Tony Adams, a mysterious tycoon and their grand plan for small-town Azerbaijan

In an exclusive interview, the Arsenal legend reveals his incredible move to an eastern European outpost – and his 10-year vision of leading local minnows to the Champions League

Shaun Walker
Wednesday 12 May 2010 06:30 BST

The lanky figure dressed in a grey suit and white shirt is unmistakeably Tony Adams. So it's not all a hoax. From Baku, Azerbaijan's capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea, it takes over three hours of driving, often on bumpy and potholed roads, to get to Gabala, passing impoverished villages where the men sit outside and drink tea and the women sell pickled vegetables at the side of the road. It is not the kind of place you expect to run into an Arsenal and England legend. But at the end of the journey, here he is. Tony Adams, sitting in an orange armchair in the lobby of a hotel, deep inside provincial Azerbaijan.

This obscure outpost is where Adams says he wants to spend the next 10 years of his life, using the vast funds of a mysterious local oligarch to build a team that is capable of challenging for the Champions League. He will be unveiled this morning at a press conference in Baku, and will take charge of FC Gabala from the start of next season. Adams has signed an initial three-year contract at the club, which was founded just five years ago.

Since agreeing to the job around a month ago, Adams has not spoken to journalists or told many of his friends about the job. But The Independent gained exclusive access to the club, spending Monday at the ground with Adams and meeting the players he will take over.

"If we can get into the group stages of the Champions League within the next five to 10 years, I will consider myself a success here," saysthe former Portsmouth manager. He will work together with Gary Stevens, the 48-year-old former Spurs player who won seven caps for England and whose most recent work in football was as reserve-team coach for Charlton Athletic.

Looking around him as he talks of the Champions League, a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking he was completely mad. FC Gabala are currently sixth in the Azerbaijan Premier League and play their games on an Astroturf pitch with just one small stand that seats 1,080 spectators. A nearby training pitch is muddy, with rusty goalposts and stones strewn along the touchlines, and the town itself is quiet and run-down, with a population of less than 100,000. The club needs to win the Azerbaijani League to gain entry to the Champions League qualifying stages, and would then need to negotiate three rounds before making it to the group stages.

But the club has big plans. They started nine months ago, with the appointment of Alastair Saverimutto, a 40-year-old former professional rugby union player who was previously commercial manager at Everton and chief executive of Bournemouth as their chief operations officer. His ambitious goal is making the side a serious contender for European honours within just a few years.

"To be honest, the only thing I knew about Azerbaijan before coming here was that they finished third in the Eurovision Song Contest," Saverimutto admits. But since then, he has been working quietly to begin realising a dramatic vision of growth. First, the entire youth coaching team was poached from Galatasary in Turkey, led by the legendary Ali Yavas. Then, the hunt was on for a first-team manager. A shortlist of three was drawn up, including Adams and two "very well-known former international managers". All of them came to Azerbaijan, but Saverimutto says he chose Adams, despite his patchy managerial record, because he "likes a challenge and is ready to roll up his sleeves".

The 43-year-old is desperate to make it in management, but so far it has not gone well. Short spells at Wycombe Wanderers and Portsmouth both ended in failure, and in the past year, Adams has disappeared off the radar somewhat.

In that time, he says he has been studying how other managers work, watching training sessions and taking notes. "Don Howe once told me that the best managers are thieves," he says, as we stand at the touchline during a reserves' training session on Gabala's main pitch. "When I manage, there's a bit of George Graham, there's a bit of Arsène Wenger, a bit of all sorts of people. Though in Azerbaijan I'm probably going to be more Graham than Wenger."

Adams also travelled to Milan for a fortnight recently, as a guest of Jose Mourinho, to watch Internazionale training sessions. "He said to me, 'I've got an advantage over you, since the age of 22 I've been learning how to be a manager. You've only been doing it for eight years. Playing and managing are completely different things.'"

Many would agree, especially with a look at Adams' managerial record. But Adams is insistent that through carefully studying others' methods, he can improve. And he claims that, far from being an outlandish move, Azerbaijan is a natural place for him to mature as a manager. "The Premier League is not a good development ground for English managers. The sack rate is 1.3 years and getting smaller. You don't get a chance."

He will certainly be given a chance at FC Gabala. Saverimutto says there are "unlimited funds" for transfers and development.

Where the money comes from is something of a mystery. The club's president is Tale Heydarov, a 25-year-old Azerbaijani who studied at the London School of Economics. He is the son of the country's Emergencies Minister, who is rumoured to control a vast fortune, although as a minister he is not allowed to own businesses. There are rumours in the local media that the family is linked to Gilan Holdings, an octopus of a company with tentacles in a whole array of businesses, although there is no official confirmation of this. Gilan owns FC Gabala, and that seems to be where the money flow originates. The Independent was due to meet Tale Heydarov in Baku yesterday, but the interview was cancelled at the last minute, and a representative said that the club's young president would not answer any questions. How much money he has, and where it comes from, thus remains unclear.

What is very clear is that FC Gabala have vast resources. Over the next two weeks, Adams and Stevens will watch the current players in training and decide who to keep and who to let go. Then, over the summer, the process of attracting new talent will begin. As Stevens, possibly somewhat off-message, puts it: "His dad seems to own half of Azerbaijan, so financial resources shouldn't be a problem." Adams says they will look for players both in Azerbaijan and abroad, including in England, but admits that "we have to recognise where this club is at now," and says there are unlikely to be any sensational signings, in the short-term at least.

There are already a few foreign players at the club. There's Cristian Torres, a pacy 24-year-old Argentine midfielder who was two years above Lionel Messi in the youth system at Newell's Old Boys in his home country. Since then, the two players' trajectories have diverged somewhat, with Messi setting the Champions League alight, and Torres taking the unusual route to Azerbaijan, via a Serie C side in Italy and a stint in Latvia.

Another foreigner is Razvan Tarlea, a 30-year-old Romanian left-back who signed a year ago after falling out of favour at FCR Cluj in his native country. "For the first few months I wondered what on earth I was doing here," admits Tarlea, who lives with the other players in a hotel considerably less fancy than the one where Adams and his family will live. But, he says, things are changing for the better. "Last week I went to the office to speak to the club president and saw this guy sitting there and thought, 'Fucking hell, it's Tony Adams!' I couldn't believe it!"

The star of the youth team is a local lad called Tarzan (his real name), who Adams says "reminds me a bit of Frankie Lampard". FC Gabala does already have a manager, Ramiz Mammadov, who will continue in charge until the end of the season but has agreed to step aside. He has apparently taken it rather well. "I think if it had been another Azerbaijani manager it might have been different," Adams says. "But he has been very good about it. He said, 'Mr Adams, it's an honour to step down for you." There is talk that he might be sent to the UK to do the FA's three-week course for foreign coaches, then and return in a coaching capacity. "Or perhaps he could go to Portsmouth," jokes Stevens.

Walking around the pitch we come to an old warehouse that serves as the club's gym, and ascend a flight of concrete steps to a box-like room. "Do you watch 24?" asks Adams. "I always think this place looks like a set out of 24." Indeed it does. What it definitely doesn't look like, however, is part of a football club with serious European ambitions. But inside, Saverimutto gets out his laptop and plays a presentation of the planned new stadium and facilities. Half-a-dozen training pitches, an all-weather dome with a three-quarter pitch for winter training sessions, state-of-the art facilities including a hotel and conference space, all adjoining a 15,000-seater stadium, all designed by British architectural firm AFL, which has worked on a number of high-profile projects including the Nou Camp, Old Trafford, and the Chelsea youth academy. It is all meant to be ready within a year and three months. Elsewhere in the town, there are plans for hotels, golf courses, ski slopes and entertainment centres.

Saverimutto continually repeats the mantra that Gabala will become the "Monte Carlo of Europe", which sounds odd both because the real Monte Carlo is already in Europe, and because the provincial Azeri town we are standing in seems anything but European, but the plans are impressive.

Adams will bring his wife to live in Gabala, and the three of his five children who are still of school age will also come out, along with a private tutor. He will be rewarded handsomely for his time in Azerbaijan; Saverimutto will not be drawn on figures but says that Adams' salary is "easily comparable" to a top Premier League managerial wage. But despite the money, and whatever the grandiose plans are for Gabala in future, right now the town certainly has an air of the godforsaken about it. Has Adams really thought this through? Was it a hard decision?

"Actually, it was very easy," he says. "It's an adventure. I feel like I've got a couple more projects in me. I had a long playing career, then I've been working with my charity for 10 years, and now this is the start of another new project.

"I took it [the idea] to Arsène [Wenger]. He knows I'm strong minded. It's like when I said I was going to retire – I'd made my decision and he's not going to tell me not to go." He says Wenger's career path is part of what inspired him to take the Gabala job. "I've got an example right there in front of me. Arsène was successful at Monaco, but then went off to work in the J-League."

Scouting is a bit of an adventure. Last weekend, Adams made the 200-mile journey to the far south of Azerbaijan, right on the border with Iran, to watch the mighty FC Lenkoren in action, while Stevens travelled to within touching distance of the front line in the still-simmering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia to see league leaders FC Karabakh in action.

On a trip without Adams into the town itself, the local fanbase is abuzz with the news of the new manager, even though they are not entirely sure who he is. "There were rumours in the local paper that he might be an English manager. He's famous, right? He won the World Cup I think?" said one. Dzhumshud Azizov, a 40-year-old fan who claims to have seen every home game since the club was founded five years ago, said the supporters will welcome Adams. When asked whether they believe that the club will be playing in the Champions League within a few years, they all laugh.

Later, Adams, Stevens and Saverimutto take me to the restaurant in Gabala's newly built hotel, where Adams will live with his family in one of the adjacent luxury cottages. The hotel, also owned by the Heydarov family, will serve as a base for regional bigwigs looking for luxury breaks; an 18-hole golf course and a ski-slope are both being built nearby. The decor in the hotel restaurant is definitely five-star, though the service and food leave rather a lot to be desired. Saverimutto sits at his laptop, making the final tweaks to a biography of Adams to hand out to Azerbaijani journalists at today's press conference.

"Tony Adams has won four English league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and a Uefa Cup Winners' Cup, and is only player in English football history to captain a successful title-winning side in three different decades," he reads out loud. "Perhaps you should add: 'The only trophy that Adams has never won but has always dreamt of is the Azerbaijani Premier League," I offer. Nobody laughs.

Adams fixes his piercing blue eyes on me and says firmly: "Let me tell you, it will sit very proudly with all my other trophies."

Azerbaijan v England

Azerbaijan's Premier League is ranked 38th in Europe by Uefa. The Premier League is ranked first.

Best Champions League performance Azerbaijan – Never passed second qualifying round. England – Winners three times.

Highest transfer fee paid Azerbaijan – £172,000, Oktay Derelioglu, A Sebatspor to K Lankaran (Dec 2004). England– £32.5m, Robinho, Real Madrid to Manchester City (Sept 2008).

Highest transfer fee received Azerbaijan – £1,300,000, Vagif Javadov, FK Karabakh to FC Twente, (Jan 2010). England – £80m, Cristiano Ronaldo, Man United to Real Madrid (July 2009)

Biggest stadium Azerbaijan – Tofig Bakhramov Stadium, 30,000. England – Old Trafford, 76,000

Star player Azerbaijan – Farid Guliev, FK Baku, value: £150,000. England – Wayne Rooney, Man United, value: £70m.

European places Azerbaijan - Champions (CL second qualifying round), Runners-up and third (Europa League). England - Champions, runners-up and third place (CL group stage), fourth place (CL third qualifiers), fifth, sixth, FA Cup and Carling Cup winners (Europa League).

The life of Adams

June 2002 Applied for managerial vacancy at League One side Brentford.

November 2003 Appointed Wycombe manager. Unable to prevent relegation to League Two that season, and, despite briefly leading the table, a loss of form resulted in a drop to 16th. Adams resigned in November 2004.

July 2005 Accepted trainee coaching role with Feyenoord, working with the youth team. Also had spell at Utrecht.

June 2006 Joined Portsmouth as assistant manager to Harry Redknapp. Finished ninth in Premier League and helped club win FA Cup in 2008.

October 2008 Takes charge at Fratton Park following Harry Redknapp's departure to Spurs. Despite a Uefa Cup draw with Milan, Adams struggled, picking up 10 points in 16 matches. Sacked in February 2009.

Kydd Boyle

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