Back with the fourth installment of his series on exciting young English managers in the Football League, Hugo Steckelmacher looks at Scunthorpe United’s Nigel Adkins, a man hard to pigeon-hole. Come back next week for Paul Ince!
Who needs Mourinho, we’ve got our physio — Scunthorpe fans’ regular chant, home and away.
Nigel Adkins (born 11th March 1965, age 42) is different from other football managers. For one, he was a goalkeeper, and precious few ‘keepers make it into management at the top level. What’s more, his playing career was nothing to write home about, especially compared to his young English managerial colleagues, such as Tony Mowbray and Paul Ince. And finally, he has worked for several years with a Sunday league team, has managed in Ireland, and is a qualified physiotherapist. Confused? Welcome to the hybrid world that is home to Scunthorpe United’s highly-rated manager Nigel Adkins.
Adkins’ playing days were less than colourful, although I will offer a brief outline of them to help you get a picture of the man. Of Adkins’ time in English football, the entirety was spent in the nether regions of the football league, where he gained the know-how necessary to survive in the notoriously scrappy League One and Two (perhaps one of the reasons some young English managers fail is the lack of football league experience in their playing days; conversely, the fact that Adkins never played in the top divisions may ultimately, though not necessarily, inhibit his managerial progression).
A Merseyside native, the formative years of Adkins’ professional career were spent at local side Tranmere Rovers, stuck in the wilderness of the fourth division. Having broken into the first-team at the age of 18, Adkins made 86 performances in four years as a professional for The Whites, but left in 1986, just before Rovers’ recovery and ascent under the leadership of Johnny King. This unfortunate pattern of leaving just a couple of years before his former club underwent a massive overhaul and shot up the leagues would later be repeated at Wigan. Adkins took advantage of his injury time at his local club to attend night school and gain a degree in business and finance, at the same time taking his first managerial role, obtaining huge success: he led a team from the youth division to the premier division of his local Sunday league.
Adkins’ move to Wigan Athletic was hardly a prosperous one, although he served the club extremely well, making 155 appearances, and is still fondly remembered by many fans. However, Wigan at this time were by no means a force to be reckoned with, had only ten years of football league experience (having entered the football league in 1978 in place of Southport), and remained a small-town club with limited financial clout. Having been promoted into Division Three (later Division Two after the formation of the Premiership) in the early 80’s, the club spent a decade hovering dangerously above the relegation places, before eventually succumbing to relegation in 1993, at which point Adkins departed for pastures new. As for The Latics, it was not until Dave Whelan bought the club in 1995 that their upturn would begin, by which time Adkins was long gone.
Back in 1993, meanwhile, Adkins took the unusual decision to make the step into Welsh football, joining a Bangor City side that had housed four different managers in the previous few years, and was still attempting to adjust to the Welsh league after close to 100 years in English football. Having finished a disappointing 4th in the 1992-3 season, Bangor started the 1993-4 season in excellent fashion, form which gained manager Paul Rowlands a move to Conference side Altrincham. After an impressive interview, the Bangor board showed no hesitation in giving Adkins the reins, and a string of astute signings (including the loan acquisition of Dele Adebola — the man who is currently firing Bristol City towards the Premiership — and the transfer in of Adkins’ former Wigan team-mates Carberry and Appleton) brought Bangor their first league title in several years, as well as qualifying the club for Europe for the first time since 1985.
Although the 1995 European campaign was ended before it had really got going — Bangor, crippled by Welsh football’s 3 foreigner rule, were beaten by Icelandic champions IA Akranes in the preliminary rounds — Adkins and Bangor repeated their Welsh league success in what was a memorable season for many reasons. The league was secured by a huge margin (at one juncture as many as 22 points separated Bangor from their closest rivals), the trophy presentation was celebrated in style in an 8-0 away demolition of Connah’s Quay Nomads; relative giants Wrexham were nearly knocked out in the Welsh Cup (having been unlucky to get no more than a 2-2 draw from the first game, Bangor were defeated 1-0 in the replay in front of a crowd of more than 5,000), and Adkins’ signings continued to flourish; Mark Lloyd Williams, in particular, had a sparkling campaign, and his form earned him a move to Stockport County in the Football League.
The 1996-7 season was a disappointing one by all accounts for both Bangor and Adkins, neither of whom seemed to recover from the loss of a number of key players, including Lloyd Williams. Hopes were high after a spirited performance in the UEFA Cup saw City hold their own in the away leg of a tie (in which they had been outclassed in the first leg 4-0) against a Widzew Lodz side containing 5 full Poland internationals, but good league form did not follow. After an early Welsh Cup exit, Adkins was fired only to be re-instated some three days later by the Bangor City board of directors. Adkins’ return would prove brief, however, and he moved on after a 4-0 loss in Conwy, leaving the club in 5th position. They would finish the season in 8th.
Adkins’ next move was to pitch up at Scunthorpe United, where he took a job as a physio, having completed a four-year chartered therapy course earlier in his career (part funded by the PFA, I would add). At United, Adkins played a vital role as both coach and physio, and also put to use the sports psychology degree he had taken at Newcastle University, developing an extremely close bond with his players, a relationship which would prove extremely useful when appointed manager. As Adkins relates in an interview with the Daily Mail:
“As a physio, your door is always open. Players aren’t injured but come to you and say: ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go’. I’ve had to deal with the drug problems, the drinking problems, the gambling problems, the women problems.
“Or: ‘The supporters are absolutely slaughtering me. I just need to be out of the fishbowl where I’m getting bombarded, so I’ve got a groin strain’. He hasn’t got a groin strain. It’s just a cry for help to get him out of the environment. I realised I was more like a social worker, a counsellor.”
Having been nearly relegated to the Conference in the 2003-4 season, Scunthorpe’s promotion to League One the following season was odd-defying, and due in no small part to the input of then manager Brian Laws. In 2005-6, the club that had boomeranged up and down League One and Two in recent years was expected to head straight back down. However, Laws continued his excellent work, and a number of brilliant purchases, particularly that of Billy Sharp from Sheffield United, helped the Irons consolidate their position in League One, finishing in twelfth place. Scunny were also playing some exciting stuff, with attacking flair and defensive indiscipline on the part of Keogh and Sharp and Hinds and Crosby respectively on display in equal measure, having scored 68 and conceded some 73 goals during the campaign. Sharp, meanwhile, shared the top goalscorer gong with Southend’s Freddy Eastwood (now at Wolves and once signed by Mark Stimson).
After a great pre-season, Scunthorpe had a rocky start to the 2006-7 season (poor league form and Roman Calliste, a summer signing, ruled out for 6 months), and these problems were compounded by the departure of Brian Laws to Championship outfit Sheffield Wednesday. Following Laws’ resignation, the board turned to Nigel Adkins, and, despite the prognostications to the contrary, the former physio blossomed in his new role, thanks in part to his closeness to the players.
“Bringing in someone from outside of the camp at the moment who does not know the players could have caused uncertainty, so it has been beneficial,”
Whilst early doubters argued that Adkins was simply taking the benefit for Laws’ hard work — the “Avram Grant” role as it is now called — Adkins managed not only to hold the fort, but to reinforce it. Sorting out what was a leaky defence became the first priority, and it is one that Adkins accomplished with great results. An excellent run of form, including several notable away wins (a 2-0 win against local rivals Doncaster Rovers joining victories at Carlisle and Yeovil) took Scunny to the brink of top position, and the summit of League One was finally reached on the 30th of December 2006, when the Irons defeated Bournemouth 3-2 at home, whilst rivals Notts Forest could only scrape a draw with Adkins’ old club Tranmere Rovers.
The January 2007 transfer window saw the sale of young superstar striker Andy Keogh to Wolves for a club record fee of £600,000. Adkins’ chosen replacement — Jermaine Beckford, signed on loan from Leeds United — was a revelation, and a key part of Scunthorpe’s continued push for promotion. A club record run of seven straight wins — including away triumphs at Swansea, Walsall and Brentford — took Scunthorpe 10 points clear at the top of the table, and a month a half later, another club record was broken; Scunthorpe extending seven straight wins into nineteen matches unbeaten (breaking the previous record of 16), until United were finally beaten 2-1 at Northampton Town on the 8th of April, a match in which a positive result could have sent Scunthorpe up.
Promotion was secured at the second time of asking, however, as two goals from Billy Sharp ensured a 2-0 victory over Huddersfield and a place in the second division of English football for only the second time in their humble history. The title was then clinched on the 28th April 2007, with three games still to play, and the Iron finished the season with the highest number of points in the football league (91), six points above second-placed Bristol City.
Although it can be frustrating to hear Adkins harp on about it, keeping a club with a fan base and budget as limited as Scunthorpe’s afloat in such a competitive division as the Championship was always going to be a mean feat. This difficulty is attested to by the hardships experienced at this level by other small clubs such as Crewe Alexandra and Brighton & Hove Albion, both of whose stadia were only slightly larger than Scunthorpe’s 9183-capacity Glanford Par stadium, which is the second-smallest in the Championship (bigger only than Colchester’s Layer Road). If one compares this to Bristol City’s 21,497 capacity Ashton Gate, the monstrous difference in scopes between the two clubs becomes immediately obvious.
Following promotion to the Championship, Adkins was philosophical about the club’s survival chances, instead choosing to focus on the positives to come out of their foray into foreign territory.
“It’s a voyage of discovery for the club. A lot of the supporters have said: ‘It doesn’t matter where we finish, it’s going to be a great year’. Our goal is to stay in the Championship. If we do that, for Scunthorpe United, it’s like winning the European Cup.
Adkins had comparatively little money to play with in the summer transfer market, instead making a number of free-transfer, tribunal-determined or loan signings, including Martin “Pato” Paterson from Stoke City (fee later set at £400,000), Jonathan Forte from Sheffield United and Kelly Youga from Charlton Athletic. Player of the season Steve Foster left the Irons to reunite with former gaffer Dave Penney at Darlington, and a number of other fringe players were also released. However, by far the biggest blow for The Iron’s survival hopes came in the shape of a departure: after a number of rejected bids, lifelong Blades fan Billy Sharp left Scunny to rejoin boyhood club Sheffield United for a Scunthorpe club record fee of £2 million, a figure that chairman Steven Wharton simply couldn’t refuse. Sharp had been the fulcrum around which Scunthorpe had based their team for the last two seasons, had become a club hero, and had scored 53 goals for the Iron in just 82 matches.
Scunthorpe started life back in the second division in impressive style, clawing their way back from 1-0 down to get a draw away at promotion hopefuls Charlton in front of more than 23,000 fans (hardly the norm at League One level, though with Leeds and Forest there this season, attendance records have been broken for the division). After this opening draw, The Iron embarked on an incredible run of eight matches in which losses were followed by wins and then losses again, a pattern that was only broken when drawing at Carrow Road in early October. A topsy turvy start that left Adkins and Scunthorpe was a highly respectable record after ten games: played ten, won four, lost four, drawn two. At this point, Nigel Adkins’ name began to be linked with a number of managerless clubs, and United held their heads high and proud in the top half of the table (they indeed reached a high-point of 4th, the club’s highest ever league position).
An inconsistent October (two draws, a loss and a victory) was proceeded by ten consecutive winless games, rooting The Iron firmly into the relegation zone in which many had expected the club to nestle all season. An important away victory at Preston brought the club some respite, although North End would later avenge the league loss by knocking United out of the FA Cup, before four straight losses in January left Scunthorpe stranded out at the bottom of the league table, in spite of the nine signings made by manager Nigel Adkins during the Winter transfer window.
Recent form has seen a slight upturn in Scunthorpe’s fortunes, with a victory over Charlton at the beginning of February — thanks to yet another crucial Paterson winner, a draw away at struggling Sheffield United — for whom ex Scunny-favourite has yet to net a league goal — and a battling but unfortunate home draw with Southampton (Adkins came out and criticized the refereeing as a late sending off and penalty cost his side the victory) sandwiched in between losses to the top-two, Stoke and Bristol City. The 3-2 reverse at the Britannia stadium was particularly painful for Adkins and his side, as the Iron had gone into the half-time break two goals to the good. March has started in the same way as February, however, giving cause for optimism: Scunthorpe beating fellow strugglers Coventry on Saturday 1st to give the whole club a lift, situating them in second-bottom position, but just two points off safety.
Style of Play
Adkins has a rigorous approach to football management, and frequently varies his tactics based on opposition strengths and weaknesses. Although he has only been managing at league level for two seasons, and has managed in two vastly different divisions during that short time, certain patterns have emerged with regard to Adkins’ preferred style. At Bangor, Adkins created a team which played from the back, with a more patient style. He used strong midfielders and created chances from both clever passing moves and through placing a strong emphasis on wing play and crossing.
During his first season as Scunthorpe boss, Adkins had two main focuses: set pieces, and defensive discipline. He knew from his previous time with the Iron that they were a real handful going forward, and continued to favour young, enthusiastic, and pacy forwards (Keogh and Sharp, Beckford and now Paterson). However, it became necessary to shore up a leaky backline, which he promptly did by conducting extra training sessions with the brief of stopping opposition goals from set pieces, and retaining defensive discipline until the last (United had been conceding late goals on a regular basis).
Defensive soundness was the key to Adkins’ early success, and it is telling that in a season in which the club won the league with a massive 91 points, the player of the season was Steve Foster, and the club only let in 35 goals all season, the best record in the division by some length. Adkins also worked assiduously and ardently on attacking set plays, and whilst The Iron have not been known for their attacking flair, either in the title-winning canter or in the relegation scrap — one of the few charges we can level at the man — his side outperformed all others in League One in terms goals scored from set pieces. A great percentage of United’s goals this season have come from dead ball situations, and the club can expect to continue in this vein now that Grant McCann is fit to deliver.
Although he does not necessarily possess the scouting eye of, say, a Mark Stimson, Adkins has made a number of very shrewd signings whilst at Scunthorpe, such as those of Izzy Irekpien and Tomi Ameobi, and this working on a budget that — he is quick to note — is probably the smallest in the Championship. During his first season, Adkins made few signings, instead choosing to rely on his rapport with the players to get him through; although he did add Wigan’s record appearance holder, and former team-mate, Kevin Langley, to the squad, benefiting from the former Everton midfielder’s experience. As chieftain of a “selling club”, Adkins dealt very well with the losses of Keogh and Sharp – signing Beckford on loan and then Paterson, and earning the club a huge net profit in the process — and has also plundered the loan system astutely so far this campaign, with Chelsea schemer Jack Cork and Liverpool’s former Grimsby central defender Jack Hobbs the pick of a bunch of more-than-capable loan signings. Cork got the winner in Scunny’s most recent victory over Coventry City, and has performed to a very high standard throughout the campaign. Not all of Adkins’ signings have necessarily come off, and the handing out of a contract to Kevin Horlock on reasonably big wages has not been popular with the Scunthorpe fans. The acquisition of Geoff Horsfield on a free transfer could, in my opinion, prove to be a master-stroke, as Horsfield is just the sort of player who relishes a good relegation battle and is capable of popping up with the odd vital goal.
Adkins is a very passionate and popular manager who treats his players with respect and sensitivity and generally eschews the spotlight. Hardly the hairdryer type, he is evidently very approachable, as shown from his time as a physio, when his players would use him as a “shoulder to cry on” and pick his thoughts when they had problems. He is also very much a thinker, and can be clearly seen to be attempting to mould together his own particular philosophy, lacing together disparate strands of knowledge — his full UEFA A badge, his physiotherapy qualifications, his sports psychology diploma, his business and finance degree, and his experience from the Warwick Business School “applied management in professional football” course, which can count the likes of Mark Hughes, Aidy Boothroyd and Paul Ince amongst its graduates — to offer his players and his club a holistic service. As Adkins told the Daily Mail:
” All of it is put to use […] Knowledge is valuable. Everything is relevant to somebody. It’s all about finding a trigger to get the best out of that individual”.
A “modern” manager, he is not afraid to try new things to motivate his players, as we can demonstrate with an anecdote. At the beginning of the season, one of his players suggested, with some temerity, that they mightn’t be able to cut it at Championship level. Adkin’s response? He cut a film, intersticing shots of the players’ title-winning season with scenes from the movie Gladiator, to demonstrate the power of resistance and positive thinking.
League One Champions (2006-7) — 91 points garnered, more than any other team in the football league in the 2006-7 season.
Nothing. Although he had a good, but not spectacular, cup record at Bangor, Adkins has been unable to reproduce this form with Scunthorpe, whom he has not taken past the second round of any cup trophy. Indeed, the first round League Cup loss to Hartlepool (2-1), in front of a measly crowd of just 2,965, can be considered one of the low points of Adkins’ managerial career.
Manager of the month, Coca-Cola Football League One (February, March 2007)
The Sun’s “Emergency Manager of the Year” (2007)
Adkins’ first 50 games in charge gave him the highest win percentage out of any Scunthorpe manager ever (48%) and his record at Scunthorpe compares favourably with that of Brian Laws, with whom he is now involved in a Championship relegation scrap. His win rate is now just 40%, but I would bank on this to improve by the end of the season.
Adkins took Scunthorpe to their highest ever league position, 4th in the Championship. It is also worth noting that Adkins oversaw the club’s first ever sell out of Glanford Park, versus Nottingham Forest in 2006.
Future? More than just a physio
Many people’s tip for the Southampton and Norwich jobs, Adkins’ immediate future may well be determined by how well his side manage in the ever-exciting Championship relegation rumble, although I would not expect Wharton to be so rash as to sack Adkins if the Iron do end up dropping down a division. As we can see, Nigel Adkins has not had things all his own way as a manager so far, and his debut season in the Championship is proving a tough apprenticeship. Still, one thing is for sure: this learned man who once specialized in alleviating the unseen tension and curing the knocks and strains of league football will not give up, and few would bet against him making the step up to the Premiership in the end. After all, the last high-profile case of a physio stepping up to become manager of a league club? A certain Bob Paisley. And Mourinho was just a translator. Who needs Mourinho, anyway?