Date: 6th July 2008 at 7:43pm
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When one is looking to construct a series in honour of the biggest trailblazers in Arsenal’s history, one has to strike a balance. The side of the 1930s was so dominating, that I had to weight the limited spaces adequately to reflect their incalculable effect on our history. I also had to leave out people like Don Howe, Pat Rice, David Dein and Frank McLintock, but surprise many by including George Eastham. However, there were certain spaces that simply had to be reserved and no compromise. Herbert Chapman, Henry Norris, Liam Brady and this man.

Anthony Alexander Adams was born in Romford on October 10th, 1966. He signed with Arsenal as a schoolboy in 1980 and made a great impression in the youth and reserve teams, belying his age with an on pitch maturity. He made his first team debut aged 17 against Sunderland in 1983. Adams continued to impress, learning his trade ably alongside veteran pros like Anderson, Samson and O’Leary. He was also learning the ways of the mid 80s Arsenal alongisde hardcore boozers like Samson and Woodcock. Graham Rix would advise the teenage Adams to drink Guinness, as “it gets you pissed quicker.” Adams suffered a broken leg in 1985, just as he was beginning to establish himself as a first team regular. Tony would discover alcohol’s anaesthetical qualities and drink heavily during his rehabilitation. By 1986, Don Howe had been sacked and replaced by stern disciplinarian George Graham. Rix, Woodcock, Mariner and Samson would be given short shrift and ushered towards the exit door. But Tone embellished a new motley crue in the shape of Merson and Groves.

However, on the pitch Adams continued to perform with an authority and reading of the game far in advance of his tender years. In 1987, he bagged his first major honour, playing at Wembley as Arsenal defeated Liverpool 2-1 in the Littlewoods Cup Final. That evening, Adams would slur his way through his acceptance speech as he picked up a personal gong as PFA Young Player of the Year. Things continued to develop on pitch for Adams. In January 1988 he was named club captain at the age of 21, the club’s youngest ever full time skipper. He would also earn the distinction of being the first ever England player to be born after England’s 1966 World Cup win. Graham purchased some foot soldiers for his new general. Dixon, Winterburn and Bould all arrived in the 1987-88 season. They would be the cornerstone of Arsenal’s success for a decade or more.

Euro 88 would prove to be a testing time for Adams. He was named in the England squad and earned some of the press blame for a limp defeat to Eire in the group stage. But it was when the legendary Marco van Basten ran him ragged that the nation turned on him, as England were sent packing having lost all three of their group games. Early in the next season, an own goal against Manchester United would see the Daily Mirror caricature Adams on their back pages with a pair of donkey’s ears. It was a taunt that would hit him hard throughout his career, as he was regularly pelted with carrots at away grounds. Though Adams would continue to frequent public bars off the pitch, nobody could question his focus on it. Though Adams and Merson would often turn up to training with bin bags under their tracksuits to sweat out the previous evening’s excess. He would captain his young side to an extraordinary title win in 1988-89, with the Gunners grabbing a last gasp victory at Anfield which secured their first title for 18 years.

Adams would again turn to alcohol to assuage his disappointment in the summer of 1990, when he was surprisingly omitted from Bobby Robson’s final World Cup squad. Despite imperious form on the pitch, Adams was careering towards self destruction off it and the powder keg exploded in May 1990. Adams crashed into a neighbour’s wall in his native Southend on Sea, the breathalyser showed him to be four times over the legal limit. On December 15th, 1990, Tony was sentenced to four months in Bellmarsh prison. He was released on February 15th, 1991 and played in Arsenal’s run in as they sauntered to another title- despite having been docked two points in October of that season. 1990 would see custodian David Seaman signed to sweep up for Adams and his troops. The relationship between the two would be formidable, their trust in one another’s abilities implicit.

But in 1992, Adams would receive another kick in the guts on the international scene when an injury ruled him out of Euro 92. England’s falure to qualify for World Cup 1994 would mean Adams would have to wait a long time to bury the demons of Euro 88. Once again, lager would be the amber ocean in which he would drown his disappointment. Typically for his career, Adams would enjoy another eventful season in 1992-93. He captained Arsenal to League Cup and F.A. Cup triumphs. Notably, scoring the winner against Spurs at Wembley in the F.A. Cup semi final to even a score for the Paul Gascoigne show two years earlier. One round earlier at Portman Road, Adams scored a headed goal against Ipswich despite having had 12 sticthes in a head wound attained falling down some nightclub stairs the night before. Tone would earn further notoriety in the immediate aftermath of the League Cup Final victory. He hoisted match winner Steve Morrow onto his shoulders, only to drop him, causing Morrow to miss the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. Way to ditch the ee-aw chants there Tony.

Adams would enjoy both on pitch bouquets and off the pitch brickbats in the 1993-94 season. Adams and Ray Parlour were arrested for letting off a fire extinguisher in a pizzeria in a less than pleasantry laden encounter with Spurs fans. But he would again be Arsenal’s inspirational skipper as Arsenal measled their way to the Cup Winners Cup. As Graham began to ditch his creative players one by one, the team was increasingly reliant on Adams and the back five. They did not disappoint, stifling Europe’s best attackers, most notably frustrating Zola, Asprilla and Brolin into a 1-0 submission in the Final in Copenhagen. The next season would prove more challenging, as the births of children Oliver and Amber in quick succession changed his priorities, as well as drinking buddy Paul Merson’s spell in rehabilitation that meant Adams had lost his most erstwhile drinking buddy. The sacking of George Graham for financial irregularities coupled with a heart shattering Cup Winners Cup final defeat to Real Zaragoza left the future a pale shade of grey.

The 1995-96 season saw Big Tone suffer badly with injuries. A knee cartilage problem and hernia surgery cut his season in half. He couldn’t deal without the emotional crutch of football and began drinking even more heavily. He did regain fitness for Euro 96, where he was named captain by Terry Venables. But whilst a decent showing from England set against the unabashed optimism of Britpop had a nation swept up in fantasy, Adams was about to embrace his nadir. Following the penalty shoot out defeat to Germany, Adams went on a three day bender. He had decided enough was enough, his life was swerving radically off road.I n September 1996, with renowned health fanatic Arsene Wenger about to take the reigns, Adams admitted to alcoholism.

Wenger stuck by him and Adams repaid that faith by remaining his old reliable self on the pitch, continuing to marshall the era defining back four. Wenger was heard to remark, ‘I realise this back four are university graduates in the art of defending and Tony Adams is a doctor of defence.’ The intellectual metaphor proved to be incredibly apt. Team mates noticed a more sensitive, articulate character emerging. The man nicknamed ‘Rodders’ who used to voluntarily smash pint glasses on his head, took up the piano and began reading Baudelaire. It was a transformation gloriously aligned with Wenger’s new cosmopolitan Arsenal. Out with the booze in with the books, Arsenal’s uber defensive style of play, had morphed into a total footballing butterfly. Adams changed as a player too, encouraged by Wenger to move the ball out of the back and express himself. I remember an occasion in April 1997 in a home game with Leicester City, Adams curled the ball left with the outside of his left foot and carried on his run, connecting with Hughes’ left wing cross to score.

But Adams would still endure demons. Following a terrible performance in a 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn, Adams would confide in Wenger after the game that he didn’t think he could go on any longer. He felt as though he was letting his team down and the captain simply would not have that. Wenger responded by telling him to take a month off. Adams did and came back bigger and better. The conversation would seal a tight envelope of trust that Adams shared with Arsene. The Gunners went on to win the Double, Adams emulating the man he was oft compared to Frank McLintock. The stunning transformation of Arsenal and Adams would be beautifully encapsulated in one golden moment. With the Gunners cantering towards a 3-0 win over Everton that would seal the championship, Steve Bould moved into the centre circle and Adams marauded forwards, a perfect chip from Uncle Bouldy delivered an inch perfect through ball, Adams chested it down on the edge of the box before lining up a left foot volley. ‘Would you BELIEVE IT? That sums it all up’ roared Martin Tyler. But it was the celebration that really summed it all up for me. Tony admitted, to his shame, that he could not remember the celbrations that enveloped his previous two title triumphs. In the acclaim, Adams turned towards his worshippers in the North Bank, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He literally inhaled the glory and made damn sure that he would remember this one……then Ian Wright jumped on him!

Adams would return the next season with blond highlights and a supermodel girlfriend (giving rise to very crude, but very amusing chants), but could not prevent Arsenal losing the title on the last day to Manchester United. Tone’s appearances would become less frequent as injuries began to take their toll. Adams even had his wisdom teeth removed in response to back and hernia problems. Tony’s trademark posture, slouched, his hand at the small of his back, surveying the scene, had wrecked his back. He would win one last title, as he would again be club captain for another Arsenal double. He remains the only player to ever captain a side to title wins in three different decades. With Sol Campbell signed in the summer of 2001 and with Bould, Dixon and Winterburn all gone, Adams retired in the summer of 2002. He was given a deserved testimonial against Celtic in May of that year, a much better effort than the ramshackle, hastily arranged Adams testimonial in 1994. He has since managed Wycombe Wanderers, been Assistant Manager of a Portsmouth side that won the F.A. Cup, as well as setting up his Sporting Chance clinics for sportsmen suffering addiction and become a UNESCO ambassador for Somalia and a keen champion of RAFT (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust).

Tony Adams is remembered as the last of a dying breed. A man who plied his illustrious career with one club. He was the finest defender of his generation, precise in the tackle, imperious in the air and with a natural reading of the game. But most notably his leadership qualities set him apart. Not only with a camera friendly shake of the fist, Adams would push the team up the pitch and make them play. He also coordinated the greatest back four unit in British footballing history. He was a leader of men. As well as his fine CV of trophies, Adams was well respected within the game. He carried his demons and bore his disgraces with dignity and forebearance. He overcame national humiliation by soldiering on and earning the England captaincy, he wrestled his demons to become a reformed character and reformed footballer. A man raised into the rough and tumble of 80s footballadapted and embraced the new millennium by morphing into the epitome of the cultured defender. In December 2004, he had another son. Atticus, named presumably after the character in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird.’ But if you really want an indication of his standing, in his 2002 testimonial programme, the first of many tributes across the souvenir edition was penned by one Alex Ferguson. THAT, sums it all up.LD.