Former Gunners legend trying his luck where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia.
A common criticism in England amongst football writers and supporters alike is that not enough English players ply their trade abroad. Sure, there have been fine examples of it happening over the years; David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, Kevin Keegan, Paul Ince, Steve McManaman and Gary Lineker all spent time abroad in the peak years of their career, but ultimately the number of English players abroad is very small in comparison to the number of Spaniards playing outside of Spain or the number of Frenchmen leaving Ligue 1.
One trend becoming increasingly common however is the trend for young, English managers leaving Britain in order to work abroad. The Premier League may be billed as the “best league in the world” but logically, it makes a lot of sense to seek employment elsewhere. Football management in England is far from a secure job; as soon as things start to go wrong on the field, the solution for most teams is to replace the man in charge. For a young manager this can be completely demoralising. Factor in the financial insecurity and the potential impact being sacked so quickly could have on future employers and it actually seems far from desireable to manage in England. Best league in the world or not.
One man to suffer such managerial woes in England was legendary ex-Arsenal defender Tony Adams. A former England captain and mutliple Premier League title winner, Adams suffered from unsuccessful spells in charge of Wycombe Wanderers and Portsmouth, leaving him virutally unemployable as a first team manager in his homeland.
Adams, like other notable examples such as Steve McClaren, decided to escape England and seek employment abroad. Although, unlike McClaren, Adams soon found himself rather alienated from the glitz and glamour of the western European game…
Gabala FC isn’t a familiar name to most football fans. A club based in Azerbaijan, a nation more famous for its oilfields than its football fields, Gabala FC formed a little over 15 years ago, in 1995. They play home matches at the Gabala City Stadium, a 2,000 seater stadium in the ancient city of Qabala. The club achieved promotion to the top flight in 2005-06 but have failed to push on from that success.
This is where Tony Adams finds himself. A land far, far away from the multi-million pound television deals, multi-million pound training facilities, multi-million pound stadia and multi-million pound footballers on display in the English Premier League.
The appeal of foreign lands to young managers has been covered but one question remains. What on earth is Tony Adams doing in Azerbaijan?!
Adams once famously stated that he preferred the company of his dogs to any human interaction. So it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the main attractions Gabala FC offered was the chance to retreat away from the limelight.
‘I like the fact the spotlight is off me,’ Adams told reporters during the 2010-11 season. ‘I am free to make mistakes here. The only pressure comes from me.’
The luxury of being allowed to make mistakes isn’t the only luxury Adams has been afforded. Azerbaijan may not be a footballing powerhouse and its league certainly lacks the financial might of the Premier League, but his club are far from cash-strapped. Tale Heydarov, financial backer to the club, is the son of a government minister and Adams has been given financial freedom other managers in the league could only dream of. Plush pitches laid by SIS, the company responsible for solving the problems with the Wembley turf, new training equipment, a partially re-built training ground and proven footballers from Europe. Since taking over, Adams has brought in the likes of Deon Burton, once of Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday and Steve Olfers, once a Champions League regular with Aalborg.
That’s not to say it’s all been plain-sailing for the former England and Arsenal captain. Adams has spoken repeatedly of the bizarre situations he has found himself in since moving to Qabala; personally removing dog excrement from the pitch, cows interrupting training sessions, the list goes on.
Ultimately, Adams will be judged on the club’s performances on the field. In his first season, the club finished 7th in the top division, perhaps not the achievement they had hoped for but a satisfactory finish at first glance. You have to dig a little deeper to see the real impact Adams’ management has had on his side.
In previous seasons, Gabala FC had been on the receiving end of some humiliating defeats. In their first season in the top flight, the side scored 17 goals and conceded 47. Indeed, in 3 of the 4 seasons in the top flight prior to Adams’ arrival the club conceded more than they scored. In Adams’ first season the club conceded just 18 goals and scored 31. During the season the club went on an 11 game unbeaten run, keeping 10 consecutive clean sheets in the process.
Adams may have smashed club records during his first season in charge, but there’s no getting away from the fact that his achievements in Azerbaijan will be seen as irrelevent by most major European clubs. Adams however, doesn’t sound as if he has any intention of moving back to the bright lights of the Premier League any time soon.
‘This is absolute heaven for me,’ he said of his job. ‘The pressure was different for me in England having captained my country. It’s fine to be that person and then go to a great club, like Pep Guardiola with Barcelona, but I haven’t had that. I’m sure people say I’m a rubbish manager, but not here.’
Although he failed to win the league in his first season in charge, Adams is very clear that he never expected to.
‘The highlight of my first season was that I feel I’ve been able to develop, to make mistakes but learn from them and go home without 400 interviews, the fans calling for my resignation and the chairman coming in, saying: ‘What is going on?”
To many, the concept of Tony Adams managing in Azerbaijan is a bit of a joke. Some see it as a clear indication that he failed as a top level football manager before he even reached the age of 45. An ever philisophical Tony Adams sees things very differently.
He recently told a reporter for The Guardian ‘I’ve seen it written that I have gone out on a limb with the move to Gabala but I really don’t see it that way. I think that I’ve actually gone out on a limb if I take a job in England, particularly with the tenures being what they are.’
Strange as it may seem to some, it’s hard to argue. And in ten years time, who’s to say that Tony Adams won’t be managing at the top level in England, having learned his most valuable lessons during his time in Azerbaijan? After all, his former manager Arsene Wenger spent several years managing in Japan before leading a side to Premier League glory.