With the first half of his career over, footballer Tony Adams is developing an arsenal of intellectual skills to succeed in the second. Matthew Baker reports
It has been a difficult transitional year for Tony Adams. The switch from internationally acclaimed footballer to learned scholar was never likely to be straightforward, but the former England and Arsenal captain's decision to start his retirement by becoming a sport-science undergraduate at Brunel University wasn't so much a choice, he says, as a necessity.
Adams has never tried to hide his management ambitions, yet he is the first to admit that he is a long way from being sufficiently qualified to do as good a job as Arsene Wenger, his former manager and mentor at Arsenal.
"I need to be well prepared, and this is my learning programme," he says.
"I've got the experience but I need the knowledge. There's no British Premiership manager with a sport science degree. As far as I know, only Wenger has one."
A self-confessed former alcoholic, Adams' honesty and willingness to put his head above the parapet and risk his reputation has won him many admirers in recent years. But he is well aware that the decision to go back to school is equally risky territory for a footballer who admits to having neglected his education until now.
"Going into a class full of students is not easy for me," he readily concedes. "It's been very humbling, in fact. But I'm here to learn about sport science, so ultimately you have to leave your pride and ego behind.
"It's humbling because I was a decent footballer and now I'm having to recognise that I'm very average in some subjects. I have to ask young members of the class to explain A-level maths and biology concepts to me. I suppose what I bring to the group is the applied stuff in terms of experience."
But despite his non-academic background, Adams' thirst for education is as big as the accomplished defender's renowned appetite for taking on the world's best strikers.
He has already studied anatomy, physiological control systems, cardiovascular systems, energy transfer, Marxism, social division, race and ethnicity in sport, biomechanics and psychology in his first year, and he says he's enjoying making up for lost time.
"I missed out on education the first time round," he says. "I was working hard to make it as a top-level footballer when most kids are out there getting their education, so it's satisfying to be able to finally do this."
Even so, he admits to benefiting from a forward-thinking apprenticeship scheme. As an Arsenal apprentice in the 1980s, his education officer was Kate Hoey, who went on to serve as minister for sport. "They were one of the first clubs to make education a part of the apprenticeship," he explains.
But it wasn't until Wenger took over from Bruce Rioch as manager of the club in 1996 that Adams started to take note of a new modus operandi that he claims represents the future of football. "Everything Arsene does is underpinned by sport science," he explains.
The Arsenal captain's introduction to biomechanics, sport psychology and physiology was a defining moment. "Once you understand the fundamentals of sport science, you view the game differently," he says.
"The game's moved on and it's time to take it up a level. I can't understand why so many chairmen, when they're appointing managers, just go for people who've been playing football for 15 years. It makes me laugh.
It's a completely different job. If we always do what we always did, we will always get what we always got - and that's where we're at with a lot of English managers. Sport science is the future, but a lot of managers are still resistant to it."
Since his retirement at the end of Arsenal's double-winning season last year, five Nationwide clubs have inquired about Adams' services as a manager. He turned them all down. "Unless I get an offer from someone like Manchester United or Paris St Germain, I'll be studying for another two years," he says.
The fact that he's rejected approaches is evidence, according to one of his tutors, that Adams wants to achieve highly in this field and, in the same way as he did in his playing career, is putting in the hard yards to achieve his managerial goals.
"Tony has blended in well," says Costas Karageorghis, senior lecturer in sport psychology at Brunel University.
"He's a tenacious student who listens intently and regularly participates.
At the moment, he's immersing himself in applied sport-science literature, and at some point in the future I've no doubt that he'll use that on a professional team."
Adams' enthusiasm for his subject is obvious. Rarely does he give an interview these days without slipping in sport-science references or demonstrating a keen scientific analysis of the game.
He's recently finished reading Moving with the Ball , a social history of the migration of professional footballers. He's also keen to tell me how he's putting his knowledge of biomechanics into practice. "I went skiing for the first time recently and I really had no idea how to approach it, but because we'd been studying biomechanics I simply applied the knowledge.
Within three days, I was skiing perfectly. I just put a bit of science into it and it became easy."
Like Adams, Karageorghis believes that football is beginning to wake up to the benefits of sport science and says his most famous student is grabbing the opportunity to learn how to deliver scientific principles in football.
"Tony's learning a lot that he can use as a manager," he says. One of the areas that Karageorghis says has been of particular interest to Adams is arousal control. "For every player there is an optimum level of arousal that's associated with peak performance. If you get to know an athlete's individual zone of optimum function, you can increase the possibility of their performing at their best. This is a particularly useful skill for taking penalties, where there's huge perceived external pressures on a player."
Another area that Adams has shown interest in is how team dynamics can create motivation, leadership and cohesion. "Research suggests that using the experience of group goal-setting to involve players more is very effective in that it gives them a sense of autonomy and ownership and engenders trust and loyalty," Karageorghis explains.
Although his tutor insists that Adams is viewed as just another student, he admits that the presence of one of England's favourite footballers at Brunel has had quite an effect on the other undergraduates. "At first, all the students were excited about having him around," he says. "But now they just accept him as 'one of the lads'."
Brunel's sport science department is not exactly unfamiliar with famous sports students, however. The Olympic gold-medal-winning boxer Audley Harrison completed his BSc in sport science and business studies there, and the gold-medal-winning rower James Cracknell is a former sport psychology graduate of the university.
Adams is happy to follow in the wake of such decorated company, and he says that now that he can no longer play because of knee problems he is enjoying the altogether "different pleasure of learning all the physiological, psychological and biological angles of the game".
Recently Adams had lunch with Terry Venables, Martin O'Neill and George Graham to talk about management, and Karageorghis is confident that his student will soon be joining their elevated ranks.
"I'm sure many more footballers will start to follow Tony's pathway through education before they enter management," he says. "The combination of Tony's experiences as a professional player and the knowledge he's gaining now will place him in an optimal position to operate at the highest level."
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