Tony Adams: Arsenal are a million miles away

Gunners' former captain feels club have got balance wrong between profit-making and showing ambition required to keep star players and win honours – like they did in his day, he tells Sam Wallace

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The Independent Online

By virtue of the statue of him that stands outside the Emirates Stadium, you could say that Tony Adams's presence is felt at Arsenal every matchday whether he is there in person or not, but he has had special reason to be back there of late.

His two sons Atticus, eight, and Hector, six, from his second marriage, had shown worrying signs of straying from the family loyalty – in short, the elder was declaring an interest in Manchester United, and his younger brother said he supported Manchester City. "I was getting very worried about this," Adams said. "So I took them to a game or two and now they are Arsenal fans."

When we meet on a frosty morning in the Cotswolds, where Adams now lives, the most successful captain in the history of Arsenal Football Club is bursting with ideas and opinions. He had a very public transformation from the classic lion-hearted English centre-half to a more contemplative, thoughtful man, via prison and a battle with alcoholism but, at 46, he remains as enthusiastic for the game as he was making his debut at Highbury, at 17.

Adams is still contracted to Gabala FC, the Azerbaijan Premier League club he coached until late 2011; he and his family lived out there for 18 months. Now he is officially an advisor to club president Tale Heydarov, recruiting a CEO, academy and stadium directors in Europe and establishing the club, which is building a new ground, in the long term.

He enthuses about his charity Sporting Chance, which put 30 sportsmen through rehabilitation last year, including three rugby league players who appeared in August's Challenge Cup final. This year, Adams will himself reach 17 years sober, and he has already written 30,000 words of a sequel to his bestselling 1998 autobiography Addicted, one of the great sporting memoirs. And then there is Arsenal.

When he returned from Azerbaijan, he offered his services to the club. He was quite happy to work anywhere from the first team to the under-12s, he says, just to keep his eye in. "I went to see Arsène [Wenger] a couple of times," Adams says. "He put Steve [Bould] and Neil Banfield up there; fine, that's his decision, he is the boss. I said to the board, 'Do you want me to advise or talk to you?' I have got a statue outside! And they have not responded. I'm kind of cool with it. I know how this game works. It is bonkers. I feel like I'm doing an 11-year apprenticeship [as a manager]. It's OK, it's finding my part in it. I have stopped looking, full stop. I live my life a day at a time anyway and whatever comes up I do. Be careful what you pray for. I have got a great job."

Although Adams is outspoken on the state of the modern Arsenal team – "a million miles away", he says, from competing for trophies – he does so as the man who won, among other trophies, four league titles at the club over almost two decades. As an Arsenal captain whom Sir Alex Ferguson once tried to sign, he is instructive on the sale of Robin van Persie, whom Adams counts as a personal friend, to United.

"I thought they should have retained him. With 18 months on his deal to go you say to Robin, 'There's a five-year contract, bang, I'm going to build a team around you'. Robin would have snapped their hands off. It would have doubled his wages at that time. He questioned their ambition and kept questioning them and they kept selling.

"In 1991, Bryan Robson came up to me at an England get-together and said, '£90,000-a-year to join United'. I said, 'I'm a London lad, I'm happy'. I turned down a pay rise of 15 grand, which was an absolute fortune in those days. In 1996 Alex Ferguson came knocking again.

"In 1996, I had just sobered up. I had a meeting with David Dein and Ken Friar and said, 'What are we doing [at Arsenal]?' They said, 'We're going for it. Danny Fiszman has invested £50m.' We bought David Platt, Dennis Bergkamp; then Arsène came in, then the French guys and I got the best contract of my career. It went from £300,000 up to £1m and I thought, 'Oh my god, I'll stay! We're going to try to win the league.'

"It is not a small wage bill [at Arsenal], it's £143m. I think they can restructure it and give the big boys a lot more and not put so many of the middle order ones on 50 grand a week. They could have put four or five on the top money. If they had done, I would have been positive that Robin would still be an Arsenal player.

"I like Arsenal's standards. No person is bigger than the club. I agree with that 100 per cent. But that's not the issue. Even going back to Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell – these players left too early. So too Gaël Clichy, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, even Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit. I think you could have got two or three years out of them. Instead [with the exception of Campbell] they chose to take the money. Which was fine, I understand balancing books.

"But Robin is not a football nor a financial decision. He will get the money back for you. If you drop out of the Champions League, you aren't going to get the £25m. Give that to Robin. And the manager is paying himself a few quid. That is what irritates the fans as well. Ivan [Gazidis, chief executive] is on a lot of money, Arsène is on a lot of money. The fans come to watch the players and think 'Hold on a minute, give him your money!'

"I can see both ways. I understand the core values of Arsenal. I just think there is a way of doing it where you can keep your better players and challenge for the league."

It would be a mistake to characterise Adams as dismissive of Wenger. He enthuses about the "physiological" knowledge of his former manager, and the effect it had on his career. He points out that Wenger still takes training every day. "We have all got strengths and weaknesses. Arsène said that to me 15 years ago."

He does not think that the next Arsenal manager, when the day comes, will be responsible for so much. "He kind of runs everything," Adams says; "I think it'll be a head coach next time."

With last Sunday's home defeat to Manchester City in mind, and Laurent Koscielny's disastrous red card on nine minutes, it is interesting to hear Adams's thoughts on the current defence. They face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tomorrow and while the home side are undoubtedly brittle, it is equally the case that Arsenal's back four is prone to wobbling.

"I don't agree with the way he rotates his central defenders," Adams says. "It's an area of the pitch [where] you need familiarity. This is the argument I would have with him. His full-backs are too offensive. It's OK if you have someone in central midfield who can play centre-half. They got destroyed by AC Milan [4-0 away from home in the Champions League first knockout round] by balls into the channels. If you've got a Patrick [Vieira] or Manu [Petit] to drop in and play central defence it's different.

"This game is about players and they [Arsenal] haven't got the players. I would have loved Vincent Kompany. I think he is exceptional. He was the best defender in the league last year and before that Rio Ferdinand and [Nemanja] Vidic have been great. I am a big fan of Jonny Evans.

"I will say, year in, year out, the team with the best defence wins the league. You have to be resilient and last year Manchester City with Vincent – he was the best. They have had a few problems early in the season but Pablo Zabaleta has had a good season. Gaël Clichy has improved. All of a sudden they are getting better.

"Hopefully Arsène is giving Steve [Bould] access [to the defence] because Steve knows how to do it. He played with me under George Graham. I don't see why, given time and access, Steve can't make a significant improvement. I do worry about how Arsène rotates them.

"If I was playing alongside Steve one week and then Martin Keown, I could cope but it's different. Per Mertesacker is a zonal defender and Koscielny is a man-to-man marker. They do different things. In front, Mikel Arteta is trying to the best of his ability, but in his mind he is not defensive."

What will the legacy be for Wenger if his time in charge of Arsenal ends without further success? "Arsène will do what Arsène wants to do," Adams says. "I played with him for six years, I have met him a few times. The more I get to know him the less I know him. I haven't got a clue how that man thinks, or how he works. He is a difficult man to fathom."

Adams is sympathetic to the challenges Arsenal face in the new order of English football, but he foresees problems. "The board see profits and it's got to the stage where the fans see no trophies. There is a balance; it is difficult, don't get me wrong. But they have to try to do it. The board, the owner and Arsène's job is to structure it in a way where you keep your best players, they are on good salaries and you are going for trophies. Because they are a million miles away at the moment."

My other life

I ski. Me, the wife and kids go to Val d'Isère. They are all better than me. I have an ESF [Ecole du Ski Français] English-speaking instructor. We have a hot chocolate and a bit of lunch then we ski down. It's very calm. I saw Kiss Me Kate with the mother-in-law. I'm going to see the film version of Les Mis next week. I walk the dog. That enough?

'Hansen has never put his head on the block. I don't respect him'

His managerial career has not taken off in the same way as his playing career, but Tony Adams says that – the occasional Goals on Sunday appearance aside – he could never join the ranks of television pundits.

Adams, 46, was the Wycombe Wanderers manager between 2003 and 2004. He took over after Harry Redknapp left Portsmouth in 2008 and was sacked by the club, by then in freefall, after two wins in 16 Premier League games. Now adviser to the president of the Azerbaijan club Gabala FC, where he previously managed, he is setting up the infrastructure of the club.

"When I first retired I had my dad in the back of my head saying, 'This is too easy, you can't do this, get a proper job. You cannot be a Gary Neville or an Alan Hansen. You can't be a journalist! Go out at 5am and come back at 12 at night'.

"I thought it was money for old rope. I had been a player who had always put my neck on the line and my whole career was about giving 100 per cent. I found it was too easy."

Between jobs, Adams has worked as a coach at both Feyenoord and Utrecht, and is a friend of Wim Jansen, the former Feyenoord technical director and Dutch international. He left Gabala, only founded in 2005, with the team sixth in the Azerbaijan Premier League, on the basis he would be better suited working on developing the club as a whole.

Adams said: "I saw Alan Hansen the other night on Match of the Day and he was doing a piece about Aston Villa's young defence. It's irrelevant. He thought, 'I'll pick on their ages'. I lifted a trophy at Arsenal at 21. If you are 21 and you are good enough, it doesn't matter. He just picked a theme – ages. Next week it'll be another theme – too old, or they have two left-footers. But if you are a coach, like Paul Lambert, and you are actually working with these guys, sometimes you have people who are sick or injured or don't get on. There are many factors in the equation. People who haven't done it, I have no respect for.

"I don't respect Alan because he has never put his head on the block. For me to then turn around and do it [punditry] in the early days would have felt very hypocritical."

As a manager, Adams says he would like a job where he had a chance of winning trophies. "I have had limited resources at all the clubs – at Portsmouth we had a lot of cash at one stage where we could bring some good players in and I really enjoyed being part of the FA Cup win [in 2008]. I never got my head around trying to stay in the division. It feels so foreign."

Sam Wallace