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After Wenger Part Five: The Return of the Prodigal Son

By Robert Exley

Continuing our series on potential successors to Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger may well be the only person in top level football christened with a name that closely resembles that of the club he manages, however for many there was only one ‘Mr Arsenal’. He made 668 appearances for the club, which is a historical tally bettered only by David O’Leary. TA was also Arsenal’s youngest captain, and our longest serving captain, leading out the side from February 1988 until his retirement in May 2002, as well as our most successful to boot, winning four league titles, three FA Cups and a European Cup Winners Cup. The pressure on such a young captain thrust into thick of it, however, took its toll off the field; Adams was sentenced to four months imprisonment for a drink driving charge as a result of crashing his car into a garden wall near the A127 in Rayleigh in Essex during the summer of 1990. When breathalysed he was found to be twenty seven times the legal limit. In 1996 he admitted to being an alcoholic on the eve of Arsene Wenger’s appointment at Highbury, though in the years between prison and rehab, there had also been a fire extinguisher incident in the Hornchurch branch of Pizza Hut with Ray Parlour, and the occasion when Adams fell down the stairs of a North London nightspot, requiring 29 stitches in 1993. In typical Adams fashion, though, with banded head and stitches he bravely headed a goal against Ipswich the following Saturday in an FA Cup Quarter Final, the game which spawned the classic chant ‘when Tone goes up to lift the FA Cup, mind the stairs’ – which he duly did over two months later along with the League Cup and mastered the stairs perfectly. However safely holding his team-mate aloft after the final whistle proved a tougher gig for our very own Captain Marvel!

Could the playing great become a managerial legend?

Big Tone first came to Arsenal in 1980 as a youth, making his debut in 1983 four weeks after his 17th birthday in home defeat against Sunderland in the dying days of Terry Neill’s reign. The tall, skinny youngster quickly adopted the nickname ‘Rodders’ on account of his physical likeness to Nicholas Lyndhurst’s character from Only Fools and Horses; however that’s largely where the similarity ended. Where, as Boycie once remarked ‘Mickey Mouse wears a Rodney Trotter wristwatch’ and Rodney was often in the shadow of his older brother, our very own Rodders was very much a born leader of men, ordering about experienced defenders ten years his senior. However, on the pitch he was at times prone to youthful over-exuberance such as calling a miked up David Ellery a ‘cheat’ and his two-fingered response to QPR fans as Arsenal pulled back a one goal deficit just weeks before he was sent down for a spell at Chelmsford prison. As Big Tone turned 30 and Arsenal turned to a bookish academic to manage the side, Adams turned over a new leaf and became slightly embourgeoised in the process – taking a greater interest in education while also learning to play the piano in his new found spare time after quitting the drink. Wenger’s new training methods also allowed Adams’ career an Indian summer. He played right into his mid-thirties.

In the nine years since Adams left Arsenal he has been trying to find the secure footballing home that Highbury had been for 22 years of his footballing career. First off he spent twelve months at Wycombe. He then briefly coached at Feyenoord and Utrecht in Holland. The next three years were passed alongside Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth – he briefly took over the reins after Harry left for Spurs - and now Adams is currently earning his living in the footballing outpost of Azerbaijan. There’s no doubt, however, that the prodigal son wants to return home, as Tone states of his time in Azerbaijan ‘I’m developing these skills so I can use them at the highest level. I would probably only take one job in England – Arsenal. I need to win things’.

The Case In Favour of Tony Adams
There’s no doubt that if Tony Adams got the call from Arsenal to return home he would walk all the way from Azerbaijan. and for many his return would be of great sentimental value. Also, at club and international level Adams has the experience of working under some of the greatest coaches and managers in the history of the game, such as Don Howe, George Graham, Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Harry Redknapp and Arsene Wenger. Perhaps some of the qualities of that group may have rubbed off on him over time. Also, a quote here from an Alex Ferguson interview (at 1.34) states a truism with regard to what makes a player able to transfer his skills to management. Great managers tend to be those who were not spectacularly good as a player and had to earn respect within in the game, their ability to help other people’s talent in some way relates to this experience of their playing days. In Alex Ferguson’s own words ‘Adams is not a stylish player, but a good organiser, good defender, good concentration and a leader’

People often forget how greatness as a player did not come easy to Tony Adams. It actually was the result of a lot of hard work. Tony needed three years, from his debut in 1983, to establish himself as a first team regular at Arsenal. Prior to this he was behind Martin Keown and Tommy Caton in the pecking order to partner David O’Leary. In 1986/87 he won the PFA Young Player of the Year, though twelve months on from that he took much of the flak for England’s first round departure at Euro 88, and for Marco Van Basten’s hat-trick for the Dutch against England. A further twelve months after that he was dropped by England in favour of both Des Walker and Mark Wright, had to endure the hideous donkey ears Daily Mirror back page of April 1989, as well as copycat ‘Donkey’ chants up and down the country. Adams had also been omitted from the Italia 90 and Euro 92 squads and it had taken until as late as 1992/93 for the rest of the footballing world to cotton on to the idea that Adams’s strengths would be indispensible to the national side. Tony could be considered as one of Europe’s top central defenders, as opposed to merely an effective and whole-hearted Arsenal defender. This quality of self-belief in the face of adversity, coupled with Tony’s leadership qualities on the pitch, make it seem baffling that success as a manager has thus far proved to be elusive.

An example of how Adams had aided his fellow players came in France ’98 when David Beckham faced a wave of public fury for his sending off against Argentina. Becks had gone on record as stating that Adams had been totally supportive after the near lynch mob reaction to his wrongdoing. This was in stark contrast to Hoddle’s treatment of Beckham throughout the tournament, which Adams in his autobiography had criticised as humiliating the young and up and coming England star. Becks himself also made the comparison in treatment stating that Big Tone ‘came and sat down with me afterwards because I was sat just outside the changing-room. He was brilliant. I will remember that because I needed it at the time’. Hoddle in contrast ‘did not actually speak to me after the game, not at all’. Also, a Daily Telegraph article on the eve of Big Tone’s retirement from the international scene in 2001 stated that Steven Gerrard had been ‘a nervous figure in the dressing-room before his international debut until Adams sat down next to him and spoke quietly of how highly Gerrard was rated, how good he must be simply to be chosen. Adams laughs off the significance of such gestures with a playful "I'm just a caring human being!" but the memory remains strong within a grateful Gerrard.

Because Adams needed a great deal of character and self-belief to establish himself as one of Europe’s top defenders, Big Tone may well have enough in reserve to one day establish himself as a decent manager. In his current role he is holed up in a remote Azerbaijan town with a population of 13,000. According to a Daily Mail article last December, ‘The lack of distractions means Adams can immerse himself in football. Afternoons and evenings are spent watching matches on his laptop with his assistant (former Spurs defender Gary Stevens) and on the Sunday we were with him - their day off - they went to three games. Adams is developing an almost absurd knowledge of world football, putting in the hours to improve his chances of making things work’.

The Case Against Tony Adams
Sadly, as much as his record on the field speaks for itself, so too does his record in management. Tony spent ten days in an observational capacity at Inter in 2010 with Jose Mourinho. Mourinho, while undoubtedly a managerial legend, would not have been fit to lace TA’s boots during his career as a centre-half. In conversation with Mourinho, the Special One advised Big Tone to ‘forget all your playing stuff and concentrate on your coaching… It's a completely different job' and for Tony Adams it has had completely different results. In his first season in management he had relegated Wycombe Wanderers to the bottom tier of English football and when in the hot seat at Portsmouth he arguably set them on the current road to ruin on the pitch that they presently remain. In mitigation he would state that both sides were cash strapped, that he was on a hiding to nothing. However, currently out in Azerbaijan with a side of wealthy backers, even though his stated aim is to one day reach the first phase of the Champions League, his side Gabala finished seventh in a National League which only has twelve sides.

In Adams’ defence Gabala has an overall population that wouldn’t fill a quarter of the Ashburton Grove Stadium and it is early days for a complete overhaul of a small club that Tony believes will take around a decade to completely transform. However, on taking the Gabala job he stated that ‘'I've got the power here, which is what you don't get in England. Over there the players have the power and CEOs and chairmen have destroyed coaching as a career with continual changes. Here, I'm in a position of power and can do whatever I want. Not many in England can do that. Generally it is the lunatics running the asylum’. Therefore there is a lot to suggest that rather than learning about the game out in Azerbaijan in order to return to England one day, Adams is merely seeking refuge from the harsh realities of what English football actually is in the 2010s, for something akin to the demagogic figure within the club that managers like George Graham enjoyed during Adams’ formative years in the game back in the 1980s.

Final Assessment: 2 out of 10. On the basis of Tony Adams’ current record in management, it seems unlikely that an Arsenal fanbase starved of success over the last six years will be even remotely satisfied by Tony Adams taking the hot seat from Arsene Wenger. However, there is a kind of coach throughout the history of the English game – think Don Howe, Peter Taylor or Brian Kidd - that for some reason or other seem to reap far more in the way of success as the number two than they ever did when their opportunity to take charge arrived. Quite possibly Tony Adams, with relative success as Harry Redknapp’s number two at Portsmouth, is in this mould and with Arsene Wenger currently lacking a prominent number two, or anything in the way of defensive tactics and coaching, there is quite clearly a Tony Adams shaped hole in Arsenal’s backroom staff. In 1996, Arsene Wenger took our captain under his wing and helped save Tony Adams from the excesses of his own personality. Fifteen years on Tony Adams could be well suited to return the favour to Mr Wenger. In fact Big Tone may well be Wenger’s last soft drink in the E******* Stadium’s last chance saloon bar.

16th July 2011

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User Comment and Reaction

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Kevin Kong  9:02am 16th Jul 2011

Tony Adams manage Arsenal-You have got to be kidding- if you thought Wengers mollycoddling was bad just wait till Big Tone has all the players taking piano lessons and reading the Celestine Prophecy. The man is a fruitcake.. - Post No. 11041


Hamish  9:12am 16th Jul 2011

Good summary Robert. As much as I'd love to see Tone back at Arsenal (and I think you're right that as a number two would probably be his best position), I just can't see it happening anytime soon. Wenger has too big an ego to allow someone who would be adored by the fans to take any of the plaudits which may arrive as a result of having a better organised defence. - Post No. 11042


MarkH  9:45am 16th Jul 2011

Bryan Robson never transfered his on pitch skills to the management side of things,and it is still to be proven if Tony can ever do so. I would however,love to see him back at Arsenal in a coaching/number 2 role, along with a few other ex players.Martin Keown for one. We will never know,but I think that with Tony in the duggout,we may not have witnessed some of the capitulations we saw last season. - Post No. 11043


au revoir wenger  11:05am 16th Jul 2011

have to agree with kevin kong adams is mr arsenal but sadly he is not all the ticket - Post No. 11045


Mark  12:00pm 16th Jul 2011

tony and martin in the dug out as part of team arsenal but not the managers would make us so much more competitive. harry keens clive allen, les ferdinand and tim sherwood closeby and then theres jamie. it makes their players know what tottenham is all about whereas arsenal have preferred to eradicate the past and rewrite the history books so as not to actually be proud of our hard to beat streak all arsenal teams used to have. this is what happens when dicators gain absolute power - Post No. 11047


Respect  15:21pm 16th Jul 2011

im so pleased our manager is spending so much time citing fifa rules about talking about other peoples players and fifa rules about financing instead of doing his job ! listening to him complain about mancini's comments re nasri just shows what a complete loser wenger really is ! - Post No. 11053


Ronster  15:45pm 16th Jul 2011

Wenger's ego wouldn't sanction big Tone's return,especially after Adams' observations last month in the Daily Mirror.TA admitted he could never envisage working under Wenger because he would want a bigger say in coaching methods.Crucially he also added:''No disrespect to Arsene,but George's (Graham) coaching ability,defensive structure and technical ability,for me,is far better.'' - Post No. 11054


Help  17:20pm 16th Jul 2011

if 60,000 people all put in £100 thats £6m - is that enough to pay off wenger and ask him to go away and leave our club alone ? - Post No. 11055


Big Dave  12:47pm 17th Jul 2011

The fact that most people who have met T.A. say's that he's as mad as a box of frogs does'nt seem to bother you. Sorry mate but no way do I want to see Tony as manager - Post No. 11063


DNA  17:05pm 17th Jul 2011

Falling short has become an Arsenal tradition, an integral part of their DNA, like Liam Brady or Charlie George. Falling short is what they do: attractively, entrancingly, infuriatingly, inevitably. And their manager dusts off his explanations, offering them in banal appeasement, like a string of empty catchphrases. - Post No. 11065


Andreas  23:25pm 17th Jul 2011

Think Robert Exley is slightly harsh on TA's managerial career. When he took over at Wycombe they were already rock bottom and some 12 points from being safe. Whilst he shored up the defence, they could not score enough. When he took over at portsmouth, half the team was sold from under his nose as their financial state became nore apparant. At Gabala. Whilst he did finish 7th, that was due to a slow start and at the half way point when the league gets split in half,they were 7th. In the final half of the season they won 8 of the remaining 11 games finishing on 51 points which would have seen them finish 4th if the league wasn't split. As a 1st team coach he assisted 'arry to winning his first and only major trophy. If wenger was smart he'd bring him in as a coach, then see how he develops. Who'd ever have thought ally mccoist would be a manager, let alone manager of Rangers - Post No. 11067


Das Boot  8:46am 18th Jul 2011

Wenger will not sign anyone else. The BS has started, and the spin is being prepared. I fully expect AFC to begin the camgaign with no new rearguard additions. As a footnote: Forbes announcing Arsenal being 7th as a world sports franchise is what they(power brokers) all covet. Interesting that this year's pre-season tour has been to China - potential market there to extract. I think Gervinho can be a big shirt seller too. I read that the defence *****d up for the opening goal in the 1-1 draw in China. Expect more of the same soon, coupled with tippy-tappy tripe. Yummy.., very palatable. White flag football-NOT ARSENAL YOU HEAR! - Post No. 11068


Ron  9:35am 18th Jul 2011

A lot of words, but there is NO case for TA to boss a Club like Arsenal. No record as a Coach sadly as yet and as such a job like Arsenal isnt for him. Its just sentiment to suggest there is a case. He needs a solid grounding as a No 2 for several years at a decent ranked Club so to gain the recognition that being the top man is for him. To even contemplate him him as a successor is pretty mad to be honest. Sorry. - Post No. 11070


Tiger  13:07pm 18th Jul 2011

I think another factor we need to look at when we try to look for Wenger's successor is - will this manager be able to do better with the financial resources that we have? If you look at the final standings of last season - the top 3 has spent more money than us and lost money. Without billionaire benefactors - will Chelsea and Man City be able to beat Arsenal? Perhaps Manure can do it, because they do make money sometimes albeit having a very huge debt. But would the best manager in the world (or even Ferguson) be able bring glory to Arsenal with the financial constraints we have? OK lets talk about Arsenal's financial constraints. People talk about the club having 60M or 40M to spend this season. Really? Can we spend 40M, 60M every year like the other 3? Liverpool can't, Newcastle can't, Leeds can't, Portsmouth can't. I mean look at Arsenal FC 's annual profits - do we make 60M, 40M every year? What new revenue will make up for the rising player cost and wages. I believe the club has been trying their level best to build a self sustaining model (and for others to follow), but with all this "financial doping" and the recent Etihad Stadium "fiasco", I am inclined to believe that Arsenal should find a multi-billionaire sugar daddy - then any above average manager can replace Wenger. I am torn about this because than I feel football is lost forever to me. - Post No. 11078


Samu Tava  17:53pm 20th Jul 2011

There is, but one final throw of the dice, and the best of them all. The Flying Dutchman. Unfortunately, why would he be bothered to break with his nice quiet retired lifestyle for the cutthroat wolves of the English press and overpaid, overrated, lazy, greedy mercenaries posing as Arsenal FC footballers? - Post No. 11134


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