He is the legendary Arsenal captain who has his own statue outside the Emirates Stadium; the former alcoholic who founded the Sporting Chance clinic; the budding manager and coach. Now, Tony Adams is being seen in a new guise – as the special guest at a film festival where a new documentary about him, directed by his friend – the author and broadcaster Tom Watt (formerly Lofty on EastEnders) – will receive its world premiere.
When Adams turns up on the Screen on the Green in north London later this month for the opening of the Kicking and Screening Football Film Festival, many of his old team-mates will be there to support him. "Alan Smith's coming, Lee Dixon is coming, Ian Wright is coming," says Watt, who is organising the festival, as he rattles off names of old Highbury favourites. They will all be watching a special screening of Fever Pitch (1997), starring Colin Firth, and basking in the memory of 26 May 1989, the day Arsenal won the league with a last-minute goal at Anfield. The screening also marks the 20th anniversary of Nick Hornby's book, Fever Pitch: a Fan's Life. An added bonus is Journey, the new documentary by Watt chronicling Adams's time as manager of Gabala FC in Azerbaijan.
Adams and Watt have known each other for many years. "You hit off with people. Tony is a person with a genuine sense of adventure, a real sense of adventure," says Watt of the former Arsenal star. It was that sense of adventure that took Adams deep into the foothills of the Caucasus, to the most ancient city in Azerbaijan.
No, Watt is at pains to point out, this isn't a story of a power-crazed oligarch or dictator in a former Soviet republic throwing money at big-name European coaches. The project Adams undertook was to create a new football culture from the grassroots upward, just as his mentor Arsène Wenger has done at Arsenal. "The drama of it, the narrative thread, is Tony's experience," Watt explains. "We do just tip up in Baku [the capital of Azerbaijan] and retrace Tony's steps if you like."
In the film, Adams, who was with the Gunners for 22 years, jokes that he spent his whole career driving round the M25 to Arsenal's training ground at London Colney. For some Arsenal fans, it was a leap when Adams went as far afield as Portsmouth to become assistant manager and then manager. Azerbaijan, by comparison, cannot help but seem a different planet.
"Obviously, Tony was at Arsenal when Wenger arrived. He watched as Arsène completely reinvented, redesigned, remodelled Arsenal Football Club, the training grounds the stadium, the style of play, everything," Watt says. "For someone in Tony's position, to be offered the opportunity to do that at a football club, wherever it is, is only going to come along once or twice in your lifetime."
His role at Gabala was as much to act as the club's Obi-Wan Kenobi as to be a conventional manager. Together with his assistant, the former Tottenham player Gary Stevens, he advised on every aspect of the club's development. "The club was saying not just 'oh look, we're going to spend billions on players and we want you to turn them into a team'. It was 'we want to create a football club and do it the right way and we want you to guide us...' There are plenty of managers who will never get the opportunity to do that."
Watt likens the attempt to create a top notch football team "in the middle effectively of nowhere" as having "a touch of Field of Dreams about it".
Adams retains close links with Gabala despite resigning last November. He and Watt are now contemplating making an extended version of the documentary. The director, for one, is convinced the old Arsenal star is as effective on camera as he once was on the field.
Journey is one of a number of new football-themed films premiering at the Kicking and Screening Festival. The former Liverpool star Glenn Hysén will be on hand to introduce The Last Proletarians of Football, about the IFK Göteborg side of the 1980s. This tells the story of the chefs, plumbers and part-timers moulded into a Uefa Cup-winning team by a certain Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Stephanie Moore is due to attend the screening of Hero, Tony Palmer's very moving documentary about her late husband, the World Cup-winning England captain Bobby Moore.
The day after the Tony Adams film is shown, audiences will have the chance to see Verena Soltiz's 1:1 Thierry Henry, which follows Arsenal's leading goalscorer on his US odyssey as he joins New York Red Bulls in 2010. Children attending the screening will be offered an hour's coaching by Arsenal community coaches before the film starts, and will then be taken to the cinema in the England team bus.
Kicking and Screening, Everyman Cinema, 28 September to 4 OctoberReuse content