The unemotional side of football came to the fore in deepest Hampshire last week when Nigel Adkins was removed as manager of Southampton. A popular man, a seemingly decent one too, Adkins had taken the Saints from the depths of League One to the lower reaches of the Premier. For most clubs, that would be enough – indeed, it is usually adequate for Southampton, a club that has never uprooted trees but has invariably ploughed a path of respectable middle ground.
But the people behind the club have a different agenda. The man who presides over St. Mary’s (it doesn’t sound like a football hotbed, more like a medieval church), Nicola Cortese, has brought the Wall Street approach to hiring and firing to football. Cortese was once with Swiss bank Credit Suisse and he’s demonstrated that he’s as impulsive as a bond trader. Adkins’ flat-lining the Saints along the bottom of the Premier was not enough for Cortese.
Adkins may have got it right, though. He took over in September 2010 with Southampton in 22nd place in League One. By the end of 2010-11, Southampton had been promoted to the Championship. A year later, he repeated the trick, taking the club back to the Premier they dropped out of in 2005. For anyone who grew up watching the likes of Ron Davies, Mick Channon and latterly, Matt Le Tissier, the sight of Southampton returning to the top flight must have been gratifying.
Southampton spent 13 years in the Premier, but the club lost its way, despite moving from the quaintly unusual Dell for St. Mary’s. Two years before relegation in 2005, the Saints reached their second FA Cup final, losing to Arsenal.
This season started badly for Adkins and his men. They lost eight of their first 10 games and looked odds-on for the drop. One suspects Cortese and his accomplices started to set the wheels in motion to replace Adkins. In fact, Mauricio Pochettino, from Argentina, must have been running his eye over the job for some weeks – why else would he be very familiar with the squad?
Why has Cortese gone for Pochettino? He’s managed Espanyol of Spain and although he left the job in November, he’s highly rated. With just about everyone being seduced by La Liga, the prospect of bringing some exotica to St.Mary’s was too much to resist.
But on the other side of the coin, Cortese may be trying to take Southampton to a new level. Adkins did very well, and the fans are probably still singing his name, but if the Saints board have designs of making the club into a European competitor – it’s too early to say force – they need a broader perspective than Scunthorpe.
It’s going to take time for people to swallow it, though. Respected figures in the game who have called it “irrational and fraught with danger” and “unfair” do have a point. Adkins got Southampton back in the land of the living and to take the club on, he needed time. It’s ironic that he was sacked just days after Southampton came back from two-down to draw 2-2 at Chelsea.
There’s also a sense of irony that his luck ran out at another ground where the decisions of the man in charge are being questioned. It remains to be seen if Pochettino is successful, if he’s not the calls for Adkins will continue.