• Kevin Keegan

Spectre of Saints' surprise sacking still lingers

Kevin Keegan February 9, 2013

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Like everybody, I was absolutely shocked and disappointed when Nigel Adkins was sacked by Southampton last month, having done such an amazing job in guiding them up from League One to the Premier League.

Yes, Southampton were at the wrong end of the table, but Nigel had turned it around and things were looking up for the club with some encouraging results. They were playing excellent football, which isn't an easy thing to do as a promoted team in the Premier League, and after a slow start the philosophy was beginning to pay dividends. The decision to get rid of him was ruthless and seemed nonsensical.

To me, Nigel's departure screamed internal problems between him and chairman Nicola Cortese. This idea that Southampton had to act or risk relegation just doesn't wash - the situation certainly wasn't as desperate as Cortese made out. Unfortunately, if there are problems between the guy running a club and the guy managing the team, it's the guy managing the team who is going to go every time. From a PR point of view, Cortese's hardly covered himself in glory during his time at St Mary's - the fallings-out with former players, banning the local press from attending matches and now this. It's become a dictatorship at Southampton.

Hopefully another club will recognise just what Nigel Adkins has achieved and he will be back in a job soon, though I imagine it is probably more likely to be with a Championship club. That shouldn't be a problem, though, as he has the expertise that comes from overseeing a promotion; after I took Newcastle up to the top flight it wasn't so daunting when I faced similar challenges with Fulham and Manchester City. Nigel has got an impressive CV now and he hasn't done it with lorryloads of cash - the achievement of delivering Premier League football on a relatively low budget will make him an attractive proposition to may chairmen.

I really hope that things don't go downhill for Southampton, as it's a club with a special place in my heart. I played there for two years and they were two of the best of my career. We had a really good blend of youth and experience under Lawrie McMenemy, with the likes of myself, Alan Ball and Mick Channon in our 30s, playing alongside young players such as Danny Wallace and Steve Moran. We wanted to pass on our knowledge and they wanted to learn. We were all hungry to win things and punched well above our weight, even challenging for the league title. As for the fans, we had 18,000 in The Dell but it could have been 100,000 in terms of volume and atmosphere. It's a great football club.

The challenge facing Mauricio Pochettino is an intimidating one - we're talking about a manager who doesn't speak the language or have any experience of football in this country aside from an appearance against England in the 2002 World Cup with Argentina. It must be said, though, that Southampton have played superbly in his opening few games. Maintaining that attractive football is as good a way as any of winning over sceptical supporters, and major credit must go to the Southampton players, too, for the professionalism they have rightly shown. A number of them have been through thick and thin with Nigel Adkins and would have understandably been upset to see him go - but the harsh reality of football is that the players are contracted to the club, not the manager, and life has to move on for the sake of Southampton. In our sport it's always a case of 'the king is dead, long live the king'.

A new manager coming in brings all sorts of questions and there will be some players who weren't featuring under Nigel who I'm sure will welcome the opportunity that Pochettino's appointment brings. As a manager you have a certain way of playing and that is bound to alienate some players if they don't fit in - character clashes will happen and you're never going to be best friends with everyone in your squad. The secret of being at a new club is to try to distinguish between the players who haven't yet decided they don't like you and the ones who have already made up their minds.

I really hope Pochettino keeps Saints up and he's certainly got some quality players at his disposal. Southampton have always proved successful at bringing through excellent players - even when I was there, the youth structure of the club was very good and there was an excellent scouting network - and the likes of Alan Shearer, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are among the club's notable alumni. When you consider that Southampton is surrounded by sea on one side and forest on the other side, this is even more impressive. It's hardly a football hotbed and while nearby New Forest is known for its plethora of donkeys, Southampton have managed to breed thoroughbreds for years now.

Nigel Adkins spectre still hangs over Southampton © AP

The latest talented youngsters to come out of Southampton are Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana. Left-back Shaw looks very accomplished and I'm sure there are a number of Premier League clubs who have sent their scouting teams to watch him. It will be interesting to see how he develops as this season is a honeymoon period for him - playing regularly in the Premier League at 17 years of age is admirable, but clubs want players who can progress as they get older rather than those who just stay at the same level. When you look at what Shaw offers at the moment, though, in terms of both defence and attack, you have to say that he ticks all the boxes.

Then there is Lallana, who impresses you the more you see him. He's had a couple of injuries this year but he's taken it in his stride and received his first England call-up for the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine last September. The real Southampton hero this season, though, has been Rickie Lambert - he's got an incredible record. I discovered recently that his goals-to-game ratio for Southampton is better than mine, and that was the most prolific period of my career, so he must be doing something right! His record is better than other club heroes' like Matt Le Tissier and "Ted" MacDougall, too, and the steps up in quality from League One to Championship and then Championship to Premier League just haven't fazed him at all.

Lambert scored away to Manchester City earlier this season and, when the reigning champions roll into St Mary's this Saturday, I'm sure he will fancy his chances of doing so again. City come into this match having fallen nine points behind Manchester United and I think Roberto Mancini summed it up well after the draw with Liverpool when he said that his players need to win every match between now and the end of the season. That includes going to Old Trafford and winning but to be honest that might not even be enough.

City are seven points worse off than at this stage last season because they've found out what it's like to carry the mantle of 'champions'. Teams come, they get behind the ball, they're delighted with a point against you. Even at home, they will put players in who are there to stop you playing rather than trying to beat you. The other main difference is obviously the Robin van Persie signing - he's tilted the title race right back towards Manchester United. They're not champions yet but there's certainly one red ribbon on the trophy, and I reckon the engraver is preparing to start on the 'U' having already carved in 'Manchester' weeks ago.

City have at least had some good news recently with the departure of Mario Balotelli to AC Milan. I think getting rid of Balotelli is a good thing long term as he's been a distraction and often an irritation - it's one thing to be a great player but if you come with a load of baggage, it's not healthy for the club. You can't carry players like that for very long. They drain you and take up too much media space and detract from the team. At Manchester United, the club is bigger than the players and that certainly hasn't been the case with Balotelli. It was open house at times and, when the first thing you're asked at a press conference is about a player setting a firework off, it's ridiculous.

I recently read some comparisons between Balotelli and a player I signed for Newcastle, Faustino Asprilla, but while both players are known for wearing their hearts on their sleeves and have hit the headlines for high-profile off-pitch incidents, I believe the comparisons are unfair. Asprilla was an excellent person to have around the football club - the other players loved him, he trained well and was an excellent professional. The Newcastle fans adored him and he was a great asset to the club. Balotelli was more overwhelmingly a hindrance rather than a help.

City travel to the South Coast this weekend without Balotelli, but with a renewed sense of urgency. Yaya Toure's return from African Nations Cup duty is a huge bonus - he's been sorely missed and it's amazing that for all the signings City have made and money the club has, their squad still looks paper thin at times. Southampton will be motivated to cause an upset but City quite simply have to win, and I think they will.

Kevin Keegan is ESPN's Lead Football Analyst

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Kevin Keegan is ESPN's Lead Football Analyst ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPN throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.