Legendary Arsenal center back Tony Adams fought through alcoholism on the way to winning four league titles and the Gunners’ captaincy.
Tony Adams won 10 major trophies with Arsenal Football Club, but the longevity of his career may be the most impressive part of his career. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Adams became club captain at age 21, led his club to the first division title in the 1988/89 season, and then crashed his car into a wall with four times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood at the end of the following season.
His career could have ended there, and for most players, it probably would have. And although he already had the captain’s armband at his club for over three years at this point, he only started to become a man when he walked out of prison in February 1991. He returned to action and led the Gunners to the second First Division title of his tenure and the last the Gunners won before the Football League became the Premier League and Arsene Wenger became Arsenal’s manager.
Adams held down the Arsenal backline for almost 20 years, most notably for the long stretch he played alongside the famous back four of him, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, and Lee Dixon. Three of the four made over 400 appearances for Arsenal, and Bould managed to amass an impressive 287 in his 11 years at the club. The group stayed together for so long largely because of Adams’ leadership, with the four laying the foundation for the team when Wenger arrived in 1996.
Hailing from Romford, one could say if fans called teammate Ray Parlour “The Romford Pele”, they could have called Adams “The Romford Bobby Moore”. He appeared 669 times for the Gunners, the second-most in the club’s history behind David O’Leary, and earned the nickname “Mr. Arsenal” as a result of his long devotion to the club.
He has stated that growing up, he first found football to escape from reality before made it his job and then turned to alcohol. His self-medication held him back in his footballing career: he strangely missed out on making England’s squad for the 1990 World Cup, probably due to his drinking problems. But he, after working hard on the pitch and going through horrific and grimy times because of his alcohol abuse, managed to rediscover the game he loved by the time his career ended thanks to the help of people like Wenger.
Tony Adams came a long way from his days as a talented kid with an armband and a drinking problem who was surrounded by his enabling teammates to a man with over 10 major trophies, a 20-year career, a statue, and two books about overcoming alcohol abuse.
Becoming Mr. Arsenal
Arsenal’s future captain’s debut at age 17 sounds like a child’s nightmare. He put his shorts on wrong and made a bad mistake early in the match as his team went 1-0 down to Sunderland at Highbury. He only appeared in three games in that 1983/84 season, and combined for 28 over the next two years. It was his fourth season in the Arsenal first team where he became an indispensable name on the teamsheet: he made 55 appearances in 1986/87, scoring six goals and leading his team to win the League Cup.
George Graham handed then-21-year-old Adams the captain’s armband halfway through the following season, yet he still had a long way to go in his development. He made his debut for England in a match against Spain in the same season and earned himself a spot in the Three Lions’ European Championship squad. The hulking center back scored one of England’s two goals in the tournament as they crashed out in the group stage, but he underwent a learning experience when Marco Van Basten turned him inside-out on the way to a hattrick and a 3-1 win for the Netherlands.
Just like he did off the pitch, Adams bounced back from that in a big way: he captained his boyhood club to the top of the First Division table for the first of his four league titles with the Gunners. Steve Bould and Lee Dixon joined the club in the summer before the season started as the famous back four reaped success in its first season together, even though the Gunners almost lost it after holding an 11-point lead at the top of the table.
Arsenal gave up 36 league goals under George Graham in Adams’ inaugural title-winning campaign, a respectable average of less than one goal per game but still not as good as Liverpool, who conceded just 26 goals all year as Arsenal got used to having new faces in two of their four spots on the backline.
The Hillsborough tragedy postponed Arsenal’s fixture against Liverpool at Anfield, and against all English football conventions, they played the game after the FA Cup final, which Liverpool had won. The Reds sat three points above Arsenal, two goals better than their title rivals in the goal difference department, so Arsenal had to win 2-0 to win the First Division title.
George Graham made a bold statement, even by modern standards: Liverpool had not lost up until that point when John Aldridge and Ian Rush played together, so the Arsenal manager stuck David O’Leary between Bould and Adams and played with three center backs against the lethal Liverpool strikeforce.
The visitors sat back and happily lofted the ball out of defense for forward Alan Smith to chase, yet they opened the scoring off of a set piece at the edge of Liverpool’s area early in the second half, which Smith headed home. The London side continued to chuck the ball forward at Smith, and it finally paid off deep in stoppage time when the forward headed the ball on for Michael Thomas, who, with all the time and space in the world, finished the move, put Arsenal level on goal difference with their opponents, and therefore brought the title to Highbury for the first time since 1971.
Arsenal conceded 38 goals in the next season, finishing fourth with a 17-point gap between them and first-place Liverpool before locking down the goal all season in 1990/91. The back line stayed the same, but the club brought in England international David Seaman to help with the defensive effort, and his presence behind one of the game’s best defenses made a huge difference. Arsenal lost just once in the 90/91 campaign, allowing 18 goals through 38 matches.
While the other three members of that famous back four made 50 appearances in all competitions, Adams played in just 37 matches: he served eight weeks of his initial four-month sentence after he crashed his car into a wall with four times the legal blood-alcohol level in his system.
Adams scored in his final game four days before he headed to jail and Arsenal dropped points in three of the seven matches he missed with Andy Linighan stepping in to deputize for the club captain, including their only league loss of the year away to Chelsea. Mr. Arsenal returned in time for the next match, and the club clearly felt galvanized from his release: Graham’s teams which originated the saying “1-0 to the Arsenal” scored seven goals in three games after the defeat and kept nine clean sheets in the last 14 matches of the season.
Aside from Ian Wright replacing Alan Smith as Arsenal goalscorer-in-chief and Martin Keown beginning to take Bould’s spot, the 1990s for Arsenal were forgettable between the 1991 title and Arsene Wenger’s arrival in ’96. The captain’s transformation under Wenger’s guidance encapsulates the Frenchman’s impact at the club: Adams went from a world-class typical ’80s pub footballer to a world-class professional footballer.
Wenger banned alcohol, red meat, and junk food, and Adams benefitted. He also flashed his capability with the ball at his feet in the new pass-and-move tactics Arsenal became famous for in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Now a legitimate ball-playing center back, he and his new manager led the north London side to a third-place finish in Wenger’s introductory season before bringing home the double.
The Gunners had to come from behind to overtake Manchester United on the way to winning the league. The club lost four of their eight games in November and December of 1997 and sat in sixth place on New Years’ Day of 1998, 12 points off of Manchester United. They found form in the new year, slowly gaining momentum in January and February, and once the calendar rounded into March, the Gunners hit full throttle.
They started the month with a goalless draw at West Ham and a 1-0 win at Wimbledon, and then the big test came. The long trip to Old Trafford had arrived. Arsenal closed the gap to three points after the Wimbledon match, so the United contest had tangible title implications. The Gunners had not allowed a goal in five league matches leading up to the United game thanks to the Tony Adams-led defensive masterminds.
Goals came and went for the Gunners that season as PFA Player of the Year Dennis Bergkamp finished with “just” 16 league goals, two behind the three-way tie for the Golden Boot, a tally which pales in comparison to the increasingly popular 30-goal season for today’s leading scorers in the Premier League. So the consistency of the stifling defense, which locked down opponents regardless of whether or not Wenger’s modern style worked on in any given match, gave the Gunners a chance at catching their rivals.
Arsenal went into Old Trafford, put on the pressure, and came away with all three points in a classic 1-0 win. The defense stymied the likes of Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham while the attack and goalscorer Marc Overmars, in particular, caused all sorts of problems all game before breaking the deadlock with 10 minutes left in the match. The BBC described Adams and Keown as “in brilliant form at the heart of the defence”, putting in a crucial performance in front of backup ‘keeper Alex Manninger.
Sir Alex Ferguson said after the match that the Gunners would inevitably drop points, and he was technically correct. They lost their final two matches of the season, which came after they went on a 10-match winning streak, wrapping up the league title two weeks early and giving Wenger the ability to rest his best players. The Gunners’ defense allowed two goals over those 10 matches.
In Arsenal’s final win of the season, an emphatic 4-0 match at Highbury, Adams put the icing on the cake of his club’s first championship in the Premier League era, and the first a team other than Blackburn Rovers or Manchester United had won. The England international, then age 32, made a run into the attack as the clock approached 90 minutes, and in a display emblematic of their good times at Arsenal, center back partner Steve Bould punted a high through ball over the Toffees’ back four, which Adams controlled and half-volleyed with his left foot into the right side of the net. Not believing what he had done at first, Tony Adams lifted his arms wide toward the riotous Gooners, grinning and reflecting on what he had done for the club and what the club had done for him, an iconic image which the club has immortalized outside of Emirates Stadium.
Newcastle came into the 1998 FA Cup Final with one of their most talented squads ever, yet the Magpies greatly disappointed in the Premier League in ’97/’98 as Alan Shearer missed most of the season with an ankle injury, limiting him to just two goals in 17 league appearances. Additionally, the underdogs had the old Liverpool duo of Ian Rush and John Barnes on their books, as well as Gary Speed as the three players’ careers wound down. The Gunners went into the game without their top scorer in Bergkamp as he dealt with a hamstring problem.
Kenny Dalglish, the Toon’s manager at the time, employed Alessandro Pistone on the right side of his defense to try and neutralize the dynamic threat Arsenal’s winger Marc Overmars provided, but it only took the Dutchman 23 minutes to open the scoring. He ran past Pistone, latched onto a through ball from Emmanuel Petit, and poked the ball between Shay Given’s legs.
The Gunners added another goal through then-19-year-old Nicolas Anelka and saw out the match, which ended 2-0, yet another clean sheet for one of the best back lines to grace world football. The Newcastle fans applauded the Gunners as Wenger and Adams led them up the Wembley steps, encapsulating the new Arsenal style under Wenger: the early Arsenal teams under the Frenchman had endless class on and off the pitch, and Adams embodied that.
The double ended up as Adams’ last major footballing achievement before age started to affect him, and he released arguably his biggest life achievement, his autobiography Addicted, after the double-winning campaign. The man truly led by example: he had more public issues than any other player in the squad at just about every point in his career, yet he managed to escape the self-destructing refuge of alcohol, reinvent his diet and playing style under Wenger and earned the respect of his teammates through his professionalism, intensity, and raw skill.
Arsenal followed up their double-winning year with a second-place finish in the league, just one point behind the Red Devils. They came in second to United in each of the three seasons between the Gunners’ double and their ’01/’02 title-winning campaign.
Wenger had swapped in Thierry Henry for Anelka, Nwakwano Kanu for Wrighty, and Freddie Ljungberg for Overmars between the two titles as a changing of the guard began to take place. Tony Adams’ illustrious career stepped into the twilight, Wenger fortified the club’s already strong backline ahead of Wenger’s second title, bringing in Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst after Winterburn and Bould left during the summers of 1999 and 2000, respectively.
Henry, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Sylvain Wiltord, and Robert Pires each scored double-digit goals, and 19 players appeared in over 20 matches for the Gunners that season. Tony Adams was not one of them, having announced his retirement ahead of his final title-winning season. The most noteworthy moment of his age-36 season came in the fifth round of the FA Cup against Gillingham where he scored the match winner shortly after returning from injury.
He played his final game in the 2002 FA Cup Final against Chelsea, which ended in a 2-0 Arsenal win and brought home the second double of Tony Adams’ career. He even played the ball which led to the assist of the first goal of the match, scored by Adams’ longtime teammate and former drinking buddy Ray Parlour.
Adams had an untraditional career path thanks to his addiction problems, and he turned out as one of the most inspirational footballers of all time as a result. His alcoholism never took away from his artistic defensive skill even when it took him off the pitch, and his long career proves no matter how bad one’s situation becomes, there is always a way above it. Two doubles in one career are impressive for any player, and Adams had to overcome all the mental and physical damage he had done to himself to earn those trophies, inspiring his teammates and gaining worldwide respect in the process.
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