Nigel Adkins has many memories of his time as a Wigan Athletic player.
Some positive and others, the Sheffield United manager acknowledged earlier this week, excruciatingly painful.
“I remember breaking my cheekbone while I was there, fracturing my wrist and my finger and also getting a double fracture of the spine. Oh, and I saved a John Barnes penalty in front of The Kop. The supporters named their bar after me; ‘Steady’. That’s what I used to shout. They sent me something when we were at Southampton saying they were still going strong then. Whether it still is or not, I honestly don’t know.”
Much has changed at Wigan since the days when, as a young goalkeeper, Adkins used his catchphrase to marshall defenders at Springfield Park. The ground, which hosted the club’s first ever match in the Football League, is now a housing estate and a team whose ambitions once stretched to rubbing shoulders with the likes of Liverpool in knockout competitions recently celebrated lifting the FA Cup.
Wigan was also the place where, having suffered that debilitating back injury in 1993, Adkins pressed ahead with forging his coaching career. Twenty-two years, three clubs and four promotions after becoming player/manager of Bangor City, he took charge of Sheffield United with whom he returns to Lancashire today.
“It’s a game which, for obvious reasons, I’m looking forward too,” Adkins told The Star during his pre-match media briefing on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s where I spent the majority of my time as a player. They won the FA Cup not so long back so it just goes to show how challenging it is to stay at the top. Football changes all the time and, if you take your foot of the gas or don’t accept that, you’ll get hurt. You’ve got to be on it all the time.”
Adkins learnt a salutary lesson last Christmas too when, having just parted company with Reading, he spent the festive period at home in Birkenhead. It was, the former Southampton and Scunthorpe chief admitted, a pleasant experience but not one is particularly keen to repeat.
“I’ve been in football since the age of 16 and last year was the first day when I didn’t have to think on Christmas Day about playing or preparing for a game the day after. We went and had a nice drink with my dad and my mum. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I want to do it again anytime soon? No. Football is my job. It was strange.
“We went around to The Swan, which was the local on our estate growing-up, put some hats on, had a drink and then went back to mum’s for a lovely dinner. It’s amazing, when you go back, how many people still pop in. That’s what you do on Christmas Day isn’t it. Put the Christmas jumper on, have a quick beer and then go back home for some food.”
This year Adkins has been obsessing over tactics and team selection rather than choosing novelty threads. United’s game against fifth-placed Wigan, with only four points separating them in the table, could exert huge influence over the race for promotion from League One. United, in ninth, have won their last three outings by the same 1-0 scoreline while their opponents beat Barnsley 2-0 seven days ago.
Adkins, having established a reputation for building expansive, attack-minded teams, has instructed his players to adopt a much more combative approach in recent weeks. Partly in response to the defensive frailties which had seen them spiral out of the top six and partly because, after being exposed to Wigan’s rugby league heritage, he boasts huge respect for confrontational professionals who refuse to take a backwards step.
“I remember signing for Wigan and, because Springfield Park was on the back of a housing estate, I got lost. So I asked this bloke for directions and he sent me to Central Park. I didn’t know anything about rugby league at the time but they were world champions I think back then and were getting crowds of 30,000. I rolled up at the ground, the wrong ground as it was, and just thought ‘wow.’ There was an aura about the place.”
And a soon-to-be Great Britain international too.
“Our apprentices and the rugby apprentices used to get schooled at Springfield Park. All our lads looked pretty weedy compared to them. Andy Farrell walked in one day, he was 16 and there was already this stature, this standing about him. He went on to become a legend and I wasn’t surprised. You just knew straight away.”