Soccer is a cruel and strange business. Beloved players are sold, successful coaches are fired and empathy and fairness are rarely present. Nigel Adkins, former manger of Southampton FC in the English Premier League, can attest to this.
One minute he was leading his newly promoted club to a stunning 2-2 draw away at powerhouse Chelsea, the latest in a stretch of 12 matches that yielded only two defeats. The next, he was inexplicably fired by Italian chairman Nicola Cortese, and replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, an Argentine who is just now beginning to learn English.
On the surface, the change makes no sense. No reasonable person could have expected a better two-and-a-half-year tenure than the one Adkins provided for Southampton.
When Adkins was hired in September 2010, Southampton was struggling in the third tier of English soccer. But consecutive promotions brought Southampton back to the Premier League for the first time in eight years. Their opening fixture of the season, away at Manchester City, saw them take the champions to the brink, holding a 2-1 lead late into the second half before ultimately falling, 3-2.
Further brilliant efforts against perennial top teams Arsenal and Chelsea, in which Southampton earned well-deserved draws, demonstrated the attacking prowess and belief Adkins was instilling into his team. And when the season was at its high point, as he had his team playing at its highest level, Adkins was fired
The Premier League is no stranger to firings, and in recent years their frequency has become startling.
Just this season, Roberto Di Matteo, manager of Chelsea during arguably their most successful season ever — they won both the FA Cup and the Champions League — was fired after just 12 league matches. The change was not totally unexpected, however, as eccentric Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has fired nine managers since he purchased the club in 2003, which the chief executive of the League Manager’s Associations called “a serious embarrassment to the owner, the club, the fans and the league.”
Not surprisingly, Southampton fans have erupted in outrage, calling for a reason as to why their beloved manager was fired in favor of a non-English speaking stranger who was fired less than two months ago from his managing position at Spanish side Espanyol.
Cortese has yet to speak to the media or release a statement on Adkins’s firing, leading some to believe the chairman did not make the decision in an effort to improve the team. For example, former Southampton star Matt Le Tissier wondered aloud whether the team chairman’s decision was from a purely selfish, non-soccer-related perspective.
“We have lost just two in 12 in the Premier League and looked like a team that had turned the corner, and now everything is turned upside-down again,” Le Tissier said. “I don’t know if Nigel was becoming too popular and the chairman didn’t like it — he does appear to have a bit of an ego problem.”
If such speculation holds any validity, Southampton owners must take a hard look at Cortese as a long-term chairman. After a string of five years and nine different managers, Adkins was on the way to bringing stability to a team on the rise.
Now, the team is once again in an upheaval, and Pochettino has an extremely difficult task ahead of him.
In a purely results-driven industry, only time will tell whether Cortese made a good decision in changing managers at such a controversial time. He put his reputation, and likely his job, on the line making this unpopular move, and if the season takes a downward spiral resulting in relegation from the Premier League he will likely discover firsthand how cruel a business soccer really is.
Jason Schneiderman is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major. He can be reached at Jason.Schneiderman@tufts.edu.