We’ve all seen the images this week of Tottenham players collapsing to the ground as they finish a gruelling pre-season fitness session under Antonio Conte. That’s one way to go about getting players ready for the new season but entering Saints’ 2011/12 Championship campaign, Nigel Adkins and his staff wanted to do things differently.

They wanted things to be interesting. They wanted things to be fun. And above all, they wanted to actually play football.

“The philosophy was very much integration - so training with the ball,” former Saints Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Nick Harvey explains to the Daily Echo. 

As Harvey says, 'there are many different roads to Rome' and Conte has been hugely successful, but at Southampton, the success was also rather dramatic.

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“It wasn't groundbreaking, but a lot of clubs were still doing a lot of work early in preseason without the ball. You’d get back in and it would be a lot of general endurance type of work. But from day one ours was very progressive. 

“The basic philosophy was simple really: train how you play. I like to think we tried to get the basics done well and drive that intensity. 

Daily Echo: Nick Harvey in Saints training.Nick Harvey in Saints training.

“It was kind of a little bit alien for some of the players. They were used to doing a lot of basic endurance work and that kind of running stuff. And we didn't play many games, we only gave the boys one 90-minute run-out before the season started. But that was all part of the plan.

“We sold the idea that whereas in a traditional preseason, you're doing a lot of general work, from day one, we wanted every session to build their fitness instead of getting fitness through the games. So psychologically, it was quite tough I think for the boys. They weren’t sure there was enough game time. So we had to sell that philosophy. And the first game in the Championship, we win 3-1 and immediately you can see his is working.”

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Harvey might say their methods weren’t groundbreaking but they certainly were different. So different in fact, that there were some doubts. Shortly before Leeds’ visit to St Mary’s on the opening day of the season, Adam Lallana went to meet with Harvey and first-team coach Dean Wilkins to express some of the squad’s concerns that they weren’t ready for the new season.

After a short meeting in which Harvey pulled up some of the players’ fitness stats, Lallana was reassured. But the meeting was much more than just a footnote on a soon-to-be epic season. It provided a window into the central tenant that made the partnership between players and staff so successful: trust.

The players had to trust that this relatively revolutionary approach would get them where they needed to be. And the coaches needed to trust that the players would put in the time off-season to make it all worth it.

Daily Echo: Jack Cork pictured against Werder Bremen in Saints pre-season. Image by: PAJack Cork pictured against Werder Bremen in Saints pre-season. Image by: PA

As was so often the case through the golden era of back-to-back promotions, there was no need to worry. The players did their part, returning to pre-season fit and ready to go after meeting up for runs around the Southampton Common and sticking diligently to their individual training plans. Meanwhile, the coaches did their part as Saints ended up as one of the fittest the Championship has ever seen.

It started with pre-season, but really started at the end of the victorious League One campaign.

"First day back, we're going to test you,” the players were told. “So we expect you to maintain a really good level of fitness in the off-season. Because when we come back, from day one, everything we do will be with the ball and it will be working towards how we want to play as a team. And we want to develop our physical attributes for that by playing the game. So first day back they were tested. It's your responsibility to make sure you follow your programme, you're in good condition. And if you are and your test goes, well, then then, you know, we're straight into the work in that first week.”

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Of course, with this group there were no major concerns and immediately they were able to get to planning and playing in preparation for the Championship. Not that that made things any easier.

“We wanted the training sessions to actually be harder than the games,” Harvey explains. “So we were monitoring with GPS to basically show them that actually, in training, we're overloading you. Our idea was to train hard so if we can really push your intensity in the training sessions, then the games are going to feel gonna feel easier. 

“That was the theory. And I think it's one of those where there's an element of good fortune involved as well. The first few games we just hit the ground running and we were banging in the goals. We beat Ipswich 5-2 away from home in the third game and the belief just grows from there. But you could have a perfect preseason, the boys can be in great shape. And then if you lose the first game for different reasons, maybe referee decisions, the other team have a fantastic day then it can go the other way. So yeah, there's an element of fortune involved as well.”

Daily Echo: Saints fans celebrate the opening day victory vs Leeds. Image by: Chris MoorhouseSaints fans celebrate the opening day victory vs Leeds. Image by: Chris Moorhouse

Much of the belief came from the success of the season prior while the trust in manager Adkins no doubt played its part as well. But the presence of highly-respected Harvey alongside Adkins can’t be understated. A semi-professional cricketer in his 20s, Harvey grew up as a Saints fan going to matches at the Dell with his father. 

Following the conclusion of his relatively brief cricket career, Harvey went back to school to study Sports Science, joining the Saints academy in 1999. By 2006 he had been promoted to the first-team set-up and by the time Adkins replaced Alan Pardew in 2010, Harvey had become a crucial part of the squad.

Now based in Hanoi, Vietnam, working for the PvF Football Academy, Harvey joined Adkins at Reading following the manager’s Southampton sacking. But before that he helped fuel the double promotions. By the 2011/12 campaign, Harvey had long become trusted by the coaches and players at St Mary’s. 

And for good reason too. By half-time of Saints’ opening match of the Championship season, any lingering fears over the unorthodox pre-season were wiped away. 

Dean Hammond got Saints’ Championship campaign off and running with a vicious drive from distance before goals from Lallana and David Connolly made it 3-0 just after the break. The visitors got one back late on but it did little to spoil the party as Southampton walked all over a team that was supposed to be challenging for promotion.

“In that first half, we played with such a high intensity and tempo that we probably caught Leeds by surprise, if I'm honest,” Hammond says. “We were really fit and strong. We had some really talented players within the group but we were very fit and very strong. And we just out-ran them. We were a hungry group.”

It started an epic run that saw Saints win 12 of their first 17 matches playing “some of the best football you’ll ever see” according to Adkins.

Fitness, intensity, energy were all crucial tenants to the success.

“We definitely took pride in our fitness,” Harvey explains. “And the lads did as well. The way we wanted to play was press high so we had to be high energy. And also in possession, we wanted to be a team that passed through the thirds. So that obviously demands a lot of movement. It's not always that way - sometimes you can play really well, make good decisions and actually do less running. But the way we approached it, we knew that we needed to be that kind of high-energy team. So I think that that definitely helped us.” 

Daily Echo: Jos Hooiveld is hoisted into the air after Saints confirm promotion to the Premier League. Image by: PAJos Hooiveld is hoisted into the air after Saints confirm promotion to the Premier League. Image by: PA

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“I think for me, that psychological element is huge, especially in the Championship which is a real grind. So it's about trying to try to maintain that freshness as well. We always tried to prioritise intensity rather than long sessions or double sessions. You see some clubs that have their players get getting up at 6 am, three sessions a day. 

“I'm a big believer that many roads lead to Rome, there’s different ways of working but our belief was that if we can keep them fresh if we can get them fit and keep them fresh mentally and physically….so I think that that's something we tried to take into the season as well; short and sharp not really long sessions but really get that game intensity and give the lads enough time away from the training ground as well where possible.”

Harvey points to the famous Kelvin Davis-inspired 1-0 victory at Elland Road in March 2012 as a prime example of Saints’ staying power as they dug deep time and time again to get over the line and earn promotion back to the top flight.

Ultimately, while countless lessons can be taken from Harvey’s expertise and the hugely successful pre-seasons that led to Saints back-to-back promotions, there’s one factor above all that he attributes their glory to.

“Most important was the spirit amongst the players. The lads were good players, basically. You look at the likes of Fonte, Lallana, Lambert. That’s always a big element - you're just working with really good footballers as well. And characters as well, good characters who were happy to push themselves.”

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