Tony Adams: A Life of Contrasts

Tony Adams

Bonfire Night 1983, and a fourth home defeat of the season – sixth in total – leaves the home crowd disgruntled in the extreme. As they file away into the evening air, no doubt looking forward to fireworks and a bonfire, many are probably wondering if rather than setting fire to a Guy Fawkes effigy they wouldn’t be better off setting their club’s manager alight instead.

‘And who was that lanky kid making his debut in the centre of defence? Didn’t think much of him, did you?’

Fast forward eighteen-and-a-half years and 503 league games later, that gangly centre-back finally bows out. His final competitive game comes in that year’s FA Cup Final and following that, there is just the small matter of his testimonial and then a final wave to the crowd.

It’s a sad day, but it all had to end sometime for Tony Adams.

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In a career that lasted the better part of two decades, Tony Adams underwent many transformations in both his personal and professional lives, and in doing so turned himself into a role model for many people throughout society.

It was not an easy road or a simple struggle that Adams would face along the way, but this article aims to have a look back through his career and in particular the stages he went through before his life took a turn for the better while he was arguably at the peak of his playing career. To that end, we will be concentrating mainly on the early years in football and the period up to and including Euro ‘96.

Beginning and Fast-Tracks

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Signed by Arsenal as a schoolboy, all Adams ever wanted to do, or felt qualified to do, was play football. By his own admission, childhood and adolescence weren’t easy, with crippling shyness and lack of confidence never far away, and so football became an outlet for his frustrations and worries at an early age. His footballing prowess was appreciated and valued by those at Highbury to such an extent that he found himself being fast-tracked through the youth systems and was playing regular reserve-team football while still at school.

On the pitch at least, Adams felt at home and was not only able to express himself as a player but would also start to show the leadership and organisational abilities that were to characterise his later career. As a confident teenager, for example, he was playing alongside the legendary Pat Jennings in the Arsenal reserve team and would not hesitate to dish out stick to the amiable Irishman if he thought the situation warranted or necessitated it.

By the age of 17, Adams was knocking on the first team door and after his less than auspicious start against Sunderland, he featured again occasionally in the side that season. Terry Neill, who gave him his debut, was soon sacked and Neill’s successor, Don Howe, held Adams back slightly while refining him defensively on the training field before giving him more games over the next two seasons.

During this time, established players such as Kenny Sansom, Graham Rix and Charlie Nicholas were all at Highbury. These guys were never slow at coming forward off the pitch, and Adams was invited along on their nights out. It was here that he first discovered that alcohol would help him reproduce the same confidence off the pitch that came naturally to him on it. It would be the start of a slippery slope.

In Comes George

Football-wise, Don Howe’s time was soon up and in his stead came George Graham. Graham had also not exactly been a stranger to the good life during his playing days, but now he’d turned gamekeeper and was no longer poacher, he had changed his outlook. Not impressed with the partying ways or the lifestyles of the older more established players, the days of the likes of Nicholas, Rix and Sansom were numbered. Rix didn’t last long, nor did Paul Mariner or Tony Woodcock, and although Sansom and Nicholas were needed in the short term, the writing was on the wall for them too.

Instead, Graham set about building a new team based on youth and energy. Into the side came players such as Niall Quinn, Michael Thomas, Michael Rocastle, and, of course, Tony Adams. Some astute signings in the form of Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon and Steve Bould would follow and the ‘new’ Arsenal would be built upon defensive solidity.

Adams’ career really took off in the 1986-87 season when he became an ever-present in the league as Arsenal topped the table and looked to be genuine title contenders at one point. Although that particular charge could not be maintained, the League Cup was secured courtesy of a Wembley victory over Liverpool that in itself had come on the back of a legendary semi-final success over North London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.

In a coming-of-age trilogy, the young Gunners had finally overcome their detested neighbours in a replay at White Hart Lane and with Adams playing with a maturity beyond his years, it was becoming apparent that he was an Arsenal captain in waiting. Although Sansom still technically held the armband, and it was he who lifted the League Cup trophy at Wembley that spring, it was Adams to whom the youngsters in the team looked for leadership, and when Sansom fell out with Graham early the next season, there was only one direction in which the manager was going to look for his replacement.

So it came to pass that at just 21 years of age, Tony Adams was appointed captain of Arsenal. One of his first responsibilities was to lead the team out at Wembley as Arsenal looked to retain the League Cup against Luton Town in 1988.

With just a few minutes remaining and The Arse leading by a 2-1 scoreline, it looked as if Adams was set to become one of the youngest captains to lift a trophy under the hallowed Twin Towers.

Then it all went wrong. In the space of a handful of minutes, the game was turned on its head by two late Luton goals and the Gunners departed the scene of their famous victory twelve months earlier as losers.

The Tuesday Club and ‘Anfield’

By now Adams was well into both his footballing career and his socialising one. Together with some – but not all – of his Arsenal teammates, the infamous ‘Tuesday Club’ was formed. This was so-named because if there was no midweek game Wednesdays were often a prescribed off day and so some of the players would go drinking after training on a Tuesday and not stop until they fell over.

Adams was at the forefront of these times and would write in later years how he saw it as part of his responsibilities as captain to organise these events. The way he saw it was that the players were counting on him and looking up to him to keep them entertained. He wasn’t about to let them down.

As a young, extremely fit, very well-built man, Adams could put away a lot in terms of alcohol and he found these times began to mean more and more to him.

The following season, 1988-89, would, of course, go down as one of the most momentous in not just Adams’ career, but in the history of Arsenal Football Club, when the league title was snatched from Liverpool’s grasp with almost literally the last kick of the season. This was the signal for great celebrations for anyone of an Arsenal persuasion, and just the excuse Adams needed for an extended bender.

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The next season saw a slight comedown as Arsenal failed to defend their title and Adams was left out of Bobby Robson’s 1990 World Cup squad. Adams had made his England debut back in early 1987 while just turned 20 and had been a regular in Bobby Robson’s side for a while.

Summer of 1990: Things Go Wrong

The 1989-90 season was not a great one for Adams or Arsenal, however, and following the side’s title success the previous season, Arsenal faded away to finish in fourth spot and trophyless. Robson left him out of the 1990 World Cup and so instead he jetted off to Singapore with Arsenal for a post-season tour.

Unfortunately for Adams and his immediate future, he had allowed himself to get somewhat waylaid in his preparations to make the flight and a heavy drinking session had resulted in a serious car accident in which he was extremely fortunate that nobody was injured.

Breathalysed and found to be over the limit, Adams was bailed and told he would be charged with drink-driving.

The 1990-91 season saw Adams and Arsenal back on form as they went head-to-head with Liverpool for three-quarters of the season before pulling away and taking the title somewhat comfortably in the end. The Gunners only lost once all season in the league and that defeat came at the hands of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Missing from their ranks that day and rather unhappily detained elsewhere was Tony Adams.

On December 19 1990 Adams had appeared in court to answer the charge of drink driving and had been sent to prison for four months, serving two. It was an ignoble fate for a young talented man and although the sentence was seen as severe in some quarters, others believed that Adams had only good fortune to thank that matters had not turned out much worse than they had.

The so-called ‘drinking culture’ that was said to exist in certain clubs in English football at that time was seemingly prevalent. The truth was that the car crash, as serious as it undoubtedly was, was merely the latest in a long line of indiscretions involving the Arsenal captain. In his autobiography, he wrote of how alcohol seemed to have a grip on him and turned him into someone he did not recognise. He became in turn; confident, self-assured, arrogant, unfeeling, amusing and downright aggressive whenever he drank too much.

Unfortunately, rather than acting as a wake-up call and shocking Adams into making some lifestyle choices, the incident and its aftermath seemed to have little effect and it would be another five years before he started to pull his life around off the pitch.

On the pitch, though, things would progress reasonably smoothly for him, Arsenal and George Graham as the two domestic cups – FA and League – were captured in 1993 and the European extension, the Cup Winners’ Cup, was added the following season.

By 1994, though, Arsenal had slipped out of contention for league titles and were relying on cup success to keep the trophy polishers in business and early the next year things were to come crashing down for George Graham and, by extension, Tony Adams once more.

Graham was found to have accepted unsolicited cash payments from a footballing agent involved in some of Arsenal’s transfer deals and was unceremoniously sacked. It was a bitter blow for the Scotsman and for Adams who looked up to Graham as a father figure.

By now Adams was, by his own later admission, beginning to struggle on the pitch as well as off it and although he was still able to rally on occasion, as he did when playing for England under new coach Terry Venables, he was feeling the pressure. This in turn was leading to further drinking and thus an increase in his problems – it was a vicious circle.

Euro ’96 and The End

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Euro ‘96 came around for England, Venables and Adams on home soil and Adams steeled himself for the competition by going ‘dry’ for a month in advance and ‘white-knuckling’ his drinking consumption. He and England played well for four weeks and only failed to reach the final on a penalty shoot-out with Germany.

He had been stone-cold sober for a month or so but as soon as the tournament was over, he did what he had been doing for the best part of a decade now and went on an immediate bender. By his accounts, it was a classic even by his standards and it lasted for several days before he got to the point where he simply could not face another drink.

As he was sitting in the pub surrounded by empty glasses, it was then he decided that he had had enough. He declined the barman’s offer of another drink and took himself off home. The next day he woke up and realised he needed help, and from that day to this has not touched a drop of alcohol.

It has been a long journey for Adams, but his abstinence from drink, combined with the arrival at Highbury as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, undoubtedly prolonged his career. In the latter years of his tenure at Highbury, Adams developed from being an aggressive if slightly limited ball-winning, man-marking ‘stopper’ to a more sophisticated and skilful ball player.

Off the field, he set up the clinic titled ‘Sporting Chance’ aimed specifically at assisting those with addictive illnesses.

Finishing playing in 2002, Adams has since dabbled in coaching and management and punditry.