Andy Ollerenshaw caught up with the iconic former Arsenal captain, on his recent pre-season trip to England with Gabala FC. It sounds like he's having a great time...
In the ancient Azerbaijan town of Qəbələ a football revolution is taking place. When Tony Adams, former captain of Arsenal and England, was handed a three year contract at Qəbələ Futbol Klubu (Gabala FC) in May 2010 he embarked on a project not only to build a team fit to challenge for the Azerbaijan Premier League title, but to build a club virtually from scratch. Gabala originated as Gol Goy in 1992 and moved to the city in 2005, taking on the city name in the process. With barely any history to speak of, Adams was asked to turn the club into a national icon, not an insignificant task when one considers that Azerbaijan cites its national sports as wrestling, backgammon and chess.
Gabala finished a credible seventh in Adams’ first year in charge and August 2011 will herald the start of an important second season for him and the club. Preparations for the new campaign included a historic pre-season tour of England, the first time a senior club team from the former Soviet Union territory has visited. In the space of ten days Gabala played against Barnet (Football League Two), Bishop’s Stortford (Conference North), St Albans City (Southern League Premier), Hayes & Yeading United and Luton Town (both Conference Premier).
I caught up with Adams before the Bishop’s Stortford game and he was quick to explain that 2011-12 will be a “big season” for Gabala. ”I think we are better than last year, hopefully [we will challenge] for the European places”. Winners of the Azerbaijan Premier League qualify for the UEFA Champions League whilst UEFA Europa League places are on offer for teams finishing 2nd and 3rd in the league and for the domestic cup winners. “I don’t think at this point we are ready to go to the top, I don’t think we are strong enough to go past Nefchi (Baku), who were champions last year, but I will be disappointed if we are not there or thereabouts for those [European] places”.
In the context of the clubs’ aims for next season, the importance of a pre-season tour of England - or pre-season ‘camp’ as Adams prefers to call it - could not be stressed enough. Adams and his backroom staff, including former Brighton, Tottenham and England midfielder Gary Stevens, relished the opportunity to improve the fitness of the squad and work on the cohesion of new players into the team against clubs that display the “English passion”. Gabala brought a squad of twenty-four over to England and most of the squad got at least 45 minutes in their first game at Barnet, which the hosts won with the only goal of the game. In the Bishop’s Stortford game it was unusual, for a pre-season friendly, that Gabala ended the game with the same starting line up, but with a game at St Albans the following day (which they won 3-2), Adams split his squad into two groups for the weekend. Over the period of the stay Adams was keen to give all squad members a chance to establish themselves in his plans. In their domestic league each team must field a minimum of three Azerbaijanis, and Adams has assembled a group mixed with locals and overseas players. Twelve different nationalities make up the squad but on show against Bishop’s Stortford it was Azerbaijan players in the majority, alongside Jamaica’s Deon Burton (ex-Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday), Scottish goalkeeper Graeme Smith, (ex-Motherwell goalkeeper) and Steve Olfers from The Netherlands.
Adams acknowledged that the speed of the game is much slower in Azerbaijan, with referees prone to penalise over-physical contact, and so he was keen to expose his players to the faster, more robust, English game. The match against Bishop’s Stortford ended goalless, a fairly even encounter with few clear cut chances; it was the trialist Smith who made the biggest impression in the Gabala goal. It was notable how technically adept the visitors were and more decisive finishing should have produced a win that their neat play just about deserved. Adams is looking to blend this sound technical ability with a higher tempo, something that has worked well in camp. He believes that if Gabala can take this style of play back to Azerbaijan then “no one’s going to live with us“. One doubts whether it will be as simple as that, with the likes of Qarabağ, Khazar Lankaran and a trio of Baku clubs (Inter, FK and AZAL) all feeling that they can also mount a serious challenge to Nefchi, yet Adams’ strength of conviction is admirable.
Part of that conviction may be well-founded if Gabala’s off-field plans are anything to go by. The construction of an impressive 14,000 seater stadium complex, a project reportedly costing $75m, is due to complete by the end of 2011 and the club is very much forging ties with the Gabala community and the surrounding Gabala Rayon. The club has a number of successful youth teams from U13s upward and the ongoing development of a football academy to cater for 130 youngsters is seen as key to the club’s future. Gabala also now operate an FITC (Football In The Community) project which has gone into more than 80 local schools and has funded new 3G pitches at three of those schools. Youth development facilities aren’t great in Azerbaijan so the new stadium complex is something that Gabala is understandably proud of. However, The Radars only attract crowds of around 200 to their home games - on the back of free entry to boot - so it is difficult to reconcile the building of such a large venue with the small level of local interest.
On that point Adams has always been keen to stress that, with the significant financial support from club owners (the large national company Gilan Holding), he is overseeing a period of “evolution not revolution”. Building a football brand within the community will not happen overnight. Evidence from Gabala’s visit to England suggests that Adams’ 3 year plan is still on track and he has not ruled out staying at Gabala beyond his current contract. Whatever the future has in store, the Englishman in Azerbaijan wants to leave behind “a team that challenges for the league every single year”. Adams exudes a real passion for this project, displaying a steely, focussed determination that epitomised his playing days. Gabala made a little history simply by pitching up on English shores, but if Adams’ strategy comes to fruition there will be a far more potent history in the making back home.
Andy is an author and feature writer, who has written for the likes of When Saturday Comes among others.