The Adkins diet gets Saints in shape
A year since he became manager of Southampton, Nigel Adkins can be pleased with what he has achieved since succeeding Alan Pardew at St Mary's.
In the past 12 months, Adkins has guided Saints to promotion from League One, enjoyed a successful summer in the transfer market (the club pocketed £12m from Arsenal for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain while buying the likes of full-back Danny Fox from Burnley and Jack Cork from Chelsea) and overseen a strong start to the Championship season.
But perhaps his biggest achievement, possibly even the secret of his success, has been to build a winning culture at a club where it was questionable whether everyone was pulling in the same direction.
Adkins has proved to be a steady and reliable figure at Southampton. Photo: Getty Images
"I often use the phrase 'together as one' and that is what we are," the 46-year-old Adkins told me. "We are a club that is united. "A club is about its people and we are trying to give everyone the opportunity to be best they can be. We have a very honest and hardworking group of players and staff. Everyone is very ambitious and we are building a culture and an environment where people can work hard."
Saints dismissed Pardew just three games into last season's League One campaign following a 4-0 thumping of Bristol Rovers. At first glance, the timing of the sacking appeared ludicrous, not least because it came at the end of a transfer window during which he had signed the likes of Ryan Dickson, Frazer Richardson, Danny Butterfield and Guiherme do Prado.
It was suggested Pardew's departure was because of a strained relationship not only with a large number of the club's coaching staff but also with chairman Nicola Cortese, who, I understand, wanted a manager whose perspective extended beyond the first team.
Many Saints supporters were initially unhappy with the decision to sack Pardew, who is now in charge of Premier League Newcastle. Some felt it was a rash decision by Cortese, a man who has not always enjoyed a smooth relationship with the club's fanbase.
But if Cortese, a former Swiss banker, was looking for a man with a grasp of modern management techniques to try to build and foster a winning culture, he certainly picked the right one in Adkins. The Birkenhead-born Saints boss sometimes sounds like he has swallowed a middle-management text book and is a world away from the old-school flying-teacups approach adopted by many running football clubs.
Adkins was brought in from Scunthorpe, where he had been the physiotherapist before his elevation to the role of manager in 2006. In his time in charge at Glanford Park, he oversaw promotion from League One twice but also failed to prevent relegation from the Championship in 2008.
Saints lost their opening fixture under Adkins - a 2-0 defeat at MK Dons that left the team in the bottom four - but they won their final six games of last season to clinch automatic promotion. They did it playing a brand of fast, skilful and attacking football that sat comfortably with supporters used to watching the likes of Matthew Le Tissier.
Southampton won their first four games of the current Championship season, including a 5-2 thrashing of Ipswich at Portman Road, although by that stage the doubters had long since been silenced. Saints are second in the table after Saturday's 3-2 victory over Nottingham Forest.
I am told that Southampton's unquestionably talented squad, which boasts players such as Adam Lallana, Jose Fonte, Lee Barnard and Rickie Lambert, have benefitted from their manager's even temperament and analytical approach.
He believes in studying every match with his players in order to help them improve. He compiles a post-game report that is made up of five positives and one negative. He will use a video display and then discuss his thoughts with the squad. When this is done, he draws a blue line under the name of the opponent on his whiteboard and starts preparing for the next fixture.
He told me he still draws upon some of the lessons he learned during his first managerial role, in the early 1980s, as boss of Birkenhead Sunday League Division Five club Renbad Rovers. Adkins was a player at Tranmere but had already started to think about life beyond his playing career.
Renbad won promotion all the way to the Premier Division under Adkins, who went on to win back-to-back titles at League of Wales side Bangor City in the mid-1990s before he left to become Scunthorpe's physio, a role he occupied for a decade before his return to management.
Optimism is growing in a certain corner of the south coast that Adkins could perhaps add another promotion to his CV in May. But he knows it will be difficult.
"This season is going to be so tough for everybody and there are probably about 15 or 16 teams who believe they have got a chance of promotion," said Adkins.
"We are one of them. The staff at the club have got to keep pushing the squad as hard as they can. We have got to push them, pull them, carry them, drive them on - and we have got to do it together."
Cortese set out a five-year plan when he took over at Saints to transform the club from a third-tier outfit struggling to fulfil its potential to a side back in the top flight for the first time since their relegation from the Premier League in 2005.
Adkins is not planning any celebrations to mark his first year in charge - he did not even realise the anniversary of his appointment was imminent until someone pointed it out to him last week - but if Saints do win promotion again the champagne corks are sure to start flying.