Survival is a long shot for the new man at the Madejski Stadium, but his motivation for a revival is spurred by sinful Saints
The trip that Southampton will make to Reading on Saturday 6 April would have been one for Nigel Adkins to circle with a red pen at the beginning of the season. It always looked to have the capacity to be decisive, a confrontation between two promoted clubs who stood to scrap in and around the relegation places. It is fair to say that the fixture has a little more riding on it now.
The script has come to feature betrayal, recrimination, role reversal and wildly conflicting emotions. There is a part of Adkins that will always love Southampton and, when he was presented as the new Reading manager on Tuesday morning, it was lovely to hear him offer heartfelt thanks to the players and supporters at his former club. "We were on a fantastic journey but we have to move on," Adkins said.
His sacking, though, on 18 January by the Southampton chairman, Nicola Cortese, cut him to the core and the wound remains raw, particularly as he feels the club failed to offer him an acceptable termination payment.
Adkins, with the representation of the League Managers Association, is suing Southampton for breach of contract and, with no date fixed for the tribunal hearing, the legal dispute will add a further layer of intrigue to what will be Adkins's home debut as manager of Reading. The LMA also represented him in his negotiations with the Berkshire club and they were able to conclude the deal over and above the civil suit.
Adkins was dismissed by Cortese with his Southampton team averaging a point-per-game in the Premier League and sitting in 15th place, three points clear of the relegation cut-off. Less than 48 hours previously, they had battled back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Chelsea. Adkins took over at Southampton in September 2010, with the club joint-bottom of League One and he lifted them, thrillingly, to back-to-back promotions. His sacking was as brutal as it was surprising.
But as the wheel has turned, Adkins can sense redemption, if not quite revenge, as the latter does not really chime with his nice-guy persona. His stoicism and dignity have been marked since his departure from Southampton, even if he has been legally bound to say nothing about the sacking as proceedings have been ongoing.
Adkins has watched his successor at Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino, take nine points from eight matches and edge the club four clear of the bottom three places. Survival remains in the balance for them and, if relegation is the nightmare scenario, it would be compounded if Adkins and Reading were to stay up at their expense.
The odds are against Adkins, who assumes control of a club that is seven points adrift of safety, on a run of five consecutive league defeats and with the worst defensive record in the division. Reading appear to need a minimum of four wins from their final eight games – the first of them is at Arsenal on Saturday – but, in all probability, they might require more. They have won only five times in the league all season.
After the must-win game against Southampton, come Liverpool (home), Norwich City (away), Queens Park Rangers (home), Fulham (away), Manchester City (home) and West Ham United (away).
But Adkins does not subscribe to the notion that Reading are doomed or that he is taking over merely with a view to another promotion tilt from the Championship next season. He did prevaricate over whether to accept the offer from the Reading owner, Anton Zingarevich, to replace Brian McDermott, who was dismissed two weeks ago, yet there comes a time when a man has to back his own ability and for Adkins, now is that time.
The longer-term does look reassuring for him, even if the worst were to come to the worst over the next seven-and-a-half weeks. Zingarevich will support him in the summer transfer market and the squad has proven quality at Championship level, as does Adkins himself. But his focus is narrowed on the eight mini-cup finals ahead and the need to instil positivity and harness the players' collective spirit.
The midfielder Jimmy Kébé said last December that Reading were "a good Championship team trying to compete in the Premier League", which also shone a light on the failure to invest significantly in the squad upon their promotion and, once again, in January. McDermott's net spend over the two windows was £8.7m, although Zingarevich insisted that funds had been made available.
"There was always a budget and I feel we should have done more in January," Zingarevich said. "We should have spent more. We tried to sign players but we should have been a bit more active. What's been tough is that last summer, we didn't have any scouting at all. The idea was to buy players in the summer and then do more in January."
But Adkins has no time for sob stories and he believes that he has a better chance, at present, of being a Premier League manager next season than almost all of his counterparts in the Championship. This is an opportunity that he realised he had to embrace.
Anything at Arsenal would represent a bonus and then comes Southampton, when the target will be to ignite the revival. The prospect is tantalising.