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It wasn’t his own half’s stunning solo performances that bolstered former Ilkeston Town manager Kevin Wilson in his belief that Che Adams would be promoted from the seventh tier of English football to the Premier League.
Nor was it the stellar performances as a 16-year-old in friendlies against Sheffield United, Leicester City and Birmingham City.
It was in fact a commitment to travel 60 miles by bus on the M1 on a three hour return journey for a wage of just £40 a week.
After a heartbreaking sacking from Coventry City three years ago, abandoning the game might have been the easier option for the current Southampton and Scotland striker – but Adams “was willing to give it his all” to reach the top.
“That’s a message for everyone,” former Chelsea and Northern Ireland striker Wilson told BBC Scotland. “If you work hard enough and have the ability, someone will see it. You have to give him massive credit for sticking with it.
“Whenever I see him at the match of the day or see him play for Scotland, I always send him a little message. He hasn’t disappointed me one bit.”
Nine years later, Adam’s career has risen through the English football pyramid to the top, via international recognition and participation in European Championships.
BBC Scotland chronicles the rise of the striker, who hopes to lead Scotland to a first World Cup in more than two decades.
“I always believed that he would come out on top”
Wilson was watching a friendly at King Power Stadium in Leicester when he first noticed Adams, who was applying for an academy scholarship after a year at local club Oadby Town.
Ilkeston, from the seventh division, had recently opened his academy under Wilson’s management and the youngster was seen as the perfect fit. The only problem was that he was just too good.
Wilson had no choice but to quickly fit the teenager into the first-team line-up while the club organized accommodation nearby.
“We realized very quickly, wow… what a player,” he recalls. “We knew we had to make it work. At this level, there weren’t many that could lift you from your place. Even at that age, Che was capable of it.
“He was an outsider. As you can see now, he was strong and powerful, but he just zoomed past people. He needed a few kicks in the butt, but he always wanted to get better.
“I really believed he would play in the Premier League at some point. I’m so glad he proved me right.”
42 agents, about 60 scouts and a deceased Redknapp
Adams’ case is rare but not unique as fellow Premier League forward Jamie Vardy follows a similar path.
The Leicester striker’s name was one Wilson heard constantly from agents and scouts as the England international’s shares rose at Halifax Town ahead of his move to Fleetwood Town in 2011.
But now Ilkeston’s own prodigy was making waves – and clubs were determined not to miss the next gem outside the league.
“We had 42 agents and about 60 scouts watching Che on a Monday night,” says Wilson. “Huddersfield and Peterborough sat down with us, both very interested.
“But after Che spoke to Nigel Clough at Sheffield United on Wednesday afternoon, he was up there on Thursday to sign. Everything has leveled off since then.”
Among those keeping a watchful eye was Harry Redknapp, then manager of Queens Park Rangers. But by the time he was ready to make his move, the ink on Adams’ signature at Bramall Lane was drying.
Two months later, Redknapp realized what he had missed when he saw his former side Tottenham get a scare from the Blades in the second leg of the 2015 League Cup semi-final.
Adams scored his first goals for the Yorkshire club when he sacked a brace off the bench in a stunning 15-minute display against Mauricio Pochettino’s men who prevailed 3-2 on aggregate.
“I always liked Che as a player,” Redknapp told BBC Scotland. “I remember seeing him in that semi-final and he absolutely messed up the Spurs defence.”
“Without Che we were on the ground”
After two years at Bramall Lane, Adams made a £2million move to Birmingham City in the summer of 2016, where Redknapp got a chance to work with the forward at the end of his debut season.
With the team struggling against relegation, Redknapp was drafted to ensure Championship survival – and did so after notching two wins in Birmingham’s last three games.
“Che was sent off in my second game against Huddersfield,” said Redknapp. “We still won 2-0, then his red card was overturned after an appeal.
“He came back for the last game at Bristol City and scored the winner that kept us going. Without that goal we were down. He was such a good all-rounder but also a great kid off the pitch.”
Redknapp’s stint lasted just five months, but despite the boardroom clutter and the team’s problems on the pitch, Adams thrived.
Thirty-one goals over the next two seasons ensured top-flight clubs were on high alert and ambushed Southampton with a reported £15m bid to offer a Premier League gateway.
“He was just a young player,” former Birmingham and Rangers striker Greg Stewart tells BBC Scotland. “But you could see from his attributes that he would always go to the Premier League for big money.”
Lockdown benefit and World Cup dream
However, the transition to the top class did not go as hoped for Adams. After 27 games, the forward had yet to open his account.
But the closure of the Premier League due to Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise. During the three-month break, he recharged and refocused.
“It helped me a lot to get away from football a bit,” said Adams Southampton website. “It was easy to see what I needed to do right and what I was doing wrong.
“I’ve been working on my fitness and other aspects of my game – conditioning to run harder, work harder and play smarter. I can’t say it was a good time, but it was probably the right thing for me.”
After the league restarted in June 2020, Adams netted four times in eight games, including an incredible long-range lob against Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson.
It was this form that prompted Scotland manager Steve Clarke to lure Adams, who had turned down an offer from the Scottish Football Association two years earlier, to the national team.
With Euro 2020 on the horizon, Adams – who qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother – was keen to refute the notion that the upcoming finals were the only factor in his decision to remain loyal.
The 25-year-old has since spoken on the pitch, scoring four goals and providing two assists in just 15 caps.
But the Leicester-born player now has a chance to endear himself to the Tartan Army by helping Scotland to a first World Cup since 1998, starting with a play-off semi-final against Ukraine on Wednesday – with the Winners in the final against Wales will go into action four days later.
Two wins would complete Adams’ leap from England’s seventh tier to the World Cup – and he takes it all in stride.
“You don’t hear many stories like mine,” he told former England striker Peter Crouch for BBC’s Year Late Euros. “A lot of people ask me about it – but I live it every day.”