Former Chelsea striker Kevin Wilson became infatuated with the talents of a bustling, Leicester-born forward when he cast his eye over him during a trial day in 2013.
An 18-year-old striker, bursting with exuberance and enthusiasm, caught his eye. The Ilkeston manager wasted no time in recruiting a young footballer called Che Adams, who would proceed to light up the Northern Premier League for his club.
“He stood out, so physically strong and powerful,” Wilson told The Guardian. “I think for one game we had, there were 40 clubs watching him and something ridiculous like 15 or 16 agents looking to sign him up. I always remember a goal he scored against FC United of Manchester, when he took the ball from inside his own half, slalomed past a load of players and slotted it into the bottom corner.”
Adams had spent seven years in the Coventry City academy before being released at the age of 14. He then had spells at St Andrews and Oadby Town – two non-league clubs based within the confines of his home comforts in Leicester – before he first put himself in the shop window at the portentous trial day.
In the 2013/14 season, the vivacious prospect became an established member of Wilson’s first-team squad and aided them in their journey to Derbyshire Senior Cup glory. It was in the subsequent campaign, however, that Adams would make a name for himself early on, and in turn, climb four steps of the English footballing ladder.
Having plundered nine goals and amassed 11 assists for Ilkeston before November, interest had gathered. Numerous clubs – including Southampton – had reportedly cast a keen eye over the promising former Coventry youngster who was bullying defences in the seventh tier.
After becoming aware of a ruthless forward destined for bigger and better things than the depths of non-league football, Nigel Clough moved quickly to tie up a deal for Sheffield United. The Blades spent £135,000 on the 18-year-old in November 2014 – a meagre sum in hindsight, but at the time, a sizable outlay for a player who had not hitherto even appeared in the Football League.
Years of dedication and graft had led up to this moment. The early starts, the juggling of education and football, the mental strength to overcome setbacks such as that of Coventry’s fateful rejection – they helped Adams secure his big break.
“He lived in Leicester, and it was not just a case of jumping in the car,” Wilson continued to tell The Guardian of the forward’s time at Ilkeston. “At 16, it cost him and his parents money to get him there. He was not being paid because he was on like a YT course, a BTEC they were doing at the college. You have to give him a lot of credit for getting on a bus at 6.30 am and coming in to do the education. He deserves everything he gets because he has worked so hard to get to this stage.”
Adjusting to life in League One was hardly seamless for Adams. He was forced to wait until November 18, 2014, for his debut against Walsall but made his senior bow in professional football four days before. Clough told his precocious striker that he would be replacing Jamal Campbell-Ryce at half-time against fifth-placed Premier League club Southampton during the quarter-finals of the League Cup.
Adams could not have hoped for a better introduction to life at Sheffield United, albeit via the epitome of a baptism of fire against Ronald Koeman’s high-flying team. He came on, gave Nathaniel Clyne problems down the flank and drove his team forward as the League One club stunned their top-flight opponents in a 1-0 win.
The 18-year-old very nearly sent his side all the way to Wembley in the following round. After Tottenham Hotspur had taken a 1-0 lead into their second-leg semi-final clash against Sheffield United at Brammal Lane, Adams came off the bench to net two goals in as many minutes to level the scoreline on aggregate and put the Blades 2-1 up on the night. Christian Eriksen may have dealt the Blades a cruel blow late on to lead Spurs to the final of the League Cup, but the impact made by an explosive young forward against Premier League opposition again turned the heads of many.
Adams finished the 2014/15 season with 13 senior appearances to his name and three goals to show for his efforts. Two of these came in the dramatic outing against Tottenham, while the last arrived in the dying moments of Sheffield United’s 5-5 draw against Swindon Town in the second leg of their League One play-off semi-final, which they eventually lost 7-6 on aggregate.
Former Southampton manager Nigel Adkins arrived at Brammal Lane in June 2015 to replace Clough, who had been sacked, and he recognised the talents of the vibrant attacker. Adams was a regular in the starting line-up under his new boss, operating in a multitude of roles across the front-line.
Adkins was appointed to lead the Blades back to the Championship but failed miserably in what was a massively underwhelming season. Sheffield United finished in 11th place, some way off the play-offs, and tensions appeared to have been high both behind the scenes and in the stands.
Adams, still refining his understanding of the game at a higher level, managed to net 11 goals from 36 appearances in League One. However, he struggled to develop consistency, and while his manager once labelled him a ‘joy to behold’, he was omitted from the starting line-up for the Blades’ defeat against Millwall in March 2016 after he failed to ‘work hard’ in training.
In typical fashion, the promising forward responded immediately, finding the back of the net in the following match as Sheffield United defeated Crewe Alexandra in an enthralling and much-needed 3-2 victory. Adams struck up a good relationship with Billy Sharp – a player whom Adkins admired following their stint together at Southampton – and kept future Everton forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin out of the team on many occasions.
Local news outlet Sheffield Star commended the former Ilkeston striker’s performances throughout the campaign and named him as their Young Player of the Year. Such was the level of the quality Adams had displayed in a difficult period at Brammal Lane, the Championship beckoned, as he continued his journey up through the divisions of English football.
To suggest that Adams had outgrown the standard of League One would have been somewhat premature, but it was perspicuous that with the appropriate tutelage, the Leicester-born forward had an exciting future. Chris Wilder replaced Adkins in the summer of 2016, and while the new Sheffield United boss was keen to keep hold of him, Birmingham City’s third bid worth £2 million saw the 20-year-old arrive in the Championship for the first time.
Blues manager Gary Rowett was delighted to see Adams come through the door, but in February earlier this year, revealed that it was, in fact, the club’s head of analysis Joe Carnell who instigated the deal. “[He] was always banging on about him and the more I watched of him, the more I liked him,” Rowett told Sky Sports’ EFL Matters podcast. “He just has an all-round game, he’s a player we tried to bring to Stoke in the summer, but we failed. But he’s got a bit of everything. Che is a Premier League player in the waiting.”
However, Adams was not a mainstay in the Birmingham team. He found himself influencing matches largely from the substitutes’ bench, but the Blues were performing reasonably well following the struggles they had endured during the preceding season. Gianfranco Zola took the reins in an absurd decision made by the club’s board – one which left the vast majority of the St Andrew’s faithful incensed – to sack Rowett, and utilised the forward sparingly, with the prospect of relegation continuing to loom.
The Italian proceeded to resign and Birmingham appointed the experienced Harry Redknapp with three games remaining, and he steered them to safety. It took until the final day for the Blues to secure their Championship status, and they did so courtesy of a goal from Adams in a 1-0 win away at Bristol City. The 16th-minute strike would cap a reasonable campaign for the striker, who netted seven times and turned provider on six other occasions.
The 2017/18 season was a difficult one for the player. He suffered from hamstring problems throughout the campaign, and with uncertainty still surrounding Birmingham off the field and yet more managerial upheaval ensuing, he struggled to find his feet. With Steve Cotterill in charge following Redknapp’s early dismissal, Adams failed to truly nail down a place in the starting line-up, but upon Garry Monk’s arrival, he regularly partnered Lukas Jutkiewicz in attack.
Fate could have taken the 21-year-old elsewhere in the summer. Rowett, having been installed as the Derby County manager, attempted to lure him away from his former club. Fulham also made an approach and offered Birmingham a lucrative £10 million fee as they aimed to recruit one of the Championship’s most coveted forwards. Nevertheless, the Blues turned down the interest in their prized asset and ensured that Adams would remain at St Andrew’s for the foreseeable future.
Still, at a tender age and with undeniable promise to boast, the forward’s lack of noticeable progression was not particularly concerning. His better performances came under the management of the latest boss, and he ended the season as Birmingham’s top goalscorer having procured nine in all competitions. However, he could only amass a paltry total of five in his 30 Championship outings.
Adams had always flirted with exploding into an instinctive, predatory striker in a Birmingham City shirt. His slaloming runs, aggressive pressing and knack of releasing early shots towards goal had all pointed towards the inevitability of a campaign of fierce goalscoring exploits. All that was missing was consistency, but under Monk’s stewardship, the 2018/19 campaign saw the striker finally fire on all cylinders.
Adams started the Championship season relatively slowly. 12 games had passed, and he had found the net only three times, with two of these strikes coming in a shock 2-1 away win against Leeds United in September. In nine of his next 11 outings, though, the striker contributed with direct goal involvements, notching up eight for himself and setting up a further four for his teammates. Adams notably fired home a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw against Hull City, managed by his former boss Adkins.
The youngster was in red-hot form, and one key, undervalued reason behind his success last season came from a coach – not a manager, but a coach. Speaking to Birmingham Live in November, with only five goals to his name at this stage, Adams detailed how he had discovered a renewed desire and confidence under the new management. He had taken inspiration and learned from those above him – not from Monk, however, but from another ex-Southampton man, James Beattie.
“Sometimes defenders have had it easy against me, but this year I feel much stronger and confident in front of goal and with my quality,” Adams said. “Since James Beattie has come in, he has been amazing. He has been a top, top striker, and knows what to do. He is helping all the attacking players with movement, patterns of play, and what to do.”
Premier League clubs began to circle ahead of the January transfer window. Southampton, in particular, made a move to recruit Adams, but Birmingham stood firm and insisted that they would retain the services of their talisman as they served a transfer ban. The Blues made the right decision for the good of their season, as the former Sheffield United star embarked on a devastating run of form.
Adams scored in six consecutive games, capped by a hat-trick in a 4-3 win against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on February 2. This feat was especially ironic for Southampton, as starting striker Danny Ings sustained another long-term hamstring injury in a 1-1 draw away at Burnley on the very same day, leaving them with just one available senior striker in Shane Long and their wounds to lick following the failure to acquire the Birmingham star.
Che Adams had a very strong season with Birmingham and he now looks set t… https://t.co/MNh1nuHGhh (@SportingLifeFC)
Such was the efficiency of Adams in front of goal that international recognition arose from an unlikely source. The striker had already rejected approaches from Antigua and Barbuda, where his father was born, during his Ilkeston days, and received an invitation to commit his future to the Scotland national team at senior level through the grandparent rule. However, he was understandably hesitant to make such a promise as his stock continued to rise, perhaps with a future England call-up on his mind, and turned down Alex McLeish’s offer.
Incidentally, despite featuring in each of the Blues’ 46 Championship matches last season, Adams would only go on to score three goals from February 23 onwards, with only one to his name in the final 13 games of the campaign. Despite the striker’s lack of ruthlessness in the closing stages, without his 22 goals, and five assists, Birmingham’s 10-point deduction could well have condemned them to relegation.
Adams came into his own last term and scooped a number of individual accolades. He was named in the Championship Team of the Season, accompanying former teammate and Sheffield United star Sharp and Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki, who won the Golden Boot, in the attacking berths. The 22-year-old also claimed the Birmingham Players’ Player and Fans’ Player of the Season awards.
Monk had discovered a striker who he could depend on; Adams netted a variety of goals, including curled efforts, scuffed shots into bottom corners and chances actuated simply as a consequence of his anticipation and pressing. He chased down lost causes and often earned his reward for them, capitalising on defenders’ mistakes and taunting them with deceptive drops of the shoulders and unusually-timed strikes on goal.
Keeping hold of such a player, however, would always prove to be an uphill battle for a Championship club with little prospect of pushing for promotion. Southampton swooped, and have added Adams to their ranks ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Now it is time for the striker to show his capabilities. It would, of course, be beneficial for all parties if he is able to hit the ground running and cement his place in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s starting line-up, but as history would suggest, he will need time to adapt to his new surroundings.
However, the signs are promising. Adams is an eager, aggressive, gifted forward who is compatible with both the style of play that is being employed at Southampton along with the off-field recruitment strategies that have been reinstated by the head of recruitment Ross Wilson and the manager.
The setbacks, the 6:30 am starts and the graft of non-league and lower-league football have led him to St Mary’s Stadium. Although, having risen from the seventh tier all the way up to the most glamorous division in world football, the journey is far from complete. This is just the beginning for Southampton striker Che Adams.