For a football mad child of the nineties Tony Adams was one of the most prominent Premier League footballers, the legendary marshal of Arsenal’s defence who was capped by the mighty ‘‘Three Lions’’ 66 times. Sitting with my father back then on several occasions at Highbury, little could I imagine that some twenty years later I would be talking football with Adams, and less still that both of us Londoners would be exploring – albeit in different ways – the far off land of Azerbaijan.
The first hurdle was to find him; a taxi had taken me on a short excursion of the capital’s suburban hotels by the time I arrived on a sweltering August morning, flustered and worried that Adams may have gone. He hadn’t; he sat in a casual white shirt, jeans and tawny brown brogues in the lobby, looking relaxed, as though he was enjoying life in Azerbaijan. So much so that seeing my struggles in scrabbling together change for the taxi, he immediately stepped forward and handed me a 20 AZN note.
And so it all began, to the somewhat annoying pitter-patter of the lobby’s artificial waterfall.
I once did a three-hour interview with a journalist from the Guardian with one of those. He called me up the next day and said, “erm, I didn’t get anything.” You’d have thought after 30 years of journalism he’d know better, Adams chuckled.
Pressure was on.
An unexpected home in northern Azerbaijan
Tony Adams has been involved with Qabala FC for the last five years, beginning initially as the first team manager before becoming adviser and then, since January 2015, director of football, based permanently in Azerbaijan. Clearly he’s adapted well to life in Qabala, the rapidly developing northern city at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, but this wasn’t always the case; when Adams arrived in 2010, Qabala was rural and rundown and not a lot of fun:
We had a player from Sierra Leone, and after 3 weeks with us he came to me and said I can’t live here, I can’t – there was nothing there, there was nothing to do and everyone was coming to Baku every 2 minutes.
Whereas now, he continued excitedly –
It’s vibrant – go play tennis, go to Qabaland, go skiing, you can go walking, you’ve got the waterfalls, you’ve got teahouses, you’ve got one of the oldest civilisations, it’s historical, you’ve got Sheki, the food’s gone up, the quality of service. I love it - it’s great fun. My family comes to stay with me out here during the school holidays and we have a great time, it’s a great life.
The city’s development mirrors that of its football club Qabala FC, which was formed as Goy Gol FC in 1995 and played in Ganja. The club moved to Qabala only in 2006, the year in which it gained promotion to the Azerbaijani Premier League. After five years and an enormous development project, the team finished third last season and was poised to qualify for the mighty Europa League, a giant achievement for a club that when Adams joined was, metaphorically speaking, in another league –
I came here and there was no pitch and after that I had one synthetic [pitch – Ed.] with about nine teams on it. Big work was going on with the community; they’d never seen a ball before
I came here and there was no pitch and after that I had one synthetic [pitch – Ed.] with about nine teams on it. Big work was going on with the community; they’d never seen a ball before. I became head coach in April or May 2010 and very, very quickly I realised that it probably wasn’t ready for me as a coach and manager – the standard was very poor and there was a hell of a lot of work off the pitch as well as on.
He stayed for 18 months during which he was proud to have achieved 13 clean sheets - that’s like nearly a thousand minutes without conceding a goal, it’s the 85th best of all time – although he admits the team didn’t score many at the other end. But Adams felt he would be better used elsewhere and went back to the club’s president Tale Heydarov, the man who was responsible for bringing him to Azerbaijan.
The president and the vision
Back then Adams was nursing wounds from what he described as a ‘‘horrific experience’’ at Portsmouth in 2009, where he was manager for 16 games before the club ran into financial difficulties –
It’s a long story, briefly the owner’s father‘s assets were frozen for alleged arms dealing to Angola and, although he was later cleared in 2011, at the time this had a knock on affect on his son’s businesses, which means he’d given 180 million to the previous manager and I was left with [the club] eventually going bust.
So, I kind of said to myself the next time I go into a job I’m going to go for the owner. I’m going to get a good guy and that’s why I signed for Qabala.
He met Mr Heydarov in London – he was a bright young man, had a vision and wanted me to help him build a football club. So Adams agreed and that was history, and today the original vision has remained the same:
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.
This vision grew into a project, which Adams has been hooked on ever since. I’ve nearly done it, he said excitedly, but not quite yet …
Evolving roles and maximising services
Over the years Adams has changed his role in order to, as he put it, maximise my services. He’s been honest with the owner about the club’s progression and how best he can serve the club; following his spell as manager he stepped back to become advisor to the club president in 2011:
I went back and said “You’re paying me too much money for the job that I’m doing, it’s not needed – it’s infrastructure you need.”
I kind of said to myself the next time I go into a job I’m going to go for the owner. I’m going to get a good guy and that’s why I signed for Qabala
Adams was asked what he could do – well I can build it off the pitch, he said and began to consult and liaise with contractors on everything from installing and maintaining pitches, building the stadium and fixing floodlights, moving backwards and forwards between London and Azerbaijan.
Four years passed and he was back at the negotiating table in November 2014. The Russian manager Yuriy Semin had left at the end of the 2013-14 season, having done well, and a Romanian manager was hastily brought in - a rushed appointment, which Adams had cautioned against that led to the team losing heavily at home and in Europe.
This position is perfect for me, at the moment, it really is perfect because I’m on top of everything, the whole club, all football
I went to his office in London, the president’s office, and kind of said, “look, you need some help around this” and he said - “how about football director?” and I thought why not. I didn’t really want to come back as coach at that point, I don’t think it would have been relevant and right, I’ve kind of done that, but I certainly can advise him around the new coach, get the right man in and then make sure that they get the right players in.
He has been in his current role since the beginning of 2015 and seemed to be relishing the challenge, describing it as someone in between the club and the coach, and adding:
This position is perfect for me, at the moment, it really is perfect because I’m on top of everything, the whole club, all football.
He has a good relationship with the current Ukrainian manager Roman Grigorchuk – lovely man, open, honest – and vetted and facilitated all the 11 players he brought in.
He only suggested players that he knew and worked with at his old club at Chornomorets [a Ukrainian Odessa-based side – Ed.], so he knew them, he was confident in them, so I said ‘‘OK, we’ll sign them until this summer but this one’s on your head’’ type of thing.
Elsewhere Adams oversees the academy and the ground staff, gets involved with commercial relations and sponsorships and praises the likes of Anar in public relations, Zaur the general manager and Safura in HR – you know the staff are great, they just need some training, some learning, some education.
He is clearly fascinated by the inner workings of the club, the details, from the website to a talented under 12 winger he’d spotted only last week - all part of the mini football empire under construction in the unlikely city of Qabala.
‘‘We all love Barcelona’’
Symbolic of the club’s development and ambitions is the Qabala FC academy, led by Stanley Brard, who ran the Dutch side Feyenoord’s academy for nine years – you ask anyone in Holland which the best academy is and they’ll tell you Feyenoord’s, Adams insisted.
Part of Tale Heydarov’s vision had been to establish a style of play similar to Barcelona – we all love Barcelona – shaped by Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff. So Adams convinced the owner to look at the Dutch system.
He recalled with amusement –
It was funny, one of the other guys we interviewed, we asked him what he thought the best academy in the world was at the moment, and he went – “Feyenoord’s” – and we went – “oh, we’ve just interviewed Stanley.” We thought, “great!” and we took Stanley.
Brard’s predecessor, a former Galatasaray player, set up the academy 7 years ago when there were no teams or leagues and the club had to embark on a nationwide recruitment drive. The foundations were laid and Brard has since implemented the special Qabala brand of Dutch ‘‘total football’’ –
All our players, you go down to the under 10s, the goalkeeper’s passing it to the full backs, we’re playing out of defence and as we go through we’re using a 4-3-3 system. It’s a passing football, a ‘total football’ style, which the president wanted and he’s [Stanley’s - Ed.] implemented it. He’s done a magnificent job.
The head groundsman Phil Sharples is also forging a reputation well beyond Qabala:
He’s wanted by Spartak Moscow, he’s probably going to do the Russian World Cup - implementation of the pitches. We’ve got him here in Qabala, would you believe! We’ve got two of the best staff in the world, in our academy and doing our pitches.
The broader picture of football in Azerbaijan
Adams rattled off the now-complete pieces to the massive, original Qabala FC jigsaw – pitches – tick, academy, maintenance, a competitive budget, a good coach, players and the first team – all tick. It sounded like a job just about done …
So the last area, we’re challenging for the league this season so that’s great, we’re going to either win it or come second, so we’ve done it. The last area for me is to challenge for the league with the Azerbaijani players, then I can really go to the president and shake his hand and move on.
However, achieving this will be no mean feat given the current barren landscape of football in Azerbaijan. Adams described Azerbaijani football as going backwards at the national level and despite the fact the Qabala academy produces 60 per cent of all national team players across all levels, demonstrating the strength of the Qabala academy, the regular international breaks strip players away from clubs and interrupt their development at the academy.
They’re taking them out of our jurisdiction and developing them I don’t know how, I think with less quality than when we can keep hold of them. We have to, as a club, employ other players to play in our teams because the national team’s taken our players away, the better ones, and I’m like ‘hold on, this can’t be right!’ we have over a 100 boys, over 140 boys in our academy, living with us, feeding them, training them, looking after them, developing them, and for 2 weeks every other month they are away with the national team.
As for the national league, Adams felt it was the worst it’s been since I’ve been here – there’s no opposition, citing that several teams such as Simurg and Araz-Nakhchivan had recently folded, Kapaz didn’t exist last year and only Qarabag and Qabala were moving forward, and together with Neftchi and Inter, they were in a league of their own. As a result, Azerbaijani football fans would sooner watch the Turkish Super League –
I don't regret one minute of it, I went for the right boss and I got the right man
I don’t blame them because I wouldn’t watch Sumgayit versus Kapaz, it’s awful; but I would watch Qarabag versus Neftchi, Qabala versus Inter, the top games.
Committed to Qabala
But improving Azerbaijani football is not Adams’ remit - his job is to complete the football revolution underway in Qabala,
I came back to finish the job off, and I think I can. It’s been an incredible 8 months, you know, we went from 6th to 3rd in the table, we’ve got European football and we’ve had a great European run, and brought some good players to the club and put an academy player into the team, he made his debut … that’s what it’s about.
And that is what it’s all about for Adams, leading the Qabala boys through the academy and eventually into the first team. He expected two to break through this season, including a lively left winger named Roman Huseynov.
As an added bonus, since our interview Qabala FC qualified for the Europa League group stage, beating Panathanikaikos, a side which Adams had described as ‘‘a different division’’ and a feat he felt was beyond the current crop – It would be UNBELIEVABLE if we made the group stage, I personally don’t believe that we’re ready.
We've got two of the best staff in the world, in our academy and doing our pitches
So the Qabala project rolls on and the likes of Dortmund and Krasnodar and Greek side PAOK will be coming to Azerbaijan, where Adams will be enjoying the views of the Caucasus Mountains whilst picturing the moment he might soon be back in Tale Heydarov’s offices to proudly say – ‘‘JOB DONE!’’
Since this interview Tony Adams has had to take a break from his campaign to get Qabala to the top in Azerbaijan. Chest pains felt during exercise sent him to the Baku Medical Plaza for a life-saving operation to free up a severely blocked vein. As he reported:
After feeling some acute chest pain while exercising in Azerbaijan, and liaising with Gabala club doctors, I went to the Medical Plaza hospital in Baku where I was admitted for an angiogram, and then following diagnosis of a severely blocked vein, an immediate angioplasty.
The brilliant surgeons at the Medical Plaza did a fantastic job – as has been reiterated to me by my cardiologist in the UK.
I know full well that without the brilliance of Dr Uzeyir Rahimov and his team I would not be alive now: a minor heart operation saved my life.
Back in the UK he reassured Visions: All good now…. Hopefully see you back in Baku very soon.
We wish Tony all the best for a full recovery and, indeed, look forward to seeing him back in Qabala!