Sheffield United’s Nigel Adkins: ‘It’s the Theatre of Dreams. Why can’t we dream?’

The former Southampton manager will occupy the Old Trafford dug-out for the first time on Saturday and believes his League One side is capable of an upset

Only one manager outside Old Trafford habitually refers to Manchester United’s home as the Theatre of Dreams, and through the magic of the FA Cup Saturday evening will find him making a belated pitchside debut at the place.

Sheffield United’s visit to the nation’s grandest club is not quite a dream come true for Nigel Adkins, more a case of one put on hold. When Southampton came into the Premier League under his guidance four years ago he was busy preparing for his first visit to Old Trafford when he was sacked in favour of Mauricio Pochettino. Adkins briefly kept his Premier League status alive with a switch to Reading but they were on their way out of the division and had already been to Manchester United.

So for a manager who idolised Sir Alex Ferguson to the extent of obtaining his autograph when the pair were presented with awards at a Northern Football Writers’ dinner, one in charge of Manchester United, the other making a name for himself at Scunthorpe United, the chance to finally patrol the same technical area ranks high as a personal achievement. “It would have been better still with Sir Alex in the other dugout but I’m not complaining,” Adkins says. “It will be a privilege to meet a coach as successful as Louis van Gaal and when I look out I’ll see Sir Alex’s name on the opposite stand. That’s good enough for me. I’ll know I have arrived then.”

Adkins did encounter Ferguson in games at St Mary’s while at Southampton, though the extent to which he was looking forward to taking him on at Old Trafford can be gauged from the meticulousness of his preparations for the visit he was anticipating in 2013.

“I took my wife to see a game there that year because I was interested to see what the dugout was like,” Adkins recalls. “We had just played at Everton and I found it very hard to get messages through to the players from the dugout there. On television Manchester United looked as if it might also be difficult so I thought I’d do a bit of a recce. Having seen it I think it probably will be difficult. I don’t know how Sir Alex did it for so long. It’s such a big pitch to shout across too. It might be time for the old non-verbal communication system to come into play. If you see me standing with my arms behind my back, everything will be going OK. If my arms are crossed I’m a little worried. Down on one knee I’m perplexed, and if I am waving my arms and kicking water bottles you can take it that I’m not happy.”

It seems almost pointless to ask whether Adkins intends to take the Cup tie seriously. Some managers with a league game on Tuesday and a play-off position to be secured might prefer not to be distracted from the league, but this is emphatically not one of them. “We are going to the Theatre of Dreams,” Adkins says. “So why can’t we dream? If you can’t enjoy a challenge like Manchester United what can you look forward to? I must admit I gulped at first when the draw was made, but then I thought no, it’s a great draw. The players will enjoy it, the supporters deserve it, the club will benefit financially. I wouldn’t dare make changes. All the players want to play for a start, and I wouldn’t like to short-change the fans because Old Trafford tickets aren’t cheap. We are taking around 8,500 and we are all going to enjoy it because there’s no pressure for a change.

“In our division we are the scalp, the big club everyone raises their game against. This is fifth in the Premier League versus eighth in League One. A massive gulf. On paper we have no chance but we all know the FA Cup does not always work like that.”

One pleasing aspect of the tie from Adkins’ point of view is the chance to renew acquaintance with Morgan Schneiderlin, a player he helped bring through the ranks at Southampton. He is not at all surprised to see him thriving at the top level. “We knew straight away what a gifted player he was,” he recalls. “His ability was obvious but at first we questioned his work rate and strength. When Morgan first arrived he was just a petulant young kid, forever throwing his arms in the air in training, wanting a free-kick every time he felt the slightest nudge. If someone went in hard on him he would stop playing for the next five minutes. We would all be shouting at him to get on with the game. Eventually he knuckled down, to be fair, and now he’s a French international playing for Manchester United. You feel proud as Punch that you might have had some small part to play in the lad’s development but we had a good set-up at Southampton. We had some really good pros to show him how to conduct himself. Dean Hammond was the captain and he’s with us now, so if Morgan plays he will meet up with him again.”

Schneiderlin has just returned the compliment. “He was a joy to work with, a manager who didn’t get enough time in the Premier League,” the midfielder said, before accurately pinning down his former boss as always optimistic and always wearing a smile. “Morgan grew up in the Championship, especially the season we came up,” Adkins says. “In the Premier League all the stats indicated that he was our strongest, fittest player, the one who ran more than anyone else. But the stats for Southampton as a team were also pretty good. Even Mauricio Pochettino acknowledged that he took over a very fit side.”

Adkins, 50, does not try to pretend that being sacked did not hurt – “I lost my job and I didn’t want to lose my job, I took myself away for a week” – but found offers came his way sooner than expected. “I spent a week studying Hamburg with access all areas, then Reading phoned me up and all of a sudden I was back in work,” he says. “First game up was Southampton, but I wanted to be involved again, I couldn’t say no.”

It was the same when Sheffield United made contact last year, after Adkins had spent his post-Reading interim studying basketball in the US, being shown around the New England scene by Paul Mariner, then getting so close to the England rugby set-up he was actually in the dressing room – “I was thinking I shouldn’t be there really” – during a Six Nations game against France.

“Once I had established that the Sheffield call wasn’t a wind-up I had to think about whether I should go down to League One or wait for a bigger club to come along,” Adkins says. “That didn’t take long. This is a big club. I was out of work. What would have been the point of waiting? Football is a competitive industry, you have to strive to prove yourself all the time. That’s the reality, you can’t whinge about it. Fortunately I love working in football, even when it is Manchester United away.”

In the case of one of the last romantics, perhaps especially when it is Manchester United away.


Paul Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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