The Journey To Meet Tony Adams Is Long
October 17, 2010
By Malcolm Folley
The journey to meet Tony Adams is long, uncomfortable and increasingly bizarre. Six hours in the air are followed by a 140-mile ride in a rusting Lada taxi with no seatbelts, no discernible suspension and, most worryingly of all, no obvious brakes.
Goran, the driver, keeps his foot buried in the accelerator, overtaking trucks on blind bends as the road snakes an ever more perilous path towards the Caucasus Mountains.
Finally, three frighteningly long hours after leaving Baku, the oil-rich city on the Caspian Sea that is the capital of Azerbaijan, the taxi arrives at Gabala FC, the new and utterly improbable home of one of the greatest central defenders in the history of Arsenal and England.
Adams has gambled on moving here from his beautiful house in the Cotswolds in a bid to reconstruct his managerial career at a smalltown club in a small-time league in an area that is beyond the back of beyond.
He has accepted weeks of separation from his wife, Poppy, a member of the Teacher whisky dynasty, their three young children, six-year-old Atticus, Hector, four, and eight-month-old Iris, and his two teenage children, Oliver and Amber, from his first marriage.
He last saw his wife a fortnight ago when they met in Baku to investigate the city's International School, where they have enrolled their sons to start next September. Next weekend, Poppy and four of the children will be in Gabala to stay with Adams for a week.
Last Sunday, he spent his 44th birthday talking to his family on Skype from his whitewashed villa in the grounds of a near-deserted five-star hotel, owned by the parent company of the football club. He also celebrated the occasion in the company of some of his small group of English staff, with a locally made cake and a glass of chai, spiced tea with lemon. Adams, the recovering alcoholic, has not touched a drink for 14 years.
'I don't miss England but, of course, I miss my family,' he says. 'But I am here to build a club from top to bottom, and I am the boss, I am the man. And when I discussed this job with Poppy, she said to me: "If there's one person who can survive on his own, it's you. You're going to love this." I can cope because I am here concentrating on football.'
He goes to bed by 10pm each evening, after reading a chapter from Simon Schama's book, The History Of Britain, a gift from his wife, or watching a DVD of the American television comedy, Entourage. Each night he also writes in a diary.
'I have never minded being alone,' he admits.
While there are no formal meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in Azerbaijan, he has made contact with expats of similar needs in Baku.
'We talk or have coffee,' he says.
'There are only a few of us but, after all, the first meeting of AA was just between two alcoholics,' he says. 'We live one day at a time, but I am 14 years sober and draw strength from that.'
After three months under Adams, Gabala FC lie in mid-table in the Azerbaijan Premier League, ranked a lowly 38th in importance in Europe.
Although admission is free, Gabala draw crowds of fewer than 1,000 spectators from a region with a population of 90,000. In his heyday, Adams played every week to crowds of 50,000-plus.
He is here because he felt he had been left with no choice but to accept a job in a country where coming third in the Eurovision Song Contest last year was hailed a landmark accomplishment.
After being sacked by Portsmouth in February 2009, he had been hardly inundated with offers of a job. When football talks about the search for an Englishman to manage England, Adams is rarely mentioned.
'An element of people at home just think of me as a nice guy with a fantastic playing career, who set up a worthwhile charity, my Sporting Chance clinic, to treat those with addictions to alcohol, gambling or drugs,' he explains. 'Do they see me as a football club manager? I'm not so sure. The reality is that when people like me get an opportunity to manage, they are judged absurdly quickly. Did you know that 25 managers have lost their jobs in England since I agreed to come here in April?'
Adams, capped 66 times by England, lasted exactly a year in his first managerial job at Wycombe. He resigned on November 5, 2004, because he felt his role had become compromised under new owners.
Yet Tale Heydarov, a young and extremely wealthy Azeri businessman - known to Princes William and Harry after being introduced to them last year at the Beaufort Polo Club in Gloucestershire - has brought Adams to this outpost to build a club that will one day be capable of representing Azerbaijan in European football alongside such giants as Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona and AC Milan.
By 2012, Heydarov, the son of the country's hugely influential Emergencies Minister, Kamaladdin Heydarov, a man said to be worth billions, has promised Adams he will have a new 13,000-seat stadium - complete with a hotel and conference centre - and a football academy at his disposal with an array of training pitches to rival anything Roman Abramovich has bankrolled for Chelsea. Three grass pitches have been sown by a company, SIS, who have just completed work for Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid.
For now, though, Adams takes training in a little ground with plastic seats and high wire fencing that is approached down an unmade road. His players change in a dressing room in what looks like a disused hangar. He has commandeered a couple of large blue plastic barrels to act as ice baths and installed modern gym equipment. Yet even with this basic upgrade it is hard to imagine the club being part of European football.
Adams, though, is passionate in his belief that Heydarov will deliver on his pledge.
'I admit to having had a couple of emergency meetings with him,' says Adams. 'When I came to take training for the first time, I was given four bibs. All the balls were flat. So, I booted them over a fence and told them to bring them back only when they had been blown up.'
Adams recalls his trepidation when he arrived at Gabala.
'I looked around and wondered: "Does anyone know what we're doing here, or where we're going?" Obviously, everyone is scared to death of me and thinking: "Who is he, what's he going to do? Are we doing it right?" Last year, at a hotel in town where most of the players live, they had 14 suffering from a temperature of 100 degrees or more. The place was disgusting and I put my assistant, Gary Stevens, in charge of getting it changed.
'We have had the toilets cleaned, improved the sanitation, put in electric hand-dryers; basic stuff. We've thrown out the old, smelly carpets, curtains and furniture and gone through the place with disinfectant.
'Now the food is fantastic. I have breakfast and lunch there as as it's where my office is. Things generally happen at the last minute here. I have a lot of patience but, now and again, I need to be reminded that it's all going to plan.
'When I asked to meet Mr Tale at his offices in Baku, I just wanted him to look me in the eye and confirm that we all want the same things.It's been a really hard three months, but that's OK, I'm loving it.
'He wants to do this for the Azeris, to give something back to his people, and I'm honoured that he's chosen me to build a football club for him. I will put a decent team on the pitch for him, and if we haven't won the championship here during my three-year contract, he won't have to sack me: I will walk away.'
His squad have been assembled for a total wage bill of $1.5million.
'You could probably get Thierry Henry to play at least a couple of games for that!' says Adams, laughing.
Two players have been drafted in from England; Deon Burton, a Jamaican most recently of Charlton, and Terry Cooke, who wandered through the English game, then played in the United States before arriving here from North Queensland Fury in Australia.
Under the regulations of the league, three Azeris have to be on the pitch at all times, so his squad is built around home-grown players, but he also has an Argentine, Cristian Torres, two Brazilians and a Frenchman.
Adams speaks French and his assistant, Ramiz Kerimoz, 29 and a retired goalkeeper, translates team-talks into Azeri.
'A lot of the team are Muslims and they pray before games,' says Adams.
In training, he communicates through sign language and a whistle. He raises three fingers to show the maximum touches a player is allowed in a practice game.
'At Arsenal, they can cope with one or two-touch, but these players need two touches to control the ball,' he explains. 'I have already played 22 players, as I want to give them all a chance before I make plans for next season. I keep things as simple as I can; we always have the same set-plays, but then that's what Bobby Robson did all his career.'
Adams has turned on the hairdryer, Sir Alex Ferguson-style, just once.
'Some were chancing their arm, not applying themselves. I was so angry they didn't need a translator,' he says.
On most days he leaves for work at 8.15am. Occasionally, he ventures into the centre of town, visiting the market and bazaar.
'We call it the King's Road,' says Adams. 'Poppy's been down here and bought a couple of bikes for the boys. She also likes to get the fruit and veg from the market. The quality is fantastic.'
When he is alone, he eats with Stevens and other staff in the hotel's restaurant. Kebabs, pizza and pasta form his staple diet. Adams is hardly an ounce heavier than in his triumphant days at Arsenal, where Arsene Wenger taught him how to live and behave soberly after years of drunken excess.
He lifted nine trophies, more than any other captain of the Gunners (four championships, three FA Cups, the European Cup-winners' Cup and the League Cup), yet as he strolled through Gabala's market stalls people looked at him out of curiosity because of his height - at 6ft 3in he stands out - and complexion, not admiration for his success.
'No one recognises me, I've got my anonymity back and it's marvellous,' he says.
He is 3,000 miles from home but claims to have no regrets at being so far removed from the mainstream of the English game. An annual salary approaching £1m after tax was not, he insists, at the heart of his decision to be here.
'There has to be some compensation to come this far from home and for my family to meet such a big challenge,' he says. 'But the money was secondary. 'I was blown away by the vision of Mr Heydarov. He is the real deal. Alex Ferguson said to me: "Don't pick your club, pick your chairman." That's what I've done here. Mr Heydarov is very sincere and a very smart cookie.'
© UK Daily Mail
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