The bizarre coaching odyssey of Tony Adams

The bizarre coaching odyssey of Tony Adams

SO SYNONYMOUS WAS Tony Adams with Arsenal that they immortalised him in bronze outside the Emirates Stadium. The statue captures his iconic celebration following his goal against Everton in 1998, where he stands tall and proud with his arms aloft waiting for his teammates to embrace him. There is no more fitting legacy for a player who was the archetypal captain, possessing a fierce competitive streak, a booming voice and a proclivity to scream and shout at everything. A career spanning two decades was duly honoured.

As a coach, Adams hasn’t been nearly as successful. Once billed as a future Arsenal manager – a prediction made of all legendary players and leaders when they retire – he’s gone almost completely under the radar. Adams became known as the man who would occasionally resurface to share his latest controversial opinion about his former club, or to be the subject of parody on social media. Meanwhile, he would be chasing his next obscure occupation. He’s been to the English lower leagues, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan, China and Spain on his journey to find the job that’s just right for him.

His post-playing career began at Wycombe Wanderers’ humble surroundings. Fresh off his highly successful career, which he had closed with yet another league and cup double, Adams took over from Lawrie Sanchez as manager in 2003. Whatever qualifications Adams had, he had undeniable presence. Yet, any thought that this was to be the first step on the road back to Arsenal was crushed by the stark reality that Wycombe’s results were suffering, and that the club were plummeting to the bottom of the League One table. Unable to reverse the collapse, Adams’ side were relegated to League Two. Then, in the following November, Adams resigned, citing personal reasons.

Rather than hop on at the next English club willing to take him or appear as a TV pundit complaining he couldn’t get a job, Adams sought education. After exploring options in Italy, France and Belgium, he accepted a trainee role at Feyenoord, where he would work with their under-21 squad. “The conversations I had with Feyenoord’s management gave me the most welcome feelings,” he told the Rotterdam Dagblad newspaper at the time.

“Welcome feelings” would become the cornerstone of Adam’s coaching career. Following a second Dutch-based work placement with FC Utrecht and a brief spell scouting for Arsenal, he returned to England as Harry Redknapp’s right-hand man at Portsmouth. Adams had great respect for Redknapp, saying: “I love the character he is. He seems really honest and that’s all I’ve ever wanted, to work for people who are like that.”

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This was the most successful period of Adams’ coaching career. Backed by the money of Alexandre Gaydamark, Portsmouth finished the 2006/07 Premier League season in the top half. They repeated the feat the following season and added the 2007/08 FA Cup after beating Cardiff City 1-0 in the final at the new Wembley.

Those incredible highs were followed by inevitable lows. Redknapp’s success would earn him a job at Tottenham Hotspur, where he took over from Juande Ramos in October 2008. Adams received a promotion and was tasked with guiding Portsmouth through the UEFA Cup. He oversaw one of the biggest games in the club’s history when they took on AC Milan. Portsmouth took a two-goal lead over a side that possessed the talents of Andrea Pirlo, Kaká, Andriy Shevchenko and Ronaldinho, but were pegged back in the second half.

The taste of big-time European football proved fleeting and the burdens of several competitions and an increasingly chaotic boardroom situation took its toll on the club. Adams’ team slipped closer and closer to the relegation zone. Tempers within the squad were becoming frayed, and on Boxing Day 2009, following a 4-1 defeat at Fratton Park to West Ham United, breaking point was reached.

“I thought to myself that I just wasn’t getting any respect here, so I gave them all a complete and utter volley. I shouted: ‘You are a fucking disgrace. Half of you are not trying and it’s unacceptable,’” Adams wrote in his autobiography, Sober. “I was particularly disgusted with Jermain Defoe. I looked him straight in the eye when I said: “If any of you don’t want to be part of this club that I am building, then you can fuck off. Come to me tomorrow morning and we’ll sort you a new club.”

Defoe, Portsmouth’s leading man at the time, did exactly as Adams suggested and left the club to return to Tottenham and reunite with Redknapp. With Portsmouth on the brink of administration, Adams was unable to reinvest the transfer fee. Results remained poor and, after just 16 league games in charged, he was sacked.

The experienced left him scarred and damaged goods within the UK. What Adams wanted, more than anything, was to work under an owner he could trust, even it meant going abroad to find one. His search yielded a meeting with the owner of Azerbaijani club FC Gabala, Tale Heydarov, in London. It was there that Adams was impressed with Heydarov’s vision and was inspired to go East. “He wanted the best academy, he wanted the best facilities in any ex-Soviet state, he wanted to then challenge for the league and the last thing was to win the league, if he possibly could with the players he’s developed from his own academy,” Adams said of Heydarov to Visions of Azerbaijan.

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It quickly became apparent that the conditions at Gabala were not there for the success Heydarov wanted. They had just a single grass pitch and one synthetic pitch that was used by nine different clubs. The infrastructure was non-existent, and the standard of playing staff was far lower than Adams had anticipated. Off the pitch, his family found life in Azerbaijan difficult. He felt his children were not receiving a good enough education. Due to all this, Adams resigned after just 12 games in charge. “I signed with Gabala FK in April 2010 and originally came in as the head coach, but after about 18 months I went to see my president and said that it was kind of wasting my time because the quality of the team wasn’t great and at that particular moment my family were living in Baku while I was working in Gabala,” he recalled.

He wasn’t going to abandon the project entirely, however. He wanted a role that would allow him to spend more time with his family, and so Heydarov offered him a job as an advisor. His main responsibility was assisting Heydarov with bringing his vision of being the best club in Azerbaijan, including having the best academy and style of play, to fruition.

He would oversee the development of new pitches, the recruitment of key members of staff and players, and the commercial side of the club. In effect, he was the club’s Sporting Director. He would hold this role for three years, during which Gabala managed three consecutive third-place finishes. Though he intended to remain at the club until they won the title, Adams was forced to resign due to needing a life-saving operation on blocked heart arteries.

By this point, Adams was seeking temporary work. He contacted several people at Arsenal asking for work, and eventually replaced Thierry Henry as under-18 coach. He worked for a month without pay before departing again, perhaps for the final time. Whether it would be as a coach, scout or director, a career at Arsenal looked to be forever closed off to him.

True to form, a domestic venture was followed by an exotic one. During the 2016 European Championships, Adams met with Chinese businessman Jiang “John” Lizhang and embarked on the next chapter his journey. Lizhang was the owner of Chinese Super League side Chongqing Dangdai, a club with enormous potential but also the habit of yo-yoing between the first and second divisions. Lizhang wanted Adams to be the club’s Sporting Director and put a structure in place that would help maintains its place in the CSL and, eventually, challenge for major honours.

During the 2016/17 season, Lizhang would purchase 98 percent of LaLiga club Granada. Granada were yet another club with an inadequate structure for success. Languishing near the bottom of the table, without a manager and having a squad made up almost entirely of loan players, they were a certainty for relegation.

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Once more, Adams was drafted in to change things. Initially, his job was to audit the club and determine what needed restructuring and how. He would select the technical and coaching staff, on top of the new manager. But, in a strange twist, he ended up as caretaker manager in April 2017 for the final seven games of the season. After the failures of fellow Brits David Moyes and Gary Neville at Real Sociedad and Valencia respectively that season, the Spanish press were dubious about Adams’ appointment.

Their suspicion wasn’t without merit. The seven games Adams oversaw demonstrated how ill-prepared he was for the job. While videos of his frenetic attempts at bridging the communication gap with wild gestures were amusing, the reality was that handing the job to him was akin to giving up and accepting relegation. Typically, Adams talked a good game to the press, but words alone were never enough, and Granada proceeded to lose all seven of their remaining games, conceding 17 goals and scoring just three.

The dubious nature of it all was encapsulated in one moment during a 4-0 defeat to Real Madrid. Eighteen minutes into the game, Adams removed winger Aly Mallé and replaced him with the defender, Uche Agbo. Having witnessed his side be punished by a ruthless Madrid side, he wasted little time in prioritising damage limitation.

In essence, that was all Adams was there for. Plans were afoot to push the restart button at the club, and Adams’ escape route was already established. His intention from the beginning was to step down and get to work finding a replacement once the season was over. José Luis Oltra, a vastly experienced coach in the Spanish lower divisions, was eventually chosen to take over.

For now, Adams continues to work for Lizhang. Predicting where he’ll be next is no small feat. Perhaps he’ll be parachuted in at whichever club is in desperate need of a restructuring. What seems certain is that his coaching career is over, as is the dream that he would make a triumphant return to where it all began at Arsenal. His relationship with the club seems irreparably damaged by a number of highly critical interviews he gave. While he remains revered as an ex-player, there doesn’t appear to be much interest from clubs in the UK.

What is certain is that Adams wishes to be at a club that’s right for him. If his career so far is anything to go by, it won’t matter where that club is. So long as there’s an ambitious yet honest owner to work for, and life is good for him and his family, he’ll be there.

By Jaime Einchcomb  

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