Chinese Super League 2016

‘I didn’t think I would make 30’: Arsenal legend Tony Adams reflects on his storied career as he begins new adventure in China

The former England captain turns 50 next month and has just taken up a post at Chongqing Lifan in the fashionable Chinese Super League

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 3:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 4:21pm

Tony Adams turns 50 next month, and admits that, at one stage of his life, he wasn’t even sure that he’d live to see his 30th birthday.

His struggles with alcohol more than two decades ago were the stuff of tabloid headlines before the former England captain straightened himself out to set up his own charity to help athletes overcome addiction.

Now, as he gets settled in as sport director of Chinese Super League club Chongqing Lifan FC, the Arsenal legend says he is full of optimism and gratitude for the latest chapter of a remarkable career that takes him to Asia for the first time.

“I am really happy to be in Chongqing to experience another new, exciting adventure,” Adams said.

“I have been looking around for opportunities for a while now, and I have had a fantastic reception here in Chongqing. The fans are very knowledgeable about football.”

After six years in Azerbaijan with Gabala FK as manager, then Sporting Director, Adams seemed poised for an emotional return to Arsenal when he took over as under-18 coach in early July after the departure of his former teammate Thierry Henry. But, as he explained, it was never intended to be a permanent move, despite reports to the contrary.

“I said to [Arsenal head of academy] Andries Jonker that I would help out with the U18s,” he said. “But it was only for a month, in between jobs, for free,” he said.

Adams had been eyeing opportunities in Asia for the past couple of years – he was linked to head coaching positions at two Southeast Asian nations and one Japanese club – but his move to China at the end of July came after a meeting with Chongqing officials at Euro 2016. They were interested in having the four-time English title winner help transform their mid-table Chinese Super League (CSL) club.

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“Sir Alex Ferguson once said ‘Don’t pick your club, pick your owner’,” Adams said. “I met the president of the company, which manages the club, at the Euros. I was impressed by his humility, and I felt he was someone that I could work for.”

For the past decade, Chongqing have bounced between the top two divisions of Chinese football, and currently sit in 10th position in the 16-team league. But they have enormous potential, given their impressive Olympic Sports Centre home ground and the sheer size of the fan base. Last season, their average home crowd was 37,595.

With a metro population of 30 million, Chongqing is the largest city in southwest China, and more than three times bigger than London. Yet, so many Premier League fans would never have heard of it, let alone be able to place it on a map.

Adams is living in a five-star hotel in the centre of the city, about two kilometres from Chongqing’s training ground. Since his arrival at the end of July, the club have produced some inconsistent results, under South Korean head coach Chang Woe-Ryong.

After a tough 2-1 away win at Beijing Gouan on August 12, they fell 5-4 at home to mid-table Guangzhou R&F in a wild goalfest on August 21. Given that Chongqing’s 40 goals conceded in 23 games is the worst in the CSL, Adams’ defensive expertise will come in handy before the season ends in November.

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“Chongqing is a huge challenge, but a challenge that I think I can achieve, with a bit of time, patience, and taking it step by step,” he said.

“I would like, over the next three to five years, to make Lifan a stable, top half of the table, Super League team. I have already caused waves in the infrastructure, but there’s a long way to go.”

Chinese football is becoming increasingly sprinkled by former English Premier League identities, on and off the field. Last weekend, ex-Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini was appointed head coach of Hebei China Fortune FC. Sven-Goran Eriksson has been working in China since 2013, and his goalkeeping coach at Shanghai SIPG is ex-Tottenham stalwart, Ian Walker.

Lifan’s squad doesn’t boast the likes of ex-Europe stars Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez or Hulk, all of whom have joined rival CSL clubs in the last few months, but lesser known imports, including Argentine striker Emmanuel Gigliotti and Croatian defender Goran Milovic. Recruitment, clearly, will be a priority for Adams, ahead of the 2017 season.

Moving to China may mean a culture shock for many, but not for Adams, who has travelled extensively since leaving Portsmouth after a short stint as manager in Feb. 2009. His half a dozen in years with Gabala in Azerbaijan were the perfect boot camp for an Englishman exploring new frontiers in football.

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“Gabala was a remote, little village in the Caucasus, and that experience has helped me a great deal,” he explained. “I’ve found that staying open to different cultures, and not forcing your opinions on other people, goes along way.

“Chongqing has restaurants with western food and shops, so no problem living here. It helps that their fans are the best in the whole of China, respectful to the team and coach, and cheer in great numbers.”

Like John Barnes or Alan Shearer, Adams’ broad appeal connects different eras of English football, with a high profile that shows no sign of fading, more than a decade after his Premier League heyday. Few Chinese fans have ever travelled to England to watch a game, but many are aware of the bronze statue built in Adams’ honour outside the North Bank of Emirates Stadium.

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“It was great, going back to help out with Arsenal over the summer, and it really didn’t feel like I had never been away. Hopefully, I pray that one day I will help out with the first team.”

On turning 50 on October 10, Adams gets a sense of perspective when he reflects on his brush with death in Azerbaijan, soon after his 49th birthday last year.

After a routine workout, Adams felt intense chest pain. An angiogram revealed a severely blocked artery, and he underwent an emergency operation. He’s fine now, but determined to make the most of every day, as he builds from the bottom up in China.

“I know full well that without the brilliance of Dr. Uzeyir Rahimov and his medical team in Baku, I would not be here today,” he said.

“But then, again, I didn’t think I was going to make 30 years old, so it’s all a bonus really.”

Former SCMP columnist Jason Dasey is the Asia-based senior editor of ESPN FC