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Bearpit brings best out of Adkins

Southampton's relentlessly optimistic manager can't wait for the renewal of a hostile local rivalry

Harry Redknapp famously cancelled Christmas for his Portsmouth players after a derby defeat by Southampton on 21 December, 2003. Today another Yuletide could be ruined for half of Hampshire as one of the fiercest rivalries in football is resumed at Fratton Park, where 250 police will attempt to keep order.

Not, you might think, the sort of bearpit atmosphere that a managerwould fancy after losing his last two away games. But that would be to reckon without the relentless positivity of Nigel Adkins.

The Southampton manager takes his Championship leaders along the M27 for the first League meeting with Portsmouth since 2005, when the Saints, on a downward spiral that would lead to administration and League One, lost a Premier League match 4-1. If his team's recent stumble and Portsmouth's improving form under Michael Appleton, their new manager, causes Adkins any fear of a repeat, it does not show.

"It's going to be a special game with two sets of passionate supporters," he said. "In any race, the leader is there to be chased down, and we embrace that challenge. I did it at Scunthorpe [in League One]. We hit top spot on the first of January and stayed there all season so being at the front of a League campaign and winning it is nothing new to me. We did it at Bangor City as well."

What is remarkable about Adkins'success in management is that, between those spells at Bangor – two League of Wales titles – and Scunthorpe, he spent a decade as the Lincolnshire club's physiotherapist before succeeding Brian Laws in 2006. "I wasn't looking to get back into management, I enjoyed being part of the backroom staff, but I was more or less told 'You're going to be the manager'," he said. "I throw myself100 per cent into everything I do, so I said to myself I was going to be the best manager I could be. I was the best physio I could be."

The use of the first person singular is untypical – usually everything is about "We," and for good reason. "Having been a physiotherapist, a goalkeeping coach, the fitness coach, with your manager's hat on you've got to embrace all those different departments and get everybody to work together. If you are together as one you can get the best for the football club." Of course, it takes more than a positive outlook to succeed, just as there is more to Adkins than the David Brent manager-speak of which he is sometimes accused. A further clue to his inclusive approach is that his earliest managerial influence was another coaching collective, the famed boot room at Liverpool, where he was a schoolboy goalkeeper.

"We moved some gear the other week, some scrapbooks, and I found my schoolboy signing-on form signed by Bob Paisley. So I had a good grounding, we were privileged there with Bob Paisley as the manager, Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennett..."

Added to that grounding has been a voracious desire to absorb ideas. "When I was younger I used to video all the interviews of managers, just to pick up different things that they were talking about. Over the years I've read a lot of things, I've been on all the courses, physiotherapy, fitness, coaching, you go and meet people and try to get the greatest wealth of knowledge possible, so that when you're placed in the situation that we are now, you've got more arrows in the quiver to deal with the situation that arises."

Performances are analysed but defeats are not dwelt on, and his players feel the benefit. "He doesn't leave a stone unturned in his preparation," England Under-21 winger Adam Lallana said. "Everyone knows where they stand and from a player's point of view we all like it."

Appleton is only four games into his first managerial job, but is highly rated as a coach and back-to-back wins suggest his team will put aside their financial difficulties to test their visitors. "We can't affect any of that, but if we can give some optimism back to the fans then it takes their mind off it," he said. "Every team we play will know they've been in a game of football. They will have to work their socks off to win." Christmas itself could be at stake.

Portsmouth v Southampton is on BBC1 today, kick-off 1pm