Leading your country or captaining Arsenal is not as easy as managing a lower-division team – at least judging from Tony Adams’ turbulent reign at Wycombe, writes Paul Lewis
There was general surprise when Wycombe Wanderers appointed Tony Adams as manager back in November 2003. There was a similar reaction when he walked out, 12 months into his first shot at football management. The ending was a messy affair. Adams had spent the previous weekend mulling over the latest defeat – 1-0 at home to Yeovil, a scoreline that had taken his Football League record with Wycombe to nine wins and 20 draws from 46 games. By Tuesday morning he had made up his mind, deciding the players would hear it first before a 9am training session. The news filtered back to the club offices and to the media. Adams switched off his mobile phone so the club were unable to contact him directly to confirm the reports. At around 1pm he released a press statement through his agent citing “personal reasons” as the cause of his departure, which was confirmed by a later meeting with a clearly furious chairman Ivor Beeks.
A year earlier, Tony Adams had been paraded by the Wycombe board as their latest attempt to find a new Martin O’Neill. Alan Parry, a director at the time, commented: “Tony is not the average up-and-coming manager. There is something very different about him.” Different he was.
Within a couple of weeks of Adams arriving, John Gorman, who had been caretaker manager after the sacking of Lawrie Sanchez, decided he didn’t want to be number two to a man with no managerial experience. Adams was now on his own and acting like a kid with a new toy. By the end of the season he had cleaned out 18 of the senior squad and also a fair chunk of the back-room staff. Adams did attract a number of good young players on loan, including Newcastle defender Steven Taylor and Aston Villa striker Luke Moore – the latter scoring a hat-trick against Grimsby as Wycombe briefly threatened to avoid relegation – but such players were not going to stay with a demoted team.
Running alongside Adams’ time as manager had been the saga of the Wycombe board’s attempt to convert the only true members’ club left in the Football League into a plc. According to the directors, Wycombe needed to generate new income to avoid going into administration. How a club previously known to be financially stable had amassed debts of more than £2 million by 2003 was never made clear, especially given that players’ wages were always kept as less than 40 per cent of total turnover and that rugby tenants London Wasps have paid £300,000 a year since moving to Wycombe in 2002. Adams promoted the move and championed his chairman: “The reason I am at the club is because of him. I believe in him. You’ve got to allow people to invest in their club.” A sufficient percentage of members were convinced by the arguments for change and on July 29 the Football League lost their last mutually owned club.
In fact, the projected investment failed to materialise. The initial share offer raised the legal minimum of £500,000. More than £100,000 of this would pay the legal fees involved in the conversion to a plc and another £130,000 had been set aside to pay off previous manager Lawrie Sanchez, sacked 14 months into a three-year contract. Extra funds promised for the manager were put on hold and a squad wage bill of roughly £1.5m for the 2003-04 season was slashed in half as Adams was given the task of returning Wanderers to Division Two before the end of his contract in the summer of 2006.
The season began well, however. Average gates held up and a trimmed-down squad went top following a win at Southend in early September. By the time of the defeat to Yeovil, less than two months later, the team had fallen to 17th place in the table, but were still only four points from a play-off place. A few supporters were getting impatient, but it was generally accepted that the rebuilding process would take time.
The disappointing aspect for many is that more than a month on, Adams has still to elaborate on the reason for his departure. Was he “too big” for Wycombe Wanderers? Hardly a week went by without an article on his progress in the national media. It was noticeable towards the end that such interviews regularly turned to lack of funds. The board claimed they had put no pressure on Adams for the downturn in results, but remarks about the lack of investment may have touched a raw nerve.
Some feel, however, that he simply underestimated the task. Twenty years at Highbury is no apprenticeship for dealing with players who are generally cast-offs. Within weeks of arriving Adams had publicly berated more or less every player in the squad. He went on to criticise their drinking and eating habits. If Adams contemplates returning to football, he might reflect that basic man-management is as at least as important as what happens in coaching sessions.
From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month