Adams leading from the front in quest to steer Saints back to the top table

2023-24/Player Features/Che Adams action/option_1_j3hytj

Southampton has become home for Ché Adams.

It’s nearly five years since the striker arrived at St Mary’s from Birmingham, where he spent three seasons in the Championship and struck 22 goals in his farewell campaign.

Adams had earned his shot at playing in the Premier League. Hailing from Leicester, he was never given a chance by his hometown club, and was released by Coventry at the age of 14.

The long road to the top had to start all over again – from the bottom. Adams played non-league football for Oadby Town and Ilkeston, in the East Midlands, where he was a central midfielder.

He got his big break at Sheffield United, then in League One, and scored his first professional goals in fairy-tale fashion – a brace off the bench against Tottenham in a League Cup semi-final at a raucous Bramall Lane.

The Blades were blunted by Spurs late on, but Adams’s rise was only just getting started. After conquering the Championship he spent four seasons in the Premier League with Saints, earning international recognition with Scotland, for whom he qualifies through his grandmother.

Recently he returned to Birmingham, contributing heavily to one of the most dramatic wins of his Saints career.

Adams dropped deep, spraying the sort of diagonal pass he practised as a midfielder, as Adam Armstrong sprinted into the space he vacated to score.

When he played up against the centre-backs, he was typically robust, made sure the ball stuck, and helped Saints push up a pitch he knows better than most.

He hit the post and brushed the side-netting either side of his goal, which was characteristic of his spirit in never giving up, even when he temporarily lost his footing and was outnumbered in the Birmingham box, as he threaded a low shot through a crowded penalty area to put Saints in front for the first time. He didn’t celebrate.

Adams was substituted at 3-3, five minutes from the end of the 90. With a tense game of great significance at both ends of the table hanging in the balance, he was applauded off by the home fans. He responded by acknowledging all four sides of St Andrew’s.

In a week in which Saints teammate Will Smallbone was the subject of online abuse, and in a social media world described by his manager as “a cesspit of negativity and toxicity”, Adams felt the love from a rival.

“It was nice,” he smiles. “The respect is there from my side and obviously from them as well, to give me the reception that they did.

“Before the game I was nervous, and I don’t really get nervous before games. It was quite strange having that feeling, but controlling it in the right way in order to play my best and to play well was nice, and to get the win as well.

“It was the first time I’ve been back there in a few years, since I moved to Southampton, so it was quite nice to see a few familiar faces, and I got a nice little reception as well.”

Adams is not one to chase the limelight, but it’s clear that meant a lot to him in an age that it’s become fashionable to boo ex-players.

He’s typically modest about his form too. “I don’t think so,” he replies, when asked if it was one of his best performances of the season, simply summarising it as “a weird game for me personally”.

His best display of a “quite steady” campaign, he reckons, was the Swansea away game in which Saints broke the club record unbeaten run with a stylish 3-1 win that showcased Adams’s ability to be the team’s target man, playmaker and goalscorer all rolled into one when he’s at the peak of his powers.

His St Andrew’s strike took him into double figures for league goals, coming from just 17 Championship starts, averaging a goal every 163 minutes this season.

“Not as good as Arma (Adam Armstrong), but still trying to get there,” he chuckles. Armstrong is Saints’ leading scorer, and his 29 goal contributions (18 goals, 11 assists) is the highest in England’s top three divisions.

“I think as a striker you’re always judged off goals, and to be scoring is always nice, but I’ve always said it throughout my time here, it’s about where the club are going to be.

“If that means me not scoring goals and the team are winning and we’re in second place or first place, I’m taking that all day.”

Adams and Armstrong are close off the field. Both became fathers for the first time within two weeks of one another in late 2022: Adams to a baby girl, Elsia; Armstrong to a boy, Axel.

The Scotland international is delighted to see his strike partner flourishing in a Saints shirt after some tough times – something he can relate to himself.

“We went on a similar path in regards to not scoring as many goals as we would’ve hoped and the fans probably expected, but now everyone can see that hard work pays off and we’re both doing well, so it’s nice to come through that moment and give back to everyone who expected so much of us,” he explains. “It’s a really nice feeling. His wife is pregnant again as well, so I think he’s clinical on and off the pitch!”

Adams insists there’s no competition between them to top the goalscoring charts, but is enjoying linking up with his best mate. It’s a combination that seems to work for Saints, as illustrated by Armstrong’s goal at Birmingham.

“Arma’s had an amazing season this year and there’s still so many games to play,” he enthuses. “Also, his assists as well, that’s what stands out, because as a forward player you don’t really see that many assists.

“This year it’s been good, because we’ve played together more frequently than times before. I’ve always enjoyed playing with him because he’s so fast, so any ball in behind that I play for him, he’s always going to get on the end of.

“His finishing in training is amazing, so it’s no surprise to everyone at the club that he’s scoring this many goals. It’s always a pleasure to play with him.”

Brothers in arms: Ché Adams and Adam Armstrong celebrate the latter's goal at Norwich on New Year's Day

Selfless on the pitch, it’s in his nature to pass praise to others, but Adams isn’t doing too badly himself. He’s now scored eight goals in his last 15 appearances in all competitions – a purple patch dating back to Boxing Day.

It’s clear his only target between now and the end of the season is to get Saints into the automatic promotion spots, but beyond that there’s Euro 2024 to look forward to, in which Scotland have been drawn against the hosts, Germany, in the opening game of the tournament.

Adams knows a run of form now will only boost his chances of starting that mouth-watering match in Munich on June 14th.

“It’s going to be the opening ceremony… what an experience that’s going to be,” he says, his mind wandering.

“There’s so much competition for places up for grabs in the national team, so hopefully we can get a call-up, but it’s going to be an amazing experience.

“I’ve just got to keep going with performances and just keep being relentless. That will warrant a place in the team.”

In action for Scotland at the last Euros - stadium capacities won't be restricted this year

Adams, who played under Ralph Hasenhüttl for the first three years of his Saints career, is starting to sound like Russell Martin with language like that. “Relentless” is very much a Martinism.

The pair share a close bond, with the manager having played for Scotland himself on 29 occasions prior to Adams’s first international call-up in 2021.

“Every time the Scottish boys link up in training and score a goal, he’s always like, ‘that’s why Scotland are going to the Euros!’” Adams laughs.

As someone who lived through last season’s struggles, the 27-year-old offers a valuable perspective on the work Martin has done to transform the mood inside the club.

“Last season, I’ve said it in past interviews, was one of the hardest I’ve been involved in,” he reflects. “For the gaffer to come in and turn things around, it’s just a completely different club and different vibe as well, and everyone can see it.

“The environment is so good – everyone’s laughing, everyone’s joking, but in a serious way, so it’s credit to the gaffer and the coaching staff for creating that buzz again around the training ground and around the city.”

Meeting fans at August's open training session

That buzz is built on a Saints promotion challenge that has brought fresh excitement to St Mary’s matchdays, with Martin’s men playing an enterprising, attacking style that has the fans in love with their team once more.

It’s a far cry from the end of last season, when Adams posted a statement on social media following Saints’ relegation from the Premier League after 11 years in the top flight.

“We have failed,” he said, addressing the fans. “Anyone that knows me, knows I don’t give up or quit easily… we’ll bring the club back to where it belongs for you.”

Since then, the striker has been the subject of speculation linking him with moves away last summer and in January, but he remains a Saint – now with family ties to the city – and more determined than ever to bring Premier League football back to the club that means so much to him.

“When your kid is born there and you’ve had most of your life and your football down there, it’s always special, and Southampton will always play a part in our lives and especially my daughter’s life,” he says.

“A club like Southampton is a Premier League team. Any team that’s come here this season can see how well established and how big the club is, in terms of fanbase and in terms of staff around the place as well.

“It’s a Premier League club, but for me personally it’s just about – I said it in a statement at the end of last season – getting the club back to where it should be again, because that’s where we deserve to be.

“In this league it’s relentless,” he adds, using that word again, “so to keep winning games and keep building the momentum is going to be huge, as we’ve seen with the previous 25 we went unbeaten, so there’s no reason why we can’t do it again. Every game is going to be massive; we can’t afford to drop points.”

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