‘We are together as one’. I hope and pray that Chairman Nicola Cortese lives up to his employee’s mantra.
When Cortese moved to bring Adkins to the club in September 2010, Southampton were sitting near the foot of the League One table and struggling to score a goal, let alone win a game. Many fans were disillusioned following Alan Pardew’s abrupt dismissal; bemoaning what they perceived to be yet another piece of gross mismanagement from the Saints’ hierarchy that, they thought, had resigned them to another underwhelming season in League One. Put simply, what the football club desperately needed was a healthy dose of positivity.
Step forward, Nigel Adkins – positivity personified. Scunthorpe’s physio-turned-manager may not have been the obvious choice for the position, but scarcely two seasons later Cortese’s decision was fully vindicated; the club has risen two divisions and Saints fans have been left with some of the finest memories their club has ever supplied them with.
Considering Southampton’s meteoric rise under his stewardship and the relatively small part of this season complete, it is all the more difficult to believe that media speculation over Adkins’ position has been ongoing for some time now. Four points from the opening eleven games - and the mounting media scrutiny that will always accompany such a record - has provided the Liverpudlian with his greatest professional challenge to date, but nothing has suggested to me yet that Adkins is not up to the task.
Those who speculate that Adkins must be on borrowed time in his job are entirely caught up with the superficial. Much like the fallacy employed by those who gaze out of their window at the rain and sigh “So much for global warming, eh?” they fail to grasp the bigger picture, or recognise the general trend.
In this case, the general trend is that over the past few seasons we on the south coast have been treated to a superb brand of football; exciting, dynamic team displays where opportunities are manufactured through neat, swift interplay. A brand of football where we constantly threaten from well-worked set-plays and have rediscovered a winning mentality. It might be raining just now, but Adkins’ has been a decidedly sunny regime.
Adkins’ overarching principles of positivity and unity are the reasons why a couple of bad weeks, or even a couple of bad months, should not tempt Cortese into a change in management. The club is geared to this philosophy from bottom-up; Adkins’ Southampton is a long-term project with long-term aims. When the manager need not fear for his job on the back of a disappointing spell then real progress can be made. This means support for the club’s manager that does not waver on the back of a bad start to a league season. I have bought into Adkins’ Southampton; the Adkins years have rekindled my love for the club and I would like to think he can take us onto the next level or two, before the inevitable parting of ways.
Equally valuable is the fact that the feeling is clearly mutual; anybody who saw his post-promotion interview in April will have been left in little doubt that Adkins possesses true affection to the club. I think back to Saints managers from the recent-past and I struggle to remember another who is so vocal about his pride in his job title.
Of course, Adkins the manager is not without his faults. It has been argued that he has been over-loyal to certain members of his squad, placing too much trust in them to make the step-up to the Premier League, to the detriment of results. His substitutions this season have also been brought into question as the Saints surrendered leads in home games to Manchester United and Fulham. I would argue though, that any new manager in the Premier League can be expected to make a certain number of mistakes in just the same way that a young player might take some time to adjust to a new level of the game before ultimately flourishing. He has earned our trust, and his clear potential deserves our persistence.
Yesterday’s clash exemplified the unity of club that Adkins values so dearly. While the home fans were on their players’ backs from the start, the travelling army of over 3000 roared their support for their side and their manager; positivity clear for all to see. The Saints played fearlessly; when their lead was halved early in the second period it would have been easy to abandon the incisive, aggressive passing that had been serving them so well, but instead they took their game up another gear and barely allowed QPR another kick. The entire occasion - from the fans to the players and management - was an impressive endorsement of the manager's style that happily also lends support my argument: Adkins’ relentless positive energy is taking hold at St. Mary’s, and it is too valuable to throw away so carelessly.
None of this is to say that Adkins’ previous successes should grant him impunity; the club requires Premier League football but I stop short of saying ‘at any cost.’ Should Cortese act too rashly then we might just be giving up too soon on a real gem of a manager. It is my hope that it is nothing more than a vocal minority in cyberspace who have lost faith in Mr. Adkins, and that behind closed doors Cortese is making plans for Nigel for many years to come.