Unlike Gary Neville at Valencia, few will take pleasure in Tony Adams failing as manager of Granada, but there’s a bigger story than another English coach trying his luck in Spain and it is one not likely to end well.
The reports of Tony Adams’ first game in charge of Granada last Monday made for not unsurprisingly depressing reading. They spoke of a manager “flailing wildly” on the touchline, “powerless” to inspire a team “who could not understand him or one another” as they slumped to a miserable 3-0 home defeat against a mid-table Celta Vigo side composed of mostly second-string players. “Make it end!” ran the stark headline across the back page of one local newspaper.
Following the circuitous route of his post-playing days, that has seen him visit such far-flung outposts of the globe as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Tony Adams has pitched up in the beautiful Andalucian town as a patron saint of lost causes. Granada lie second from bottom in La Liga with six games remaining, salvation still a mathematical possibility, but of such unlikely proportions that there will be those calling for Adams to be the next manager of Arsenal if the Houdini act somehow manages to come to pass.
Not that the man himself would be harbouring such outlandish ambitions. His elevation to the Granada manager’s chair has the kind of accidental feel about it that saw Niall Quinn, club chairman at the time, appoint himself Sunderland manager over a decade ago only to see his side lose his first five games in charge and settle for once and for all the question of whether the genial Dubliner could ever be an effective dug-out presence.
It is 13 years now since Adams’ first ill-fated management venture at Wycombe and the intervening years have painted a portrait of a man willing to travel far and wide in search of adventure and a sense of purpose in life, yet not quite ready to give up that nagging dream that he might one day reign at the helm of a successful football club. At just 50, he will see no reason to make his peace with that reality just yet.
Adams arrived in Granada several weeks ago to conduct a root-and-branch audit of the club on behalf of its Chinese owners, never imagining that it would entail sacking the incumbent coach and taking on those duties himself. He insists that it is merely a temporary arrangement, not extending beyond the season’s end, yet it is hard to imagine it not rekindling at least some of that latent desire for the all-consuming privilege of club management. For a man not given to doing anything by half measures, it is an opportunity, if one that those of lesser nerve might run many miles from.
And yet, in another way, there is a sense of something calculating about it too. When Quinn took the Sunderland job all those years ago, he was clever enough to have a fail-safe option inbuilt into it. By insisting he didn’t have any long-term plans, that he was really only taking the job on sufferance, Quinn was buying a certain level of immunity from prosecution. He could take any amount of credit if things went well or fall back on the insurance card that he was behind the eight-ball to begin with. His reputation would not take a nosedive on account of it.
And so it is with Tony Adams. A part of him may well think that there’s nothing much to lose in his current situation and a hell of a lot to gain. Even if he fails to keep Granada in the Spanish top tier, he can still do enough that people salute him for his efforts, that they’ll at least acknowledge his bravery and his enduring capacity to never shirk a challenge. At the very least it might put him in the shop window as a fresh English campaign hoves into view. Who knows? A lot stranger things have happened.
In that sense, this isn’t close to a scenario of Gary Nevillesque proportions. While there are similarities in how they both came to be managers of La Liga clubs, Adams isn’t putting his coaching reputation on the line, or what remains of it, as Neville was doing when he accepted the Valencia poisoned chalice last season. Nor is anybody willing Adams to fail. There will be no outpouring of schadenfreude if and when his stint in Granada jolts to an end, no blizzard of media commentary detailing why he failed and why he was destined to be a failure to begin with.
Stretching back to his playing days, few ever deemed Adams destined to be a failure in management. It just seemed the perfect fit. A natural leader on the pitch, a man who had so publicly overcome his demons and spoke so calmly and lucidly about it. A man who even had a song written about him by the late Joe Strummer who, during concerts, praised the former Arsenal and England skipper for his courage and that was coming from a Chelsea fan (at least in those pre-Abramovich days).
But this kind of idle thinking, assuming too easily that character will seamlessly translate into effective management, is one reason why English coaching began to lag behind while a generation of capable managers, often slightly nerdy and eccentric in outlook (think Klopp, think Conte, think Marco Silva), was being nurtured in other countries. When Paul Merson absurdly rants about foreign coaches taking jobs that English coaches could easily fill, it is likely that his former skipper at Arsenal is one of those he has in mind.
It begs the question as to whether there is some Spanish version of Merson castigating the Granada hierarchy for turning to a foreigner in their hour of need, losing his rag live on television as another guy enters the scene who can’t possibly understand the Spanish way or get what La Liga is supposed to be all about. And just as he is taking a breath, the slightest of pauses, news flashes across the screen that – wait of it – Kieran Richardson and Nigel Reo Coker will be among the manager’s first signings for the club and he slumps across the desk, worn out and speechless. For once, words fail him. This is beyond unspeakable.
And yet, in another sense, it seems a bit unfair to castigate Adams for not speaking the language or understanding local customs when a grand total of four of Granada’s first-team squad happen to be native Spaniards. That suggests a bigger story at play here. A club acquired by a Chinese investment firm from a wealthy Italian family that has been so divested of its local flavour that the first thing the new owners do when seeking to reverse the ongoing decline is turn to an Englishman. What kind of poem do you imagine Federico Garcia Lorca might write about that?
Before selling to DDMC last year for a reported £37m, the Pozzo family of Udine had owned and run Granada for seven years. Of course, few in Watford will hear ill spoken of the Pozzo’s under whose watch the club has become a rather dull but settled fixture in the Premier League with realistic designs of pushing on and fighting for a place in Europe next season. A result of good planning and wise decision-making, they will tell you. The epitome of a very well run club.
If you are a Granada fan, though, you might not have such a benign view of the Pozzo family. In the triangle of clubs they owned, also incorporating Udinese, Granada was effectively the runt of the litter, the one that bore the brunt of the rather strange labyrinth of loan deals often arranged between the three (all entirely legitimate and above board it must be stressed), an apparent pawn in a wider game until they had outrun their usefulness and became an asset to be sold off to the highest bidder, in this case Chinese firm DDMC.
Along with Granada, DDMC also owns Chongqing Lifan in its native country. It is also said to be on the verge of purchasing a club in both Belgium and England with the express purpose of creating an impressive portfolio of global wealth and power through football. And so it goes in the modern corporate football climate, clubs being amassed like a string of expensive thoroughbreds, to be enjoyed until the legs or the novelty wears out, then sold on often for a handsome profit, in no worse a state than when they were acquired if supporters are fortunate.
No doubt some will argue that Granada did okay under its previous Italian owners. Two years after the Pozzo family took over, Granada gained promotion and have remained in La Liga ever since. Still, consider the legacy that Tony Adams is currently struggling with: a first-team squad containing 17 different nationalities with 13 players on loan deals. In fact, of the 106 players comprising the first two teams and the juvenile section, only 44 are actually owned by the club. Many of the rest are still actually owned by the Pozzo’s, a hugely debilitating situation that is expected to entail lengthy legal disputes before it is resolved.
That is the grim reality facing them. Right now, they are staring relegation in the face, guided by an Englishman with a dodgy track record in management, and somehow it feels as if it is the least of their worries.