Tony Adams, Mr Arsenal, won the league four times, the FA cup three times, the league cup twice, the Cup Winners’ Cup, and is only player in English football history to captain a title-winning side in three different decades.
Tony Adams is in Gabala, three hours drive from the capital of Azerbaijan. Most British fans (including me) don’t know where Gabala is because
a) they don’t know where the capital of Azerbaijan is (its Baku, by the Caspian Sea)
b) they don’t know where Azerbaijan is (its by the Caspian Sea which is coloured blue on the map)
c) they may know that Azerbaijan is in the Euro Song contest, so they must be in Europe. Somewhere.
Here’s the story. A “fit and proper person” (of course) has billions and wants to take his small town team that he formed five years ago into the Champs League. It will take 10 years. So Tony Adams has said, “yep” and he’s there.
Azerbaijan’s Premier League is ranked 38th in Europe by Uefa. No club from the country has ever got past the second qualifying round. They do have transfers but none has ever got above £200,000 although Vagif Javadov went from FK Karabakh to FC Twente for £1.3m this year.
Now you can say one thing for Mr Adams, he’s his own man. He didn’t turn up for the farewell to Highbury, which I thought was sad, and he doesn’t have the knowledge and insight of Charlie Nicholas nor the self-deprecating silliness of Paul Merson. But he just does his thing.
So in not talking about his new job he’s probably doing the right thing. He did however do an interview with the The Independent – a paper that has fewer axes on the grind than most, and one that has never been suckered into the Times approach of naming non-existent players as Arsenal bound.
Tony’s been manager of Portsmouth, done it at Wycombe, worked in Holland and is now working with Gary Stevens of the Tinies who was reserve team coach with Charlton.
According to the Indy, FC Gabala are currently sixth in the Azerbaijan Premier League and play their games on an Astroturf pitch with just one small stand that seats 1,080 spectators. A nearby training pitch is muddy, with rusty goalposts and stones strewn along the touchlines, and the town itself is quiet and run-down, with a population of less than 100,000.
So, they have to win the league, in order to play the champions of Andorra or someone like that, in the extra-preliminary preliminary round of the Champions League qualifying stages.
Apparently, nine months ago, Alastair Saverimutto, (previously commercial manager at Everton and chief executive of Bournemouth) is the chief operations officer. (Interesting isn’t it where people end up.) He says there is no limit to how much they can spend.
Now we get down to the bits and pieces. They looked at what other clubs – including Arsenal – have done. Youth seemed a good idea, but FC Gabala decided to do a short cut and they took the youth coaching team in total from Galatasary in Turkey. Saverimutto says he chose Adams, “despite his patchy managerial record”, because he “likes a challenge and is ready to roll up his sleeves”.
The Indy says Tony A has been studying how other managers work, watching training sessions and taking notes. “Don Howe once told me that the best managers are thieves,” he says. “When I manage, there’s a bit of George Graham, there’s a bit of Arsène Wenger, a bit of all sorts of people. Though in Azerbaijan I’m probably going to be more Graham than Wenger.”
Adams also travelled to Milan for a fortnight recently, as a guest of Jose Mourinho, to watch Internazionale training sessions. “He said to me, ‘I’ve got an advantage over you, since the age of 22 I’ve been learning how to be a manager. You’ve only been doing it for eight years. Playing and managing are completely different things.'”
According to the Indy, the club’s president is Tale Heydarov, a 25-year-old Azerbaijani who studied at the London School of Economics. He is the son of the country’s Emergencies Minister.
This summer the club will go buying, whoever and whatever they want. Tony Adams says he will bring in local and overseas players. Cristian Torres, is already there (“a pacy 24-year-old Argentine midfielder”), as is Razvan Tarlea (“a 30-year-old Romanian left-back who signed a year ago after falling out of favour at FCR Cluj in his native country”).
Tarlea said to the Indy, “Last week I went to the office to speak to the club president and saw this guy sitting there and thought, ‘Fucking hell, it’s Tony Adams!’ I couldn’t believe it!” I think we can all agree with that emotion.
The Indy adds, “Walking around the pitch we come to an old warehouse that serves as the club’s gym, and ascend a flight of concrete steps to a box-like room. “Do you watch 24?” asks Adams. “I always think this place looks like a set out of 24.” Indeed it does. What it definitely doesn’t look like, however, is part of a football club with serious European ambitions.”
The plan is to turn this into half-a-dozen training pitches, an all-weather dome, hotel and conference space, and a 15,000-seater stadium, designed by AFL, which worked on the Nou Camp, Old Trafford, and the Chelsea youth academy. In the town, hotels, golf courses, ski slopes and entertainment centres. The “Monte Carlo of Europe”.
Tony Adams is there with his family, sitting in a down and out town in a country that he probably didn’t even know existed before he was offered a job there. He describes it as an adventure, and yes it will certainly be that. And there’s nothing wrong with adventure. If we didn’t have adventurers we would have nothing. Nothing would develop. Nothing unexpected would ever happen.
“I took the idea to Arsène,” he says. “He knows I’m strong minded. It’s like when I said I was going to retire – I’d made my decision and he’s not going to tell me not to go.” He says Wenger’s career path is part of what inspired him to take the Gabala job. “I’ve got an example right there in front of me. Arsène was successful at Monaco, but then went off to work in the J-League.”
Last weekend, Tony travelled to the border with Iran, to watch FC Lenkoren in action, while Stevens travelled to the front line in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia to see league leaders FC Karabakh in action.
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