In celebration of the unveiling of TA’s statue outside Arsenal Stadium on 9 December 2011, here’s my tribute to him at the time of his retirement in 2002, printed in The Gooner issue 124.
If I’d been writing about the career of Tony Adams at the time of his first testimonial in 1994 the article would probably have been a lot closer to straight hero worship. Nowadays, however, both Tony and I are a lot older and wiser, and we see things in much better perspective. Eight years ago he was still an alcoholic in denial, a top sportsman pushing himself on the pitch and pushing himself even harder with week-long drunken benders whenever he thought he could get away with it. Since then he’s sobered up and become both a better man and a better player.
As anyone who’s read TA’s autobiography ‘Addicted’ will know, his story is so affected by alcohol that I can’t help but include it here. I’m sure if you read the programme for his testimonial this month it will contain a sanitised list of achievements, which, although impressive, don’t tell half the story of the man. In some ways my own support of Arsenal has followed a similar pattern to TA’s career. He made his debut in 83-84, the same season I became a North Bank regular. We both went on to make hundreds of appearances over the next couple of decades, enjoyed quite a few drinks during the success of the Graham era and then sobered up a bit for the arrival of Arsène. And for the last couple of years we haven’t been appearing as often as perhaps we should.
Young Tony broke into the Arsenal team at a time of rebuilding and under-achievement, and this gave him an early chance for the big time. He was thrown in as a 17 year old – compare this to Matthew Upson’s situation now. By 21 Adams was Arsenal captain and an England international. For the club he soon became a somewhat reluctant mouthpiece and confidant for George Graham, the man dubbed Gadaffi by his players. For England he was thrown into Euro ’88, where he was baffled by the genius of Marco van Basten, a world class player then at his peak. Adams’ Arsenal youth team contemporaries, such as Martin Keown and Michael Thomas, may have been jealous of his early achievements, but the pressure of responsibility and keeping ahead of the pack was at least partly to blame for the parallel descent into alcohol abuse.
Football had far more of a drinking culture in those days, and George Graham was obviously content to ignore the signs as long as performances on the pitch didn’t seem to be affected. Perhaps he figured it was best not to interfere, even when his captain was sentenced to four months in Chelmsford prison for a drink-driving incident that could easily have killed him. I know someone who was among the group of drinkers who were in the Silver Jubilee pub in Rayleigh that day and invited Tony to continue his drinking session at their barbecue. But it was hardly their fault that he then decided to drive off at breakneck speed in an attempt to reach Heathrow in an hour. His car crash and subsequent trial are well documented and it may be true that if the club and Tony’s family and friends had managed to persuade him to get professional help at the time then the next few years could have been very different. But George needed his captain, the club trusted George, TA’s home life was unstable and several of the other players liked a drink too. What Adams really needed at the time was the education of a Wenger, not just the discipline that George had to offer.
The first time I read ‘Addicted’ my immediate feeling was, ‘We’ve been cheated.’ For 13 years we paid good money to watch Tony Adams play at a time when he was performing below his best. Arsène has even estimated that TA was probably only performing at 70% capacity. All right, we won things, but how much more could we, and he, have won? For his first testimonial in 1994 just 12,300 turned up to watch Arsenal play Crystal Palace pre-season. It was poor timing by the club, but the ironic thing is that Adams felt then that he was being cheated by us! From his point of view he’d given over ten years service and won trophies, but we couldn’t be bothered to turn up and thank him for it. At the same time he admits that Palace were chosen as opposition because he didn’t want to have to pay a larger part of the takings to bring a quality team to Highbury. He also said that perhaps a lot of fans thought he had enough money anyway. Well, perhaps he would have, if he hadn’t literally pissed it all away.
By encouraging other players to join him in drinking he affected their game too. Ray Parlour, Tony’s regular drinking buddy, was Arsenal’s most improved player in 1998, eight years after his debut. Admittedly this was partly due to the Wenger effect, but how much was he held back by the regular midweek sessions with his captain?
These days, fortunately, it’s a different story. The culture change caused by the influx of foreign players and coaches came at the right time for Tony Adams. Arsène improved him as a player, but he’s improved himself as a man. He can be proud of his Sporting Chance charity and the work it’s now doing, but even without that he’s undoubtedly a better human being.
On the pitch he’s always had guts and fantastic leadership ability. Who else in the modern game compares? Terry Butcher maybe? Bryan Robson? Few if any others are even in the same league. George Graham’s tactics may have stifled Tony’s development as a footballer, but there is one thing I do agree with George on: TA should easily have beaten Bobby Moore’s 108 caps, and some of the selection decisions taken by successive England managers have been ludicrous. Fewer than a third of TA’s 60-odd England appearances were as captain, but he always acted as though he was wearing the armband, and his teammates respected him for it.
His maturity as a person since he gave up the booze has also seen him grow further in stature on the pitch. He doesn’t argue and shout at referees any more, and he’s still a great defender. Perhaps never world class like Moore, but not far off. He’s still my preferred choice above Sol, Martin and Matthew, and, er, Igors, Oleg and the Grimster. Maybe he’s starting to slow down a little but his positional sense is impeccable and he marshals a back line as no one else can. Occasionally he does mis-time a tackle, usually against a small nippy forward – I always used to worry when Dean Saunders ran at him – after which he’ll make his trademark “He dived, ref” gesture of hands pointing forward and moving downwards in a small arc. He probably uses this hand signal more than the traditional arm in the air nowadays.
I personally also love the way that Tony is a Gooner in a way that no player has been since Charlie George. I have many fantastic memories of matches he’s played in and trophies he’s lifted on behalf of us all. The single best moment is probably his goal against Everton to seal the Double in ’98, but the winner against Spurs in the ’93 Cup semi comes close. I love it that he says Nayim’s goal was made worse by him being ex-Tottenham, and that he’s never wanted to play for anybody else.
Arsène Wenger has clearly had a big influence on Tony, undoubtedly extending his top level career. However, the signs are that this will be his last season, as age and the abuse he’s given his body finally seem to be catching up with him. But Arsène is a genius at getting the best from players and a master of persuasion, so perhaps we can still hope for one more year from the captain. Either way, there are few players whose service to one club merits so much as a tin of Quality Street these days never mind a second testimonial, so if this is the end then it’s a fair place to stop. I can think of no one more deserving, and I just hope he’s lifted two more trophies by the time you read this. TA has outlasted seven managers in his time, including caretakers, and to do that at one top flight club must be a record in itself. In many ways I don’t think we’ll see his like again. Good luck, Tony Adams, and thank you.