Adkins prepares Saints for the best

Southampton know about life in the lower reaches but their manager thinks they can stay in top flight

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The Independent Football

If Portsmouth want a sign of hope in their present predicament, they need only look a few miles up the M27 at their greatest rivals.

Three years ago, Southampton were also newly relegated to League One, in administration and facing a points deduction.

Today they are looking forward to returning to the Premier League, and if the prospect of facing Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal among their opening four matches is daunting, the manager, Nigel Adkins, can't wait. "When we were bottom of League One we'd gladly have taken those fixtures," he said. "Everybody should be looking forward to it, enjoying it."

Saints last played in the Premier League seven years ago, but Adkins' route back to the top after failing to make the grade as a goalkeeper with Liverpool in 1983 was even longer. He played for Tranmere Rovers and Wigan Athletic, then in the lower divisions before becoming player-manager of Bangor City in 1993. He won promotion to the Championship with Scunthorpe United after stepping up from long-time physio to manager, roles that he had prepared for well in advance.

"I was lying in a hospital bed with a double fracture of the spine at 23, thinking: 'What am I going to do now? Am I going to walk again, never mind play?' So I came up with a master plan to get some coaching badges and qualifications in physiotherapy. I got back playing, but I'd given myself an opportunity for when I stopped."

His achievements at Scunthorpe attracted the attention of Nicola Cortese, the chairman of Southampton and right-hand man of the late Markus Liebherr, the Swiss businessman who bought the club out of administration. Adkins inherited from Alan Pardew the makings of the team that would win back-to-back promotions – including Rickie Lambert, who scored 27 League goals last season. Adkins added judiciously and brought an analytical, businesslike approach to the training ground.

Like Lambert and most of his players – including new signings Jay Rodriguez from Burnley, Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace and Steven Davis from Rangers – Adkins, 47, will be tasting the top flight for the first time. He admits the set-up is short of Premier League know-how. "But there is also enthusiasm and there's no fear. Don't get me wrong, I do realise that it's the toughest league in the world, but we go into it with an open mind and a positivity.

"People questioned Rickie Lambert before last season, his first in the Championship, and look how well he did. You have to have belief, go and grasp the opportunity that we have worked very hard to get. You know you are going to play against teams and players who are better, so you have to be as smart as you can be to deal with that, try to play the game on your terms and not theirs.

"Not everyone was expecting us to do as well as we did in the Championship, but we were in the top two the whole season – on merit. Yes, we are going to the next level, but there is a stability here that should give us strength. You can't underestimate team spirit."

Adkins hopes to add to his squad, but Southampton's history means that they do not need the example of Portsmouth to know what can go wrong when a club overreaches in search of success. Adkins preaches evolution rather than revolution, with the club's highly regarded academy continuing to play its part.

"Finance is there, but in the right, structured way. We've learned the lessons of administration. It was a horrible time for the football club and a lot of people suffered.

"As a manager you sometimes think of winning the next game and needing money for a player, and you forget about the heart and soul of the club. If we get the structure right then there'll be a production line for many years to come of players playing the Southampton way, which will be financially right for this club. Whether I am still the manager at that time is another question, but you've got to think above that."

Is he encouraged by the examples of Norwich City and Swansea City, who finished in mid-table after promotion last season? "Yes, but how many points were they clear?" he said. "Probably only a couple of results going the other way from being relegated. That is how close it is. There's no relaxing. But because they stayed up it's like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile – no one thought it was possible but after he proved it was, suddenly four or five people did it within weeks because they knew it was possible.

"We have to go into the Premier League with the belief that we can be strong in it. Aiming for 17th place is wrong. If you just fall short of it, there is a consequence. Aim higher, and if you fall short of that you've done all right."