Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century 15: Tony Adams, Footballer

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The Independent Culture
THE CRAGGY uncompromising centre half is an enduring feature of British soccer. No matter how dandified the game becomes, there will always be room for the hard man, whose modus operandi is the emasculation (almost literally when boots begin to fly) of uppity opposition forwards, followed by the despatch of the ball into the upper reaches of the stand.

Where other nations may opt for a sweeper, a Franz Beckenbauer figure who can carry the ball elegantly out of defence before hitting an inch- perfect 40-yard pass, the British have always favoured something more on the lines of an earth mover.

There is a story, certainly apocryphal but worth repeating for what it tells us about our soccer heroes, of the grizzled old-time defender on whose gravestone was the simple legend, "Who are you looking at?" The spirit of this unknown stopper just about lives on in players like Vinnie Jones, Stuart Pearce, but most of all in Tony Adams.

This is not to say that Adams is a less than competent footballer. He can play a little, but he has always seemed to recognise his place in the mythology of English football and suppressed any instincts to get involved in the finer points of the game. As a result of this self-sacrifice, Adams is now well into his second decade as a spiky battle-scarred standard bearer for his own fans, and a target for the ridicule, spite, and disdain of opposition supporters.

Bearing this burden alone has an element of heroism about it. Adams also deserves our respect for continuing - in the face of the Chelseafication of British football - a tradition in our game that goes back to the days of leather footballs and reinforced toecaps. But what makes Adams truly heroic is that he is the only England captain in any sport, as far as we are aware, to admit to wetting the bed on a regular basis.

Adams stopped drinking on Friday 16 August, 1996, he reveals in his recently published autobiography Addicted, which deals with his descent into alcoholism - the bed-wetting, the brawls, the soiled trousers - and continuing recovery.

In this age of public confessions on Oprah and high-profile admissions into show-biz clinics, Adams's account is as heroically undemonstrative as his football. The phrase "gentle giant" used to be the cliche of choice for sports-writers describing sport's terminators out of hours, but in Adams's case it seems really apt.

His account of the shyness and insecurity he felt from childhood, which led him to try and fill a void with alcohol, rings entirely true. All the more so, since the autobiography is so matter-of-fact.

Adams doesn't try to hide anything, but nor does he overstate his bad behaviour to play to the gallery. This can sometimes be unintentionally amusing, as in sentences such as, "There were the very public escapades - the prison sentence, the 29 stitches in my forehead, the Pizza Hut incident..." Oh, those. But mostly it is rather moving.

In some ways you half admire Adams for carrying on drinking as long as he did when you consider he was simultaneously sustaining a career in first-class football.

"I would go into training on a Monday morning, put a plastic bag on my torso and under my shirt, and run around the pitch until I had sweated the beer out of my system ready for a Wednesday game," Adams writes. Any man prepared to go through such hoops to fulfil his destiny of giving primadonna forwards a good kicking is to be admired.

Now Adams says he fills the void by learning to play the piano - and that is a truly heroic admission for one of the genuine tough guys of British soccer.