It can be all too easy to forget that footballers as real people, with real problems. They exist on screens, behind hoardings, removed from society by barriers both physical and societal. They stride into picture, with bodies sculpted to perfection, earn unthinkably obscene amounts of money, barred by unseen authorities to speak their minds or allowed to show any kind of weakness. Theirs is a world filled with money and fame, the last vestiges of an outdated, hyper-masculine society where weaknesses, both on-field and off-field, must be hidden.
Twitter and Instagram give us a brief look into their lives but social media presences are so tightly controlled it’s barely a glimpse we get, only emphasising their removal from society. But footballers are real, real people, with real desires, lusts, opinions and problems, like yours and mine. This makes Tony Adams a singularly important figure in the world of football.
Tony Adams, or ‘Mr Arsenal’ if you prefer; made 669 senior appearances, spent 14 years as captain, represented his nation on the highest stages, lifted 10 major trophies including league titles in three different decades and all as a one-club-man These achievements alone make him a champion and a level above most in his field. But almost more importantly, and perhaps more famously, he battled addiction on the most public stage possible and came out the other side a stronger person.
He began the 1990s driving his car into a wall, spending eight weeks in prison, and finished the decade as one of the finest English defenders to ever play the game, while simultaneously becoming a shining inspiration to many who battle their own personal demons.
“My name is Tony and I am an alcoholic.” But the thing about alcoholism is that it isn’t really anything to do with alcohol. It’s an addiction and alcohol is the drug that fuels it. It’s a way of thinking, it’s an all-consuming illness that acts as a way of covering problems elsewhere in the addict’s life, taking them away from the reality of their thoughts and problems. More often than not, it is genetic. And for Tony Adams, both are true.
Since the Nineties, when his problems were so often in the public eye, Adams has been very open about how both of his parents were addicts, it’s something he grew up with and something that was passed down to him. Before the alcohol, there was Tony’s first addiction: football.
He was a gangly, awkward and incredibly shy child, more comfortable being by himself than surrounded by others. But as soon as he crossed those white lines he was someone else, a leader: “I felt assertive on the football pitch, which was in complete contrast to the real me, who was scared and introverted. As a kid going through pain, I had football. But there is only so much time you can be on the football pitch – sooner or later you have to look in that mirror.”
Having his first addiction taken away from him for a period of time is what drove him to his second. Having signed for Arsenal as a schoolboy at the age of 17, he progressed solidly through the youth ranks until a metatarsal break set him back slightly and gave him an injury that would dog his career. So he turned to alcohol and, although the injury wouldn’t hold him back too much, the alcohol stayed.
Three years after signing, he made a somewhat underwhelming debut for the Gunners. He put his shorts on backwards and was forced into an error that allowed Sunderland to score the only goal of the game. His first appearance didn’t exactly go to plan and only three more appearances came his way that season, but come the 1986/87 campaign, he was a regular for George Graham’s side at the tender age of 21. The captaincy followed the next season, making him the youngest captain in Arsenal history.
Despite these lofty achievements, at such an early age, Adams was often the subject of ridicule in the national press. The Daily Mirror callously pictured Adams with donkey ears after he scored at both ends in a game against Manchester United. To be on the receiving end of such shameless bullying on a national scale would have been difficult for anyone to cope with but for a young man secretly battling depression and alcoholism? It’s a wonder he overcame such obstacles.
On the pitch he was the lead figure in a near-impregnable defence for Arsenal, the club’s most famous back four. Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and the unshakable central defensive partnership of Steve Bould and Tony Adams. They provided the foundation that much of Arsenal’s success during the late 80s and 90s was based on. As football writer Amy Lawrence puts it: “It’s not that often in history that you get little departments in the team that become an entity in themselves. Maybe something close is the Messi, Neymar, Suárez that you had at Barcelona and everyone thinks what a powerful thing they created.”
But as good as they were on the pitch, they also formed much of a rather more infamous group: The Tuesday Club. Along with other squad members, such as Paul Merson and Perry Groves, led by Adams, because he couldn’t face going home and being by himself, The Tuesday Club would gather after training on a Tuesday to drink as much as they could find.
From the dredges of YouTube you can find a documentary that details some of the antics members of the early ‘90s Arsenal team and it really is quite shocking. These were professional athletes turning up to training, and sometimes even matchdays, still drunk. Adams recounts a time where he was somehow awarded man of the match despite not remembering anything that happened due to the fact he was still completely smashed from the night before.
This was the lay of the land at the time. Football and alcohol have always gone hand in hand in Britain but during the ‘90s it rose to excessive heights. In the 1950s, research showed Brits drank 3.9 litres per person. This rose dramatically to 9.5 litres per person by 2004. With so many drinking so much at the time, Adams was another individual reduced simply to: ‘oh, he just likes a drink.’ And, likewise, the conversation about mental health; anxiety and depression has always existed, society just wasn’t willing or ready to talk about it yet.
And so, the ‘90s provided an environment that enabled Adams’ addiction. He remained the lynchpin in Arsenal’s defence but there were numerous scuffles in nightclubs, an incident with Spurs fans and a fire extinguisher, and, most famously, a car crash when he was four times over the legal limit. He was sentenced to prison and missed the title win for Arsenal in 1991.
There was a smattering of cup wins but it was the start of some relatively indifferent years for Adams and Arsenal until 1996, a huge year personally for the defender, where he captained England to the European Championship semi-finals, and one that coincided with a certain Frenchman’s arrival at Highbury.
“I sobered up on Friday 16 August 1996, at five in the afternoon, after a three-day bender.”
George Graham called him “my colossus” but Arsène Wenger turned him into “a professor of defence.” The new manager’s arrival in 1996 came at the right time for Adams and prevented his career from fizzling out. Instead of coasting along for the rest of his career, as by now he was already 29, Wenger’s new regime prolonged Adams career for another six years, a period of time that would ensure his status as one of the great English defenders.
They might have been drinking buddies and the bedrock for a number of championship wins but Wenger’s arrival revitalised the famous back four, in particular turning Bould and Adams into ball-playing defenders. There were new dietary regimes and more focus was placed on preparation for games, both on and off the pitch, with much of his pre-match build-up focussing on ensuring players were mentally ready to perform.
Initial hesitancy about Wenger eventually gave away to acceptance of his new, more modern tactics. So much so that it was Adams himself who banned alcohol in the players lounge. “After getting sober, I experienced the enormous highs of playing the game, free as a bird, for six more years. I felt invincible.” And on the pitch, Wenger and Adams’ new partnership paid dividends, resulting in a Premier League and FA Cup double for Arsenal in the 1997/98 season. This included a ten-match winning streak to seal the title over the course of which the Gunners’ only conceded two goals.
The last game of that run came at Highbury against Everton, with a Bergkamp-less Arsenal needing a win to seal the title. No Bergkamp, no problem; as they swept Everton aside with Tony Adams himself providing the finishing touch with what has to be one of the most satisfying goals ever witnessed by the Highbury crowds. Vindicating Wenger’s new approach, it was Bould who lifted the ball over the Toffees’ defence to find Adams, who chested it down and slammed it into the corner to make it 4-0. He turned to the North Stand, arms raised, and eyes closed with a look of total relief on his face.
The other thing about addiction is that it truly never ends. It’s a constant struggle to prevent the depression and the alcoholism from taking over again. Here was a man who had battled and fought for years to wrestle control back from his addiction, in a field where temptations were everywhere. “With each day that I do not take a drink, I will always be a winner.”
He would later go on to win another title in 2002, be named third in Arsenal’s greatest ever players, constantly visit prisons to talk to inmates, and set up Sporting Chance, a clinic designed to help other athletes talk about their mental health. Some former players, not least Dean Windass, claim the charity saved their lives. On the field and off it, Adams remains a champion, a very human champion, and an inspiration to so many.
By Matthew Gibbs @MatthewIeuan