Interview: Tony Adams recalls ‘I thought I’d be dead by 30’

One-club man Tony Adams made 669 appearances for Arsenal. Picture: Allsport.
One-club man Tony Adams made 669 appearances for Arsenal. Picture: Allsport.
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With his heart of oak, chest of lions and prominent hooter
pointing northwards, the most English of Englishmen heads for Scotland next week but Tony Adams isn’t the least bit daunted.

And why should he be? His destination won’t be the Worst Pub in the World from the Trainspotting flick or some other dubious address with a welcome along the lines of “You’ll have had your chibbing”. Rather it will be a lovely Georgian square, setting for the Edinburgh Book Festival, a most civilised and inclusive event where Adams will tell the story of his life.

And what a life it’s been. You shouldn’t be daunted when, as the archetypal Englishman, your penalty-box was your castle and you viewed keeping out infidel centre-forwards as your mission from God. Nor when your sense of your own invincibility was reinforced by Ulrika Jonsson slipping her telephone number into your pocket after a TV show and then you passed her up for the co-star, supermodel Caprice Bourret.

And nor indeed should you fear anything when your idea of rest and relaxation and player downtime was very nearly drinking yourself to death – and come this Thursday it’ll be 22 years since you beat the booze.

But hang on, did we say English? Adams’ often squeamishly candid memoir Sober, the follow-up to the pull-no-punches, pull-thousands-of-pints Addicted, has a surprise in store on page 42. “Ah yes, you spotted that,” he says. “My mother’s side of the family tree is Scotland – Edinburgh, in fact. I’d tried to keep that quiet. Well done for reading the book and for also seeing that my great-grandmother on my father’s side came from Freiberg in Germany. That’s the Germany who knocked England out of Euro 96 on penalties when it was me and Gareth Southgate in central defence. I’d tried to keep that bit very quiet.”

If he’d buried these details previously, why dig them up now? Adams in print leaves out nothing. Adams the reformed alcoholic has no embarrassment. We’ll come to all of that, but let’s see how far we can get with tartan connections …

“My second wife, Poppy, is from a whisky family you might know. She’s a fabulous woman who would say she met me when I was a successful footballer and a few months later was a has-been. But when I started talking about my recovery, trying to help others, I was able to joke that while I might have been teetotal I was still waking up with a Teacher’s in the morning.”

Now 51, Adams’ all-conquering Arsenal – two doubles among four top-flight titles and three FA Cups plus the European Cup-Winners’ Cup – didn’t feature any Scots although in their first phase they were bossed by George 
Graham, an old-school dressing-room disciplinarian and a son of Bargeddie in North Lanarkshire. Adams loved Graham and attempts his accent. This prompts a reminisce about a visit to Pittodrie. “It was Willie Miller’s testimonial and we stayed – let me try and pronounce this right – in the Skean Dhu Hotel. I’ve never forgotten how cold Aberdeen was. The wind coming off the North Sea almost tore the skin from my face. Well, it was August, I suppose.”

Like everyone, he’s got an Alex Ferguson story. “He said I was a Manchester United player in an Arsenal shirt. I told him: ‘You’re a Gunners manager in a Man U blazer.’ He tried to sign me, too.”

Then there was Kenny Dalglish. Lots of clubs mustered big, ugly, hairy-bottomed battering-ram strikers against Adams in the 1980s and 1990s but Dalglish was different, and decidedly dangerous. “He was the best I faced. I loved my battles with the centre-forwards but was less keen on the little No 10s who made me think too much when I played in Europe and Kenny was like that. I kept a notebook on the opposition guys because there was only something like five live games on TV per year. What was Trevor Christie of Notts County like again? The book might have said: ‘Right foot, likes to drop off.’ Maybe about Kenny it’ll have been ‘massive arse’! Useful with his elbows, too. My first game at Anfield he smacked me and I saw stars for ten minutes. Even the most skilful players had to look after themselves in that era because football was pretty violent and most games there would be some kind of punch-up. My nose must have been broken five times in my debut season. Great days!”

A stout yeoman of England he may be, but Adams tells me he could’ve been a Ranger, could’ve bossed Celtic.
“When I finished up at Arsenal in 2002, aged 36, I was asked if I fancied a season at Rangers but I would have just been picking up money. Besides I wanted to be remembered as a one-club man. There was a great old banner the fans used to fly at Highbury: ‘One life, one love, one club, one-nil.’ They’d have had to change it if I’d gone anywhere else.” And he might not have got his own statue.

“The Celtic opportunity came after Gordon Strachan left. Wim Jansen had been sounded out about returning, possibly because Walter Smith was back at Rangers. Wim, who I knew from the coaching I did at Feyenoord, didn’t want to be manager again but, according to a Dutch journalist, would have been interested in technical director, helping out myself as a young boss. I mentioned this when England’s sponsors got me to do some media before an international. I was asked about possible jobs and was honest and open, the way I am. Maybe too open. Celtic denied the story and Wim refused to comment. A newspaper wrote that I’d gone a bit strange and seemed to be hearing voices in my head. I was a bit of a trailblazer. Mental health is very much up for discussion nowadays but it wasn’t back then. Some people thought I was a weirdo.”

Strange might be one way of describing Adams’ bodypopping routine on the training field at Spain’s Granada, his last coaching job, but it wouldn’t do this instant YouTube classic, subsequently spliced with many dance tracks, justice. There was nothing strange, however, about his performances in those epic Scotland-England games in the 1990s, among the 66 caps he amassed. I’m hoping he remembers throttlingly tight contests as the countries squared up at Euro 96 and in a two-legged play-off for the subsequent tournament; sadly not. Chuckling, he says: “Oh yes, they were lively affairs, but it was like we were a top division team coming up against non-league in the FA Cup. At Euro 96 I did the best I could to help you, I gave you the penalty [fouling Gordon Durie for the spot-kick fluffed by Gary McAllister]. You matched us for effort, and if we’d been complacent we might have been in trouble, but technically we were far superior and that told in the end.” (Ouch).

Adams was drinking at the time of Euro 96 – “My drinking career ran side by side with my football career back then” – but not in the build-up to the tournament so he missed his team’s dentist’s-chair shenanigans which inspired Paul Gascoigne’s goal celebration against Scotland. “I knew if I went with them I’d have been on the piss and gone.” He made up for lost bevvying time later, though.

“After Gareth’s penalty miss [and shootout defeat to Germany] I went down the tunnel and had a drink in the dressing-room,” he writes in Sober. “It felt fantastic, I have to admit. In the next seven weeks I did everything – pissed myself, shat myself, hallucinations, things appearing from cupboards. All my 12 years of drinking came out in those seven weeks.”

The booze wasn’t fantastic anymore. “I slept with women I didn’t want to, it was just shit,” the book continues. “During those 12 years I’d gone to prison for drink-driving, needed 29 stitches in my head after falling down steps drunk in a nightclub, been in intensive care. That’s where alcohol took me.”

Then he stopped. On a Friday, coming up for 22 years ago. “I threw in the towel, it was a surrender moment,” he tells me. “I gave in and asked for help. I got some fish and chips, ate them in bed and stayed there over that weekend, detoxing. Then on the Monday I got a cab to the Arsenal training ground to see if I still had a job.”

Adams quit just in time for the start of the Arsene Wenger revolution a few weeks into the following season. Just think what he might have missed. He does, often, and considers himself lucky to be alive. “I went to hell, mate, it was horrific. I seriously thought I’d be dead by the time I was 30. I didn’t know how to kill myself but nor did I know how to live.”

He recalls those first ginger steps towards recovery at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and the support he received from the Scots in the room. “There were Tube drivers and postmen, fantastic guys. We have an old saying in the fellowship: ‘Stick with the winners, win with the stickers.’ It means following those who’re really walking the walk. Adams still attends AA a couple of times a week. “I was helped; now I must help others.”

Sporting Chance is the charity he set up to aid sportspeople with addictions and this brings him back to Fergie. “He’s been brilliant. Man U was where I went with it first and he made sure every single member of the playing staff was present. Because he’d given me the nod I was then able to get into all the other clubs.” Maybe Adams should have played for him when he had the chance. “Well, I’m a Londoner, an Essex boy, and at that time I liked having my drinking buddies around me. I was afraid I wouldn’t have been able to cope up there without them.”

Adams may have been unafraid of facing a toothless, growling Joe Jordan as Arsenal’s youngest-ever captain but, really, this was just a front. “Playing for the club at 17 I was completely driven but so scared of failing and frightened of everything.” He had low self-esteem, didn’t like himself, was self-conscious about his gangly awkwardness and big nose and ears, all of which could be traced back to his schooldays and panic attacks when asked to read in class.

“I pretty much ran away from everything but football. Being on the pitch was my escape, and then alcohol became one, too.” Then he checks himself. Is he being too serious? The book, and Adams’ return from the brink, has blackly humorous moments, such as the Arsenal tour of Hong Kong when, drunk again, he was able to save Ray Parlour from a machete-wielding taxi driver angered at his team-mate lobbing prawn crackers into the cab. Then there was Adams’ speedboat: a rash purchase in which he almost came a cropper. “When I do a talk people are surprised at how much they laugh. A lot of this stuff is hilarious but only because I survived.” Adams has five children of his own and a step-daughter and even now, older, wiser and sobered up, will have Poppy in agreement about this: “I’m the seventh child in the family.”

Before he met her he had six years on his own. “That was important for finding out who I was.” It was during this period that he stepped out with Caprice, a short-lived fling which he suspected was being exploited by her retinue for publicity purposes. “Sex can be such a drug and could have kept me in the relationship,” writes the relentlessly-confessional Adams, “but part of my recovery was to look beyond the physical to the spiritual and the emotional. This from a bloke who once dumped a girl because the underwear she wore was, in his eyes, too big.”

There’s a chapter in the book on England, written after Euro 2016 and the Iceland debacle where he talks about his country going into the tournament with “kids and babies” and ending up a “laughing stock”. Following this summer’s World Cup, is it out of date? “I don’t know. Did they play anybody in Russia? They had a lucky run. They won three, lost three and drew one, needing penalties to settle it. But as soon they came up against a good team, out they went. They did their best but didn’t surprise me. They could easily have ended up a laughing stock again. They’re nice lads but the public got carried away. England are not breeding winners.”

Never bold enough to stray from the well-worn, often-staggered path from his home to his local, Adams since overcoming his demons and hanging up his boots has enjoyed football taking him to seven different countries including Azerbaijan and China in a variety of roles, but not the one of Arsene Wenger’s right-hand-man that he craved. Is he done with it now? “I’m open to offers but not exactly awash with them. Maybe the right one will come along but I wonder if I’ve still got the drive. Football’s a mad, mad world and I don’t want to work with idiots anymore and they account for roughly 99 per cent of the game. You know, I’m not saying I’m special and different but that’s kind of what I feel … ”