Tony Adams' grand plans for Azerbaijan football club
Former Arsenal and England star Tony Adams on his future role at a football club in Azerbaijan
By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Gabala, Azerbaijan
Tony Adams, the former England and Arsenal defender, has accepted an offer to manage a little known football club in Azerbaijan, the BBC can reveal.
Tony Adams is not a name you would readily associate with the town of Gabala. It is not exactly world famous for its football.
Gabala FC is sixth - out of 12 - in the Azeri national league in a country better known for oilfields than football pitches.
Club bosses have been trying to keep Adams' appointment a closely-guarded secret. But now the towering 6ft 3in (190cm) ex-England defender has put the town on the map.
They've given me a clean plate here to build a football club and you don't get that opportunity in the UK
"I was looking for a project. I am too young to retire," he tells the BBC during an exclusive tour of the Gabala training ground - the first by journalists since his appointment.
Young players in fluorescent bibs dart left and right during warm-ups, their occasional shouts reverberating around the ground.
"This one was very rare. I just thought it was a magnificent project to get my teeth into. They've given me a clean plate here to build a football club and you don't get that opportunity in the UK," he says.
'Evolution, not revolution'
Adams, 43, has just signed a three-year contract, taking the managerial reins of its club, nurturing a squad from the grass roots and overseeing a football academy.
Supported by assistant coach, Gary Stevens, the former Spurs player who recently coached at Charlton Athletic, the two men aim to turn the ailing club into a national icon.
The club's infrastructure is basic, consisting of one all-weather synthetic pitch and two grass pitches. But Adams is realistic.
"First things first," he says. "Realistically to win the league in three years is achievable. It's evolution not revolution. I'm not going to throw the baby out with the bath-water here. I'm building a club," he said.
We welcome the great Tony Adams; we can now be very proud to have such a great footballer as our coach
Tarzen Jahangirov Gabala midfielder
There is a mix of Azeri and foreign players at the club at the moment. According to law, at least three Azeri nationals must be on the pitch during any official match.
With a wink, he tells me of his idea to help a Georgian player change his nationality to get him into the squad.
There is no doubt that he is relishing the challenge. Adams seems confident and comfortable in his new role, standing on the sidelines during a training session on a warm, humid afternoon, joking with some of the players.
"I want this to be the 'Tony Adams club'.
"I've been to Europe. I've coached in Holland. This is different. This club doesn't have history. We hopefully will be able to build the history here."
Adams is not the first big name to be lured to a footballing backwater by a club aiming for great things in an oil-rich state.
Last year the World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari took charge of Uzbekistan's top team.
Adams is currently staying in a luxury five-star hotel, but has been provided with a modern holiday home in the resort and an apartment in Baku. He says he will soon be joined by his wife and youngest children.
Other contract specifics are sketchy.
Tony Adams is a legend in the English game
In a country criticised by the West for high-level corruption, financial details are often kept behind tightly-sealed doors.
Adams' salary has not been disclosed (though we are told it is around the level of a "normal premiership manager"), and the club is owned by a large holding company called Gilan, about which few details are known.
The club president is Tale Heydarov, the son of the influential emergencies minister, Kamaladdin Heydarov.
The family is rumoured to have close ties to the Azeri President, Ilham Aliyev.
And it has been claimed that Gilan is owned by Mr Heydarov senior - though this is denied by those close to him.
It is unclear how much Tale Heydarov has personally invested in the club. At the last minute, he declines to give an interview.
However, in March this year, he told me from his mansion in Baku that "the wealth of Azerbaijan has helped football, because it means there are sufficient funds to at least financially support it in Azerbaijan".
"The federation in Azerbaijan is supported by [the state oil company] Socar. In that sense it has helped to build the necessary infrastructure and to create more incentives for young [Azeris]," he adds.
Poorer Azeris complain that the state is frittering oil money away, and using it to line the pockets of a closely guarded elite.
This has done little to dissuade the club's chief executive, Alastair Saverimutto, also an Englishman.
"Those sorts of words do appear from time to time. But you choose to do what you choose to do. I'm running a football club based on reality. Often that reality does overlap with corruption, but nothing to do with Gabala FC."
All I can do is make guarantees that money is not a problem
Alastair Saverimutto Gabala FC chief executive
Mr Saverimutto says a $75m (£50m) stadium complex will be built by the end of August 2011, though again, final details of the costs are under wraps.
"All I can do is make guarantees that money is not a problem," he says, smiling.
The local town centre contains a few basic shops, fruit stalls and traditional tea rooms - mainly full of middle-aged men.
"I know Tony Adams. He's English," says one local bus driver. "It's good for our town that he's here. Soon everyone will know. It will bring tourists here."
It is unclear how much the revamped, multi-million dollar club will change their lives.
Either way, no-one here disputes that the club has a long way to go to achieve success. And Adams must overcome his critics. He has limited managerial experience.
"I've not yet got going. I was with [Inter Milan manager Jose] Mourinho in Milan before Christmas. He said you've got to forget all your playing stuff and concentrate on your coaching. He said 'It's a completely different job'."
But Adams says he is in for the long haul.
"I think I'm going to do five, 10 [years] here," he says.
But the remote location of Gabala is a reminder of how much Adams has distanced himself from the English Premiership, where he used to manage Portsmouth FC.
He has not only done so in football terms. He is also a long way from home.
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