Football: Adams returns ready to play mind games

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The Independent Online
At the end of Euro 96, Tony Adams was a physical and emotional wreck. His personal life was ravaged by alcoholism and his career was threatened by a knee injury. Fourteen months on he is enjoying a renaissance.

Adams talked to our football correspondent about Arsenal's rise to the top of the Premiership, England's match in Rome, and his new outlook on life.

He may have given up the bottle, begun taking piano lessons and writing poetry, but Tony Adams still relishes a contest. The difference is that, following the awakening of his intellectual side, he is now prepared to engage in a mental duel as well as a physical one.

This change is quickly apparent in any interview situation. Adams was never a enthusiastic subject, the criticism he received for his alcohol-fuelled indiscretions, and the cruel lampooning of his game, turned him against the media long ago. He remains hostile with all but his closest media confidants but, while once he reacted with brief, obvious answers, now he turns the interview into a contest, querying questions, questioning assumptions, looking, always, for the perceived traps. This is not entirely a bad thing as it does make the interviewer think carefully about the questions posed.

Asked for a "thumbnail sketch" of himself after training yesterday he says he "has not the intellect" to answer; asked if English players and teams tend to go for a win even when they only need a draw he says "You expect me to speak for everybody?"; and asked how long it will take to regain his best form he pauses, perhaps thinking that answering will betray a belief that he is not at his best, slowly repeats the question, then answers, "Two weeks? Three or four years? In 10 years I'll be a half-decent player."

The last question is valid. Having been troubled for 18 months by a knee injury that, according to Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, threatened his career, he has returned at a crucial time for club and country. Today he captains the Premiership leaders against Barnsley at Highbury. Next Saturday, the day after his 31st birthday, he will lead England in Rome. A point will take England to France next summer and, injuries and form permitting, give Adams his first experience of the World Cup finals.

Yet he has played only five games this season and has only represented England twice in the 13 months since Glenn Hoddle took over. On Tuesday he was among those at fault when PAOK Salonika scored the goal which ended Arsenal's Uefa Cup campaign. His form is a legitimate "matter of public interest".

To be fair, he adds: "My form is fine - I'm working on it. My first game back was good, my second not so good. I always strive to play my best but players have high points and low points, that's only natural.

"I viewed losing to Salonika just the way I did losing to Wrexham in the first round of the FA Cup in 1992. If you are going to get knocked out, you are better off doing it early on so you can concentrate on the other trophies. My worst one was losing in the semi-final to Tottenham [in 1991]. We had given all that energy only to fall at the final hurdle."

Today's game will be his 516th for Arsenal and, before his "change of life" (that is, giving up the booze) he might have found it difficult to get motivated. "In the past I might have thought `it's only Barnsley' as it can go a bit flat after so many games. But I've realised it won't last for ever: one day the legs stop running. There are two ways to react, you can either hang up the boots or try and prolong it as long as possible. I am doing that, I am seizing the day. Having been sitting on my arse frustrated for a year it's easy to roll up the sleeves now."

The change in approach at Arsenal under Wenger has helped. "It's lovely driving into work knowing there is no fear attached. You don't get put under pressure, it is very relaxed."

This does not reflect too well on the Highbury regimes of George Graham and, possibly, Bruce Rioch, though Adams added: "Some people still need a kick up the backside and there are other people on the staff that do that."

Adams used to do a fair bit of shouting himself but now he is more likely to have a quiet word. Either way he remains a significant figure at Highbury. "He is a big influence," Wenger said. "He is not just a good player but also a good team player. He is sensitive to what is going on and knows when there are problems on the field and outside. He does not report to me with them; he and the team can sort them out between them. There is a mutual respect in this team which I have not found before. Nor have I met a player as mentally strong.

"He is at an important age, one when players think about life. He has decided to combat his problems and it has given him maturity."

And so to Rome for, in all likelihood, his 48th cap and 11th as captain. He has never lost as captain. "I don't count the penalties after the Germany semi-final. The game was 1-1. They'll be looking to win but so will we. If you look to draw you might lose, if look to win you might draw.

"We have always had passion. There is not a better country in the world for commitment and strength, but we now have brain and brawn. Terry gave us the knowledge and Glenn has added his own bits and pieces. Dennis Bergkamp said they always thought of the English as `strong but stupid'.

"We have good young players here, there has been a blossoming of talent. We have tended to put foreign players on a pedestal, both players and media. Now, working with them day in and day out, we can see some are special but some are not. They are individuals, like us."

Adams has always reflected on his football but now does so in his life. "It helped me to look at myself as a player so it should help me in my personal life," he said. "There are softer options and I used to take them. I don't now."

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