The most revealing light often shines during adversity and, in understanding the journey of Che Adams from non-League to facing Manchester United on Sunday, two moments stand out.
The first, when Adams was only 14, was being told by Coventry City that he was being released following seven years with the academy.
The second, which Adams endured over the past year, was finding himself waiting week after week, and then month after long month, for a first goal since being signed by Southampton from Birmingham City for £14 million.
That Adams has thrived following experiences which would have permanently scarred some players suggests, like a Harry Kane or Jamie Vardy, he is the sort of character over whom it would be foolish to place a glass ceiling.
Having personally scored or assisted six Premier League goals already this season, he is also one of the main explanations for Southampton’s current push at the top end of the table.
It is back to Coventry, however, that his mind is instantly transported when asked about the formative experiences of his career. “It was hard,” he says, of the day that he was told that he would be released. “You are playing with your friends, enjoying football, and you get that taken away.” What might seem little things, like explaining to your class-mates why you are no longer at a professional football club, can be traumatic. A part of your identity, as well as your routine, suddenly disappears. His mum, Frances, was clearly a crucial influence and instilled values of hard-work but also a resilience to not worry about what others might think or say.
“Some people can get embarrassed,” he says. “You can either give up or carry on stronger. You have to embrace it. If you really want to do something you have just got to carry on doing it and don’t care what anyone thinks and says. I wanted to prove I was good enough.”
But that process was not instant. Adams finished school, he went to college and combined a BTec in sports studies and early 6.30am starts on the bus from his home in Leicester with an improving level of non-League football. “It was good to have a balance but football was always my priority,” he says. He moved from Oadby Town in the United Counties League, where he was playing against adults at the age of 16, to llkeston Town where he began the 2014-15 season with 11 goals and nine assists in 16 games. More than 40 scouts were present at one of those matches and it was eventually Nigel Clough’s Sheffield United who signed non-League football’s most sought-after 18 year-old.
Although only 5ft 9ins tall, what is most noticeable about Adams in person is his considerable upper-body strength. Matt Baker, his former coach at Ilkeston, even made a comparison to the Brazilian Ronaldo for his power and ability to ride tackles and hold the ball up.
Adams believes that this non-League apprenticeship, where getting tested physically was an absolute certainty for any talented teenager, now stands him in good stead. “It’s needed a lot of dedication and hard work but you see a lot of people coming through that way – there are a lot of very good players down there,” he says.
After Sheffield United came Birmingham City where a particular influence on the coaching staff was the former Southampton and England striker James Beattie. “He made me reach and think about what I want and where I want to take it – we still talk regularly,” says Adams. And what did Beattie think when he followed in his footsteps and moved to Southampton last year? “He was buzzing for me – he told me how much of a great club it was and I saw that from the moment I walked in.”
The transition, however, was challenging. Adams found the Premier League a noticeable step up and, while manager Ralph Hasenhuttl was always content with his wider contribution, there is no hiding the angst and frustration that follows a striker who goes on a long goalless run.
Adams had scored 22 goals in 46 Championship games the previous season and, with the Covid-19 lockdown also coming, it would not be until his 30th Southampton game – more than a year after joining – that he opened his account. A spectacular 40-yard winner against Manchester City, in front of a record Premier League television audience on BBC, was a sweet way to end the wait.
He has since scored another six Premier League goals in 14 games and, with Danny Ings, Theo Walcott, James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond, Southampton have developed a varied creative edge. “I was probably trying too hard – a bit tense – and overthinking it whereas now I’m in a position where a lot of things come intuitively,” he says. “I think I play my best football when I am not overthinking it. To score the goal against City was definitely a sigh of relief more than anything – just thanks to all the hard work I had put in and all the belief that the guys gave to me. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
With Ings and Ward-Prowse having had their club form at Southampton rewarded with England call-ups, an intriguing potential international dilemma also awaits. Adams has played for the England Under-20 team but has a maternal grandparent that would also make him eligible for Scotland and potentially even a place in Steve Clarke’s squad at Euro 2021 against England.
If Adams has decided he would react to a call-up for Clarke, he is not saying, and his focus just now is solidifying Southampton’s status among the outside contenders next season for European football.
“I’m just concentrating on the club side and where we can take it,” he says. “I think people can see a difference this season in terms also of assists and holding the ball up. It is coming together – hopefully we can achieve something great.”