Traditional virtues of the English game inspire new model Adams

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Was there ever a sportsman with more incarnations? We have had Adams the barnstorming centre-half for Arsenal and England; Adams the crashing drunk; Adams the repentant jailbird; Adams the new, model citizen.

Tony Adams is as confused as the rest of us about what to call the division in which his Wycombe Wanderers team lie third, having topped the table until Saturday's home defeat by Swansea; is it the old Fourth Division, the old Third Division, the Championship League Two, or what?

But then Adams himself has undergone even more changes of identity.

Indeed, was there ever a sportsman with more incarnations? We have had Adams the barnstorming centre-half for Arsenal and England; Adams the crashing drunk; Adams the repentant jailbird; Adams the new, model citizen. We have even had Adams the deluded pundit, forcefully expressing the view, and sticking to it even now, that Sven Goran Eriksson's first-choice XI during Euro 2004 should not have included Wayne Rooney.

Let's start, though, with Adams the lower-league manager, who could not prevent Wycombe being relegated last season, yet seems to be pointing the club back whence it came.

I am waiting for him in the reception of Adams Park, the club's serendipitously named home. He unfurls himself from his black Mercedes in the parking slot reserved for the manager, and greets me good-humouredly. He is up, as they say, for this interview. Adams likes to talk. People who have been in therapy usually do.

"When I came here we had 11 points from 17 games," he says. "So I knew things were wrong. But when I realised the state of the club I had doubts about whether I'd done the right thing. You like to think you'll have a few players you can work with. It's disappointing to find that you don't think you can work with any of them."

This sounds, I venture, like not-so-veiled criticism of his predecessor Lawrie Sanchez. Adams does not deny it. "The place was dusty, it was horrible, but it would have been a mistake not to stay. The chairman is a decent man, a human being. And I love a challenge. I have learned more from the hard times in my life, on and off the pitch. But I didn't know whether I was going to be any good at management. If I was going to mess up, then mess up here. That was my philosophy."

It's perhaps not a philosophy that will endear him to the Wycombe faithful, even as they celebrate their team's decent start to the season, yet it is typically, brazenly honest. Adams was interviewed by bigger clubs than Wycombe, but some rejected him and some he rejected. "I needed to do an apprenticeship, just like I did as a player at Arsenal. I could have taken a job as an assistant, or at youth-team level, but that's completely different to being in the hot seat. I'm so pleased I've gone this route."

Encouragingly, Wycombe is where Martin O'Neill first felt the warmth of the managerial hot seat. But O'Neill had not spent his playing career with one of England's most fashionable clubs. The contrast with Arsenal must sometimes be overwhelming, I say, looking at the flood damage in the corner of his office.

"Well, yeah, I open up the training ground each day with my one set of keys. Putting a team together, the scouting, I love all that. But we haven't got a psychologist, a physiologist, a masseur, so I have to do all that." What, he even massages his players? "Well, no, I've pulled in a few favours.

"But I do have to get my hands dirty. Luckily I've now got some fantastic people around me, like Shay Connolly, the physio. If you ask anyone at Arsenal, they'll tell you that [the physiotherapist] Gary Lewin runs the club.

"Shay's getting that way. He's taken all my ideas and is running with them."

Those ideas are very much his own, he adds, even if they have been shaped from the ideas of the managers he served as a player. "I always tried to listen and learn. So I might use bits of Terry Venables, but with my own print and personality. And I'm studying for a sports science degree, which makes me a little bit different. There isn't another British manager with a sports science degree." Sports science degree or not, has he turned to his former managers for advice?

"Graham Taylor rang me up last season. He said I shouldn't worry, that when he was at Lincoln City he had two kids under five, a house mortgaged to the hilt, and didn't win one of his first 14 games. All 3,000 fans were shouting 'Taylor out!' at every game. And Arsène [Wenger] told me about his experience at Nancy, not winning one of his first nine games. He said you're only as good as your players."

The Arsenal manager is famously obsessive about football, so I ask Adams whether that, too, has shaped his approach to management. Does he breathe, sweat and dream it, as Wenger supposedly does?

"I pretty much put everything into my job," he replies. "But I do take Sundays off. I think Arsène is beginning to relax more. I saw an interview with him the other day, with some stuff about him teaching his daughter to ride a bike. I remember him a few years ago picking his child up and holding her at arm's length, because he was so uncomfortable with it."

Obviously Adams is full of admiration for Wenger's achievements at Highbury - how could anyone not be? - yet when it comes to the business of piecing together a team, it is George Graham he cites as his inspiration.

"George used 14 players in '89 (when Arsenal won the championship for the first time since 1971). He handpicked people from Stoke, he developed a few through the youth team . . . for a manager to do that is pretty special.

"Arsène has done it a different way, he's gone round the world. I was training with 10 guys who were English to five guys who were English to walking out at the end pretty much on my own with Ray Parlour."

When pressed, Adams vehemently denies that he regrets this development in English football. "It's just the way it is now," he says. But it is certainly not with roaring approval that he points out that there were just 24 Englishmen on the field on the Premiership's opening weekend.

"I'm not saying I regret it," he reiterates, disingenuously, "but if we don't do something about it we will end up like Scotland. As soon as Rangers and Celtic started recruiting from overseas, Scottish [international] football fell apart. It will be the same here. There will come a point when we won't be producing young English players, because divisions Three, Two and One are not playing football. Last year, 65 per cent of all play in the Nationwide took place without any passes. Week in, week out, we come up against sheds. Someone's got to break that mould but not many teams are trying. Crewe play a bit of football, Yeovil do, Graham Rix is trying at Oxford, but the Premiership clubs are not looking down here because we're breeding a different type of player. We need to change that.

"In fact, I wouldn't mind if we split into a European League and they gave us back the old First Division. It was so competitive, players were allowed to tackle hard, and our game was revered around the world because of it. Now it's a continental style; Arsenal play the continental way. And I think the game loses something."

But surely, he of all people should applaud Arsenal's remarkable start to the season? "Well, it's very hard for me to comment on Arsenal. I rarely see them play because I've got my eye elsewhere now. But that doesn't mean I don't love 'em. I was there for 19 years and that's a big part of my life."

Might he, though, advocate a limit of, say, five players not from the British Isles in every XI? - which would hurt Arsenal more than most.

"I would, yes. You know, we have a player here, Gary Sellman, who goes through brick walls. I get off on that, I really do. He goes steaming in, gets the ball, and leaves the forward on his arse. I get so excited and the fans do too. Obviously you need a balance. I've talked about the need to play football down at this level. But at Premiership level that's an English style of play that I think we're losing."

I ask Adams where he does his shopping for new players. "I try to pick players who've done it before, like Ian Stonebridge who came from Plymouth, Stuart Nethercott from Milwall, Joe Burnell from Bristol City. I don't shop abroad. I've looked at that market. I quite like Bundesliga division two, that's not bad. We had a German lad over here who was very close to joining, but in the end we couldn't afford him. I've looked at Finland as well, but only at the top end. You've got to be wary. It's a bit raw here, and it takes a good character to fit in. Also. if you're looking at a lad from the north-east, let's say, you've got to sort him out with accommodation. You've got to consider that when you're working out whether you can afford him."

It's not a consideration with which Wenger has to grapple, yet if Adams harbours a burning desire to manage his old club, or any other club in the Premiership, he conceals it well. "My ambition is to leave this club in a better state than I found it in," he says. "I've another season after this one. I'll probably take some time off after that, then come again. The family suffers, that's the trouble with this job. And I've a seven-month-old baby now."

Little Atticus Adams is his son with his partner, Poppy Teacher, who with sublime irony comes from the Teachers whisky family. Adams, of course, no longer touches the stuff. But he can spot at 30 paces which of his players has had a night on the razz, however hard they might try to disguise it. "You can't kid a kidder," he says. "I knew all the tricks."

A more pressing problem at the moment, he tells me, is a player with "anger issues".

"I brought him into the office and said we could fine him or get him help. He chose the fine and I said OK. Then he came back in a week later and said, 'Are you going to hold that against me?' I said 'Yes, to be honest with you. I would have thought more of you if you'd tried to get help. The fine was the easy option.' "

Adams no longer takes easy options himself. Sometimes, in fact, he is almost determinedly contrary, as he showed by opposing Eriksson's decision in Portugal to keep starting with Rooney.

"I would have put Scholes in behind Owen, and brought Rooney off the bench. The world ridiculed me, but I still believe that. Was Wayne going to do it in the next game and the next? I'm not too sure. And I'd never buy a player on the basis of what he does in a top tournament. Because he might be able to do it over five games, but not over a season. Arsène says the same.

"You'd never sign a Greece player after Euro 2004. Which is not to say that Rooney does not have unbelievable potential."

Just as I am mentally measuring Adams for a straitjacket, he turns to Eriksson's tactics and starts making perfect sense. "I played against his teams at Lazio, and he always loved playing two quick forwards. Two banks of four and two quick forwards. But as a centre-half I was confident of dealing with that, because we went deep and gave them no space to run.

"I also thought he played too many offensive players in midfield in Portugal. I can't believe he never took Ray Parlour. You need someone in midfield who can win the ball back for you. Sven got the balance wrong. And if I have one criticism of Arsène it's the same one, that he sometimes has too many offensive players on the pitch. When Arsenal come up against Inter Milan or Juventus, those teams can deal with it."

Adams pauses, and flashes his huge smile. "But who am I to criticise Arsène Wenger? Who am I?" Tony Adams life and times Born: 10 October 1966 in Romford, Essex. Represented England at schoolboy level.

Feb 1987: Won first full cap at the age of 20 in England's 4-2 victory over Spain in Madrid.

March 1988: Named Arsenal captain by George Graham.

May 1990: Left out of England squad for Italia '90

19 Dec 1990: Jailed for nine months, for drink-driving. Served 58 days

Oct 1994: Captained England for first time, against Romania at Wembley

June 1996: Captained England to the semi-finals of Euro '96

1998 Captained Arsenal to the Premiership and Cup Double

September 1999: Published autobiography, Addicted.

October 2000: Played in the last international at Wembley as England lost 1-0 to Germany.

November 2000: Left out of England squad for friendly in Italy.

January 2001: Announces his international retirement.

March 2001: Establishes the charity Sporting Chance, which helps sports people with addictions.

11 May 2003: Appointed manager of Wycombe Wanderers

May 2004: Wycombe finish bottom of Second Division


League/Premiership: 1988-89, 1990-91, 1997-98, 2001-02

FA Cup: 1998, 2002

League Cup: 1987, 1993

European Cup-Winners' Cup: 1994

International record: 66 caps, 5 goals.