By Jason McKeown
“He has an exceptional winning mentality and he knows what he wants.” Steven Craig (Ross County striker) on Derek Adams
How did Derek Adams become a manager?
Born in the far-North Scottish city of Aberdeen, Adams was a largely forgettable late 90s/early 00s midfielder, best known for his time at Motherwell.
Adams was briefly on the books at Burnley but was restricted to just two substitute appearances over 1995/96. His playing career got going at Ross County before he moved to Motherwell, and he then had short-lived spells at Ayr, Aberdeen, Livingston and a final flourish back at Ross County. In total, Adams started fewer than 250 games as a player.
It is as a manager that Adams has made his name. His big opportunity came right at the end of his time as a player at Ross County, and – from the outside – it appeared to contain a bit of a family helping hand. It was the 2007/08 season, and County had begun the campaign well, topping the Scottish Second Division. But in a shock move, the-then manager Dick Campbell resigned, after falling out with the director of football – one George Adams, father of Derek.
George and/or Ross County asked Derek Adams to take over as caretaker, and were impressed enough a month later to make him permanent manager. Adams – who was just 32-years-old at the time – ensured Ross County maintained their momentum, and they were promoted as champions, finishing seven points clear of Airdrie United.
In Scotland’s second tier, Adams and Ross County enjoyed two decent seasons. The club finished eighth and above the relegation places in 2008/09, before a mid-table fifth position in 2009/10. Most notably of all that year, Adams guided Ross County all the way to the Scottish Cup Final – they caused one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history by beating Celtic in the semi final. County lost 3-0 to Dundee in the final at Hampden Park, but Adams’ managerial star was rising.
In fact, midway through the 2010/11 campaign, Adams resigned to take up a position of Colin Calderwood’s assistant at Scottish Premier League side Hibs, declaring, “I’ve had three magnificent years at Ross County and leave there with a sense of pride. The club made great progress over that period but it’s now time for both Ross County and me to look forward to the next phase.”
That next adventure was short. Within six months, Adams was re-appointed manager of Ross County, explaining, “The chance to be manager at Ross County again is just too good an opportunity to turn down.” County had gone through two managers and only just avoided relegation whilst Adams was away.
The return proved inspired. Over 2011/12, Adams and Ross County romped to promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history – in fact, it was only 18 years since they had been playing in the Highland League. In a truly terrific season, County lost just one game and finished 24 points above their nearest challengers. Adams was named the PFA Scotland Manager of the Year.
The next two years in the Scottish top flight were decent, with Adams and County holding their own and recording fifth (2012/13) and seventh (2013/14) place finishes. Average crowds had doubled to more than 4,500 compared to when Adams had first become manager. But after a poor start to 2014/15 – where County lost their opening four matches – Adams was sacked along with his dad George. The action of firing Adams junior was actually carried out by Adams senior, before he too fell on his sword.
Derek quickly made it known that the sacking of both he and his dad was about more than football, revealing new directors had come in with a desire to turn Ross County back into being a community club. “I think it’s the wrong direction they’ve taken,” Adams blasted. “We had run the football club for eight or nine years. They wanted to run it in a different way.
“They wanted to have bouncy castles outside the stadium, face painting and take that away from producing a first team.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs, County have not faltered since. Apart from dropping down to the Championship in 2018, but bouncing straight back up, they have remained a regular fixture in the Scottish Premier League.
How did Adams get on at Plymouth Argyle?
For Adams, the next opportunity lay a whopping 639 miles South, and Plymouth Argyle, languishing in League Two in the summer of 2015. Adams was not the first or last manager with success North of the border to try his luck in England, and in recent decades it has been a mixed record. But Adams would prove to be a success story.
In his first season at Home Park, Adams took Plymouth all the way to the League Two play off final, where they were beaten 1-0 by AFC Wimbledon. They bounced back to win automatic promotion in 2016/17, after which Adams’ locked horns with Bradford City for the first time.
Their first campaign in the third tier was strange. Argyle started very badly, winning just one of their first 14 games. Form began to improve in late autumn – including a 1-0 victory at Valley Parade – and then it suddenly clicked from December. Adams oversaw a remarkable run where they lost just three out of 24 games, rising from the relegation zone to the edge of the play offs. Alas, they ran out of steam by losing their last two games to miss out on the top six. Still, it was an encouraging season.
The 2018/19 season was equally odd. Again, it began badly with no wins in the first 11 games. Then it got a bit better, and by January they were in flying form. When at the end of February, Bradford City lost 3-2 to Walsall and David Hopkin felt he had to resign, Adams and Argyle were enjoying a much better Saturday afternoon. A 5-1 romp of Rochdale left them 14th and seven points clear of the bottom four. They just needed a couple of wins to be safe.
But it didn’t happen. Form collapsed, with Argyle winning just one of their next 11 games. On the penultimate weekend of the season, Adams took the Pilgrims to Accrington and they were hammered 5-1. Adams received some fearsome abuse from the travelling Green Army and refused to speak to the media after. The next day, he was sacked. Plymouth did win their final game of the season, but it wasn’t enough to save them from relegation.
What has Adams achieved at Morecambe?
Adams’ managerial stock had undoubtedly taken a tumble after such a difficult final season at Argyle. Even so, it was a surprise when he was appointed Morecambe manager in November 2019. He actually had a last-minute offer to manage Hearts. But having shook hands on a deal to join Morecambe, Adams felt it would be wrong to go back on that.
It wasn’t the most promising of starts. Adams won just four of his 19 games in charge, before Covid brought the season to a halt. Morecambe ended the aborted 2019/20 in 22nd – although they were 10 points clear of the bottom two, which wasn’t bad given they were bottom when Adams took charge. Still, the seaside club went into 2020/21 once again tipped to struggle against relegation. Bookies had priced them 3/1 to go down, 30/1 to earn promotion and 150/1 to win the league.
Of course, Adams has confounded such a gloomy forecast, leading Morecambe to their highest ever league position of fourth in League Two, they almost earned automatic promotion too. Morecambe have amassed an impressive 78 points and won half of their fixtures. They’re also the fourth highest scorers in the division.
“We probably should have won the league and we deserve to have won the league this year with how well we’ve played,” Adams claimed in early May. “The style of play has changed [since last season] too. We have got a lot of attacking players in the team that can either create chances or score goals and I think the players that we’ve taken in all want to do that.”
The play offs saw Adams and Morecambe take on Tranmere, with a first leg victory at Prenton Park followed by holding Rovers to a draw on a rainy afternoon at the Globe Arena. And then at Wembley, they beat Newport 1-0 thanks to a hotly disputed penalty in extra time.
Adams’ record in management is undeniably impressive. His CV features four promotions and one play off final finish – at every club he has managed, he has taken them up at least one level.
Although Plymouth Argyle are a relatively large lower league outfit, much of Adams’ success has come from remoulding small clubs and taking them to new heights. Delivering feats that defy the logic of the resources he had available. On the eve of this season he said, “Morecambe has the lowest budget in the league, so we have to overachieve.”
He has done that and then some.
What style of football can we expect from Derek Adams?
This is the downside. The reports from supporters who have watched Derek Adams manage their club are not always pretty. He prefers a 4-2-3-1 – sound familiar? – and adopting a dogged, more pragmatic style of football. It has delivered success, but largely at the sacrifice of entertainment.
Writing about Adams’ final season at Home Park, for Argyle Life, Nick Saunders Smith revealed, “It has been apparent for some time that Adams was far from a tactical genius. He was a manager more inclined to force pegs into holes that suited his tactical approach than one who could and would produce a game-plan superior to his opponents or select a team that was specifically designed to compliment the players’ individual qualities. He was far from inept in this regard – he would never had made it this far otherwise – but there have been far too many occasions in which he has been outwitted by his rivals.”
The underlying stats of Morecambe’s remarkable season further suggest that Adams is not a man who likes to play lots of attractive football, and instead be more direct. Morecambe had the lowest average possession in the whole of League Two and the second lowest pass completion, behind only Carlisle. They were the best counter-attacking side in League Two, scoring more goals on the break than any other club. Morecambe were also effective at set pieces, scoring the sixth-highest number of goals from corners and free kicks.
Others who have watched Adams’ Plymouth told WOAP that Adams likes to make sure the team is well set up defensively, in a fairly rigid manner. But then he allows the forward players a greater level of freedom to attack. It’s why flair players like Graham Carey did well under Adams, not to mention Morecambe’s Carlos Mendes Gomes this season. After cleaning up one year at Plymouth’s player of the season awards, Carey said, “The manager gives the three of us up front the licence to play. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be able to get these awards.”
Adams might be encouraged to be taking over a group of players at City who are well versed at playing the 4-2-3-1 formation, although expect him to make changes and bring in a signing or two who has played under him.
Yann Songo’o – who has six goals and two assists this season for Morecambe – is a likely contender to join as one of the two sitting midfielders. He also played under Adams at Plymouth. The right back Oscar Threlkeld – just released by Salford and who spent three seasons under Adams at Plymouth – is another to keep an eye on and has already been linked with a move to Valley Parade.
The idea of another pragmatic manager coming in represents another tilt towards tapping into proven success by Bradford City, after the move away from a win-at-the-cost-of-entertainment philosophy that Gary Bowyer oversaw. The worry – just like with Bowyer at City and with the likes of Peter Taylor a decade ago – is that the Valley Parade crowd can be quick to turn on pragmatic managers.
If you win games of football, fans will put up with a dour style of football – as the Phil Parkinson years showed. But if you don’t get results, it can become a grim atmosphere.
Despite the misgivings about Adams’ approach, his win ratio as manager is strong and remarkably consistent. Over two spells at Ross County, he won 42.2% of games, at Plymouth 42.3% and Morecambe 42.1%.
If he can replicate that level of success at Valley Parade, the club is likely to go far. Although there are no guarantees. After all, Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars were recently demoted despite an even higher win ratio.
What is Adams like as a person?
This is another area where there might be some concerns about Adams. He is a combative person, quick to fall out with people. He was once handed an 18-game touchline ban due to continued fall outs with officials (reduced on appeal).
Whilst it is fair to say he has players who really buy into what he does and show strong loyalty, others have fallen out with him quite badly. None more so than Kevin Ellison, who after scoring at Morecambe last season made a beeline to the dugout to celebrate in front of Adams. The veteran was deeply upset at the way Adams had driven him out of Morecambe the season before, adding after the game, “He disrespected me, I don’t like him, that’s how it goes.”
Player fall outs are not unusual with Adams. In December 2008 at Ross County, he was alleged to have punched striker Sean Higgins twice in the dressing room after a 2-1 defeat to Morton. Higgins revealed at the time that he had confronted Adams after the manager accused him of having no heart, “I have never seen a manager hit a player before. I don’t know how I can play for him now.” They did ultimately settle their differences – Adams apologising – and Higgins continued to play for under the manager.
Adams is known to have thrown his own players under the bus in post match interviews, which hasn’t always reflected well on the Scot. Saunders Smith adds of Adams at Plymouth, “He was both abrasive and evasive. Unnecessary pot-shots again opposition managers and clubs made him appear petty and diminished his standing with a large section of the fan base. Worse, his endless list of excuses portrayed him as sometimes clueless and otherwise attempting to absolve himself of any blame.”
By the time Adams was sacked at Plymouth, he’d made more than a few enemies. He turned on a section of his own supporters, stating, “There’s a number of individuals that are showing a yobbish feeling towards myself and the team.” He also stopped speaking to the local paper because he was upset it covered criticism of him from supporters and a former player.
Saunders Smith wrote, “When the fans, frustrated by his tactics, comments in the press and the lack of points on the board, turned on him, he described a group of them as yobs. This will go down as one of the biggest own-goals in Argyle’s managerial history.”
Commenting about his decision to sack Adams in 2019, after the 5-1 loss to Accrington, the Argyle chairman Simon Hallett explained, “We felt that the way our fans were treated up at Accrington wasn’t entirely appropriate, and we felt that Derek had obligations to the media that he didn’t fulfil. So, we weren’t happy about the Accrington game in ways other than just the result.”
Adams is also not shy of falling out with opposition managers. In August 2018 the-then Southend manager Chris Powell was sent to the stands after a bust up with Adams, who he accused of trying to get one of his players sent off. Powell said, “I reacted to what he said to one of my players. He can speak to his own players like that if he wants to but I wouldn’t speak to my own players like that. If he wants to own up and say what he said then fair play to him but I know what he said and so does he.”
Steve Evans is another one who isn’t keen on Adams, after they locked horns during the current Gillingham boss’ time at Mansfield. Evans branded Adams “big-headed” before sarcastically ranting after a defeat, “We didn’t deserve that, but then again we’ve come up against the best manager in British football.
“Their manager will say something different about character, but he talks nonsense. When somebody tells you in the tunnel they’re the best manager outside the Premier League it’s hard to palate that.”
Other managers who fell out with Adams during his time at Plymouth include Oxford’s Karl Robinson – who was upset Adams claimed the U’s squad hadn’t prepared right – and Sunderland’s Jack Ross.
At Ross County, Adams had regular fall outs with Terry Butcher – then manager at Inverness – although the Scot talked later about how the rivalry with the former England defender was theatrical, “That’s how we tried to portray it. It was good for business. We stoked up an atmosphere, a bit of aggro. There is not enough showmanship. Not enough razzmatazz or whatever you want to call it. We have to sell the game and Terry and I did that.”
Portsmouth midfielder Jamie Mellett recalls of the battle between Pompey and Plymouth to win the League Two title in 2017, “‘Derek Adams was a bit of an idiot, to be fair, he kept mentioning wages and budgets in the press whenever they played us and there was no need for it.
‘He eventually turned on his own fans and local media before being sacked in April 2019 and, while he seems a good manager, I don’t think he has great social skills.”
Our very own Gareth Evans also holds a low opinion of Adams. In April 2017 the-then Portsmouth midfielder said of Plymouth and Adams, “I can’t stand them and I don’t like the manager, if I am honest.” That could be an awkward meeting at the Bradford City training ground in a few weeks – or, more likely, the end of Evans’ second spell at the club.
Yet clearly Adams is a complicated man. He is deeply religious, teetotal and known for not swearing. Others are much more positive about his managerial style and personality. The former Bantam Kelvin Mellor said recently of Adams, “I’ve worked with the gaffer before, so I know what he’s about and I think his standards are really good.
“His work ethic is second to none really and that’s shown with the team’s performance and how we’ve done this year.”
Ross County striker Steven Craig said a decade ago, “Derek was never a bawler or a shouter and one for the hairdryer in your face treatment as he was always constructive in his criticism of the players and was always positive. He is an absolute gentleman off the park.”
Adams once argued, “I’m probably a lot different on the pitch from how I am off it. I can shout and bawl with the best of people, but I just don’t feel I need to swear.
“I never drank – it’s the way I am. It’s just me as a person. I don’t feel the need to apologise for it. People probably think if you don’t swear and drink, you’re a bit different here. But I do make up for it in terms of anger, I suppose.”
What’s Adams’ managerial philosophy?
“I’ve managed over 500 matches as manager, and that gives you experience to be adaptable,” Adams explained in one interview. “The teams that I’ve had have always had creative players in the team. That sadly can be missing in many teams nowadays.”
Adams partly credits his strong will to win on growing up in Aberdeen during the era Alex Ferguson was manager of The Dons, where he was a youth player. “I saw Fergie and Archie Knox having fights over snooker or head tennis. They had that fierce winning mentality. They would bring in all the young YTS kids and the likes of myself to watch them going full at it in the snooker room. I loved seeing that will to win.”
On player recruitment Adams adds, “Basically, I believe in hard work but I also look for players who have a point to prove.” The unexpected resurrection of the likes of Nat Knight-Percival and Mellor at Morecambe would attest to the success of this approach.
The fact Adams has quickly shaken off set-backs, like his sudden demise at Argyle, is another key part of his character. “It is perhaps the best thing I have learned in management. I move on to the next game quickly. You can do nothing about what is in the past, but you can plan for the future.”
Adams himself seems to have the self-awareness that he needs to move onto new challenges after a few years, as his strengths tend to become less effective over time. “I think a cycle of a manager is probably three years, after that it’s time to move on to a new club.
“I don’t think any manager should stay for too long. I’ve been a manager for three years three times (Ross County twice and Plymouth Argyle). I think if you do stay, the club perhaps doesn’t get to move forward and the manager doesn’t.”
Adams revels in being an outspoken character, explaining once, “There are plenty of them in football. People who only have someone else’s opinions. I tried to be different. I had an opinion and I gave it.
“I knew other clubs wouldn’t especially like what I was saying about them.”
In some ways, Adams is a lower league Jose Mourinho – he has an impact, overachieves in terms of results, plays dour football and in time departs having upset a few too many people.
There is a divisiveness about how Adams is viewed in the game and by supporters – both of clubs he has managed and the opposition – and a genuine similarity to his style and persona to a certain Phil Parkinson.
When Parkinson had joined City in 2011, his managerial star was very much fading. He had arrived onto the scene by guiding unfashionable Colchester to the second tier for the first time in their history, but the decision to jump ship to Hull City proved a mistake, and a subsequent period at Charlton ended in disappointment. When Parkinson became City manager, he was someone the rest of football was overlooking. That obviously changed after the terrific job he did at Valley Parade.
Adams was probably in a similar position when he took on the Morecambe job. He had a great record at Ross County and Plymouth, up until his final season at Home Park. But his reputation plummeted, and Morecambe swooped in for a manager who – previously – would surely never have considered them.
It proved to be a great move for Adams, who has restored his reputation. As the legendary American basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.” The way Adams has grasped the opportunity at Morecambe to revive his managerial standing is a great example of this philosophy.
That all suggests this is a good time for City to plump for his services. He has a strong personality and an edge to his style that will make him popular at times and unloved at others.
But his exceptional record and vast experience suggests that – with time – he can revive Bradford City.