A Tribute To Tony Adams: The Gunner Who Came Back From The Brink

From serving time in prison for drink-driving to going on a six-week bender after Euro 1996, Tony Adams' career was blighted by alcohol problems. But all of that just makes the Arsenal legend's recovery all the more amazing...
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From serving time in prison for drink-driving to going on a six-week bender after Euro 1996, Tony Adams' career was blighted by alcohol problems. But all of that just makes the Arsenal legend's recovery all the more amazing...

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This campaign Arsenal have certainly been a mixed bag. From Old Trafford capitulation to ruining Tottenham's season, there has been some almighty lows but a few pretty lofty highs. Defence has continued to be one of the more worrying features of this Gunners side though, with Vermaelen looking uncharacteristically inconsistent, Mertesacker splitting opinion amongst the fans and Djourou being, well Djourou. If only we could partner big Tony Adams with the ever-improving Laurent Koscielny. Or just have two Tony Adams' at centre-back. Then the team might win something...

Born in Romford, Essex on 10th October 1966, Adams would go on to spend his entire professional career with Arsenal, the club he signed for as a schoolboy in 1980. Just three years later, at the age of seventeen, Adams found himself in the first team, and by the 1985-86 season he had become a first team regular under new manager George Graham. A year later he had won his first major trophy, the League Cup, playing all ninety minutes alongside David O’Leary at the back as Arsenal defeated Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley. Another year on aged just twenty-one, Adams was handed the club captaincy, a position he held for the next fourteen years.

Under the strict, authoritarian, and to some at least, dour management of Graham the so-called “famous four” defence, with Adams at it’s heart, was moulded. Together with Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, Adams formed one of the most ruthlessly efficient defences English football has ever seen. The arm raised choreography of their notorious offside trap became iconic, a landmark of the game, imitated on playgrounds and parks up and down the country. Despite the public perception of Graham’s “boring boring Arsenal” being far from favourable the trophies flowed, six in eight years, including two first division titles, the first sealed by the last minute “Fever Pitch” drama of Micky Thomas’ goal at Anfield, and the second in 1991 capping an almost perfect campaign that saw the Gunners lose just once all season. In 1993 Adams became the first captain ever to lead his club to the League Cup and F.A. Cup double.

Adams is frighteningly honest about the period, describing how he “was no longer concerned with the feelings of another human being…. There was no pleasure in anything.”

But behind the scenes all was not well. Adams was frequently drinking to excess, and on 6th May 1990 crashed his Ford Sierra into a wall not far from his Southend-on-Sea home. Breathalysed by the police following the accident, Adams was found to be more than four times over the legal drink-drive limit. Seven months later Adams was sentenced to four months in prison. He served just two. If the whole sorry affair served as warning to Adams that he was losing control, it was a warning that was not heeded. Further high profile incidents followed, including a much publicised drunken altercation in a Pizza Hut restaurant with team-mate Ray Parlour and a head injury that required twenty-nine stitches, inflicted following a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs.

In his brutally honest and wonderfully written autobiography Addicted, Adams recounts how he hit rock bottom; a six week bender in the aftermath of England’s heartbreaking exit from Euro 96 at the hands of Germany. Adams, who had captained his country for that semi-final, tells how, on waking up on the morning after the defeat, he went to his local pub and began to drink. It would be nearly two months later that he finally emerged from this squalor. In his autobiography Adams is frighteningly honest about the period, describing how he “was no longer concerned with the feelings of another human being…. There was no pleasure in anything.” Clearly he could not continue, and on 14th September 1996 Adams confessed to the public that he was an alcoholic.

Just two weeks later a largely unknown French coach by the name of Arsene Wenger was appointed to succeed Bruce Rioch as the manager of Arsenal. Despite Adams’ confession Wenger stuck by him, refusing to take the captaincy from him and helping to ensure Adams got the treatment he so desperately needed. Wenger overhauled the diets of his playing staff, and introduced tough new guidelines on the player’s lifestyles. The drinking culture that had prevailed for so long was systematically eradicated by Wenger, and played a huge part in Adams extending his playing career following his recovery. Adams, who also tackles the issue of boredom as a cause for some of his problems in Addicted, began to fill his time with more wholesome pursuits. He famously took up the piano, studied French, and took a place on a sports science degree course.

On making his international début in a fixture against Spain in 1987, Adams earned the curious honour of being the first player born after England’s 1966 World Cup victory to represent the full national side.

Back on the pitch Adams and Arsenal were reaping the rewards of his recovery as a Premiership and F.A. Cup double was completed in 1998, and again in 2002. Remarkably, the latter achievement made Adams the only player in the history of English football to have captained a team to the top flight title in three different decades. Adams was rewarded with a testimonial against Celtic, which ended 1-1, with Adams donating £500,000 of the money raised to charity. In August 2002, just days before the start of a new Premier League season, Adams announced his retirement. His number six shirt was put into semi-retirement, not being used again until it was assigned to Philippe Senderos in 2006.

On making his international début in a fixture against Spain in 1987, Adams earned the curious honour of being the first player born after England’s 1966 World Cup victory to represent the full national side. He went on to play at the 1988 European Championships, scoring one of England’s two goals, but a succession of injuries limited his international appearances in the early 1990s, and he was famously left out of Sir Bobby Robson’s 1990 World Cup squad. He did appear at the World Cup in 1998, and both the 1996 and 2000 European Championships, and was the last England player ever to score at the old Wembley. He retired with five goals in sixty-six appearances for his country.

After his playing career ended Adams embarked on what has been a largely unsuccessful managerial career to date, with disappointing spells at Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth FC and Azerbaijani side Gabala FC. However, his record in the dugout in no way detracts from his superb career as a player, and he’s widely accepted as one of the finest defenders England has ever produced. Inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2004, he was also immortalised last year when a bronze statue of Adams was unveiled outside Arsenal’s Emirates stadium to celebrate the clubs 125th anniversary. An intriguing character with an incredible talent, who came through a terrible illness to bounce back and help others with the foundation of his Sporting Chance Clinic, Adams truly deserves his place alongside the greats of the game. If only he was still playing, how different this season could well have been for the Gunners.

This first appeared on the cracking Five in Midfield

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