Profile: The passion of Plymouth boss Derek Adams

by Chris Dunlavy

A TEETOTALLER. A devout Christian. A clean-living professional who never swears. A loudmouth. A showman. A firebrand who could start a fight in an empty room. Derek Adams is a difficult man to define.

“Derek is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet,” says former Hartlepool boss Neale Cooper, who signed Adams for Ross County in 1996. “But when the whistle went and he crossed that white line, he was a different person – passionate and aggressive, with an unbreakable will to win that could get him into bother.”

Adams’ career in football is shot through with this contradictory mix of puritanical principle and aggressive fervour.

As an 18-year-old at Aberdeen, he remembers laying out an opponent before being hauled to his feet by an irate official. “The ref said to me ‘You can’t effing tackle like that’. I said, ‘You can’t swear at me like that’. He sent me off for dissent but sometimes you’ve got to stand up for what you believe in.”

Later, in a rare interview discussing his faith, Adams explained how Christianity guided his behaviour.

“Being a Christian does influence the way I conduct myself both on and off the field,” he told The Goal in 2006. “I’m very aware that I need to be an example in the way I behave. I find Luke 6:31 – ‘And just as you want men to do to you, you do to them likewise’ – a very helpful verse from the Bible.”

Yet this is the same guy who, as a rookie manager at Ross County in 2008, punched one of his own players – Sean Higgins – in a post-match flash of rage.

Who saw an eight-match ban for abusing officials extended to 18 – or half a season – when he went and did it again.

Who was caught on live TV in a furious bust-up with old mate Terry Butcher and so irritated Jamie Hamill that the Hearts midfielder – a former colleague – decked him on the touchline.

What’s going on? Certainly Sir Alex Ferguson has a lot to answer for. Adams’ father, George, was Fergie’s first-ever signing as a manager, at East Stirling in 1974.

Though forced to quit through injury at 26, the pair formed a strong bond and when Ferguson moved to Aberdeen in 1978, he appointed Adams Snr as his youth coach.

The young Derek would play with toys on the floor of Fergie’s office, and later watch the Scot and his assistant Archie Knox do battle in the games room.

“They were warriors with an incredible will to win,” he said in 2012. “There’d be fights over head tennis or snooker. You would suddenly hear a cue being dropped or a cough to put the other off his shot. That was the gamesmanship and fierce competitive edge they instilled in everyone. It was to let the young players know what winning was all about. That’s what I took from it.”

As a player, that translated into ruthless, committed, referee-baiting midfield performances in the mould of dad George.

First at Aberdeen and Burnley, then at Ross County (for whom he scored 53 goals in 86 games) and Motherwell, the club he joined for £200,000 in 1998 and spent his best six years.

Heyday: Derek Adams was at his best in his time at Motherwell (Action Images / Andy Couldridge)
Heyday: Derek Adams was at his best in his time at Motherwell (Action Images / Andy Couldridge)

Yet with the Fir Park outfit perpetually beset by financial problems, Adams’ thoughts had already turned to life in the dugout.

By 32, he was player-manager of Ross County where dad George was director of football. By 33, he’d won the Scottish Second Division title and completed his Pro-Licence. By 34, he’d reached a Scottish Cup final, knocking out Celtic in the semi-finals.

By 35 he’d quit to take up a position as assistant to Colin Calderwood at Hibs but, frustrated by the lack of control, was soon back at Dingwall. In 2012, he won promotion to the Scottish Premier League. In 2013, the Staggies finished fifth, missing Europe by a whisker.

And every step of the way, Adams was ruffling the feathers of opponents and officials, scrapping, bawling and arguing his way to victory.

“I think George perhaps instilled some of that Alex Ferguson mentality from Aberdeen,” said County owner Roy MacGregor, the man who appointed Adams in 2007 and, in August 2014, unexpectedly wielded the axe.

“It was that sense of being a provincial club bent on showing the big boys in the south they can compete. You can see the spirit they have instilled. The players are not arrogant but have that un-breakable strength of mentality.”

It is a view Adams, who spent his year out of the game watching clubs in Germany and Spain before joining Plymouth in June, agrees with.

“There is not enough showmanship in football,” said the Scot, who admitted he and Butcher had fabricated their rivalry to gain attention. “Not enough razzmatazz or whatever you want to call it. We have to sell the game.

“What’s the point of a club in the highlands having a dull manager? 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 thought to myself, ‘Not everyone is going to like this’. And they didn’t.”

Adams also says the years have taken the edge off his rage, a stance endorsed by those with whom he shared a dressing room.

“I know Derek can upset people at times,” said Alex Keddie, who played under Adams at Ross County. “He is passionate and can lose the plot. He winds rivals up and he is not afraid to stand up for his club or players.

“But I’m sure Derek has mellowed. By the time I’d left the club a few years later I definitely saw a difference. He was still passionate – and, don’t get me wrong, he can still boil over – but he might not react the same as he did when he was younger.”

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