After two years of target-shattering achievement and cacophonous popularity, the firing of a Saints hero comes as an offence to the fans and a disappointment to the players
By George Ankers
Southampton's decision to sack Nigel Adkins on Friday is as inexplicable as it was sudden. Scrap that, it is foolish, reprehensible and desperately depressing.
There had been rumblings earlier in the season that the 47-year-old's job was at risk. After two promotions in two years, the Saints suffered in the opening fixtures though still impressed many despite defeats to both Manchester sides.
In the build-up to November 17’s clash with QPR, they were speaking of 'El Sackico'. Adkins laughed – not in derision but because he loved the joke. Then he won. Southampton beat the Rs 3-1, Mark Hughes soon got the chop and the Saints went from strength to strength.
Now they are on a run of only two defeats in 12 matches, including draws against first Arsenal and then, on Wednesday night, away at Chelsea in a brilliant comeback. They sit 15th in the Premier League, three points clear of safety and playing visibly better than many of their relegation rivals.
That alone is a run of form worthy of respect. Adkins has done well to turn things around despite a squad with some obvious weaknesses.
|CURRENT PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE
18. Aston Villa
When he replaced Alan Pardew (whose sacking was itself a very poor decision at the time) in September 2010, Southampton’s plan was to rise from League One to the Premier League in five years. Adkins did it in two.
He did so not by luck or skulduggery; During their single-season campaign through the Championship, the Saints never once left the top two. They played, by all accounts, a serious – if not the only – candidate for the most entertaining football in the division. It was an approach that translated better to the top flight than some might have expected.
When the whispers grew loudest in November that Adkins might be let go, the supporters at St Mary’s Stadium loudly made their feelings clear and have done at every home game since. Few bosses have been so beloved on the south coast.
It is an affection borne not only of incredible results but also of the perfect fit of personality. Taking charge at a time when the club were only just getting to grips with just how low they were ebbing, his relentless optimism and warmth brought a genuine feel-good factor back to St Mary’s.
Soaring back to their rightful place in English football was made all the better for having done it with a smile on their faces.
Since inheriting power at Southampton following the tragic death of saviour investor Markus Liebherr just before hiring Adkins, chairman Nicola Cortese has always been feared as a Roman Abramovich-style disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, the only reason that he got away with sacking Pardew over a personality clash was because Adkins injected such joy into the club.
The warnings had been there over the summer that Cortese ‘got it’. Though Adkins had indicated his desire to bolster the defence and sign sensibly, the Italian’s hand was all over the rash move to throw £12 million and huge wages at Gaston Ramirez.
|SAINTS' LAST FIVE PREMIER LEAGUE RESULTS
|Chelsea 2-2 Southampton
16 January 2013
|Villa 0-1 Southampton
12 January 2013
|Southampton 1-1 Arsenal
1 January 2013
|Stoke 3-3 Southampton
29 December 2012
|Fulham 1-1 Southampton
26 December 2012
Indeed, if it had not been for the ahead-of-schedule emergence of Luke Shaw as an astonishingly mature left-back, the Saints’ defensive malaise might still be a topic of emergency. For this, Cortese can take no credit.
His decision to fire Adkins is based on a belief that he is “dithering” in the transfer market, that he has not got the contacts to attract continental talent as Michael Laudrup can at Swansea City.
That may well be true but it is only a suspicion - a minor one, at that, considering how well Adkins has worked the domestic market thus far. The chance to let him build a reputation abroad through honest achievement is squandered.
To override two-and-a-half years of truly exceptional achievement over such a hunch, one that breaks the hearts of all who hold the club dear, is risible.
It will alienate huge swathes of the support, many of whom genuinely felt that it would be better to be relegated this season and hang on to Adkins than get rid. The atmosphere will not turn as foul towards new boss Mauricio Pochettino as Stamford Bridge did towards Rafa Benitez but the urge to boycott St Mary's will be high.
The playing squad, as well, will surely be disrupted. An inspirational father figure, Adkins will be missed just as much by them. What had seemed a strong chance of avoiding relegation is now seriously threatened.
On April 28, 2012, when Southampton confirmed their miraculous return to the Premier League after a nightmarishly close brush with financial finality, this author wrote that the joy of that day might never be matched in a lifetime of support. Adkins’ sacking is the opposite, a perfect storm of fury.
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