Adams adamant

Arsenal's rock knows all about the hard place.
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The Independent Online
RECOVERING alcoholics can always remember the day, the hour, of their last drink, and most importantly the pain and misery that went with it. They need to for those tough, tempting times ahead. "Friday, 16 August, five in the afternoon," says Tony Adams. "A pint of Guinness."

Now he recalls that moment he got sick and tired of being sick and tired almost clinically as we sit over cappuccino. The shame of last summer, when he was drunk almost every day for seven weeks after the desperate disappointment of that Euro 96 semi-final defeat by Germany, is gradually dissipating, to be replaced by a relief of no longer being "a man in a mask".

Both personally and professionally, the Arsenal and England captain is "under new management". There is a greater expansiveness in his game. The contorted face and clenched fist have given way to a more relaxed and thoughtful bearing as he looks somewhere other than into the bottom of a glass for peace of mind.

It couldn't have gone on the way it was. "My life was going down the toilet. I had material things, fame, but I felt even those things were starting to go. The alcohol was interfering with my football. I was a prisoner," says the man who six years ago was actually incarcerated for drink-driving. "My wife had left me, the house was a disaster. It was all falling apart."

In those lost summer weeks when only another knee operation interrupted the bender-drinking, Adams came to that point of despair which alcoholics who no longer drink term the rock bottom - the title of the autobiography of Paul Merson, his Arsenal team-mate with whom he now shares the bond of one-day-at-a-time recovery from the illness of addiction. He was not going to be fit for the new season. Not physically, mentally or emotionally.

Adams had a drink in May but was determined to abstain through Euro 96 - what is called white-knuckling it - and turned down the chance of joining the lads for that last dentist's-chair night out in Hong Kong. "I knew what would happen if I went: I would have kept getting drunk. 'Just avoid it,' I thought. I went straight to bed. I was trying to convince myself that I didn't have a problem."

Within minutes of Andreas Moller driving home that penalty on 26 June, however, Adams was on the way towards realising that he did. "I can't remember much about that night. I had a drink in the dressing-room, a couple more at Wembley and after we got back to the hotel, I vaguely remember talking to Terry Venables and Don Howe. After that it was a black-out.

"When I woke up the next morning, everyone except Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce had gone. They told me they were going home. I said, 'You mean you're not going for a drink?' I was lonely, but it's a lonely disease, isn't it? Even when you have got people around you, it's lonely. I found a few pals and went out on it again. And the next day. It was a three- dayer, I think."

Then came that August afternoon, that now auspicious afternoon. "I was in this social club in Essex I used, just me and Jack the guv'nor. It was shut. I liked places that were shut. 'You all right, Tone?' he said. I wasn't. I was filling up with tears. I wanted to stop drinking but I didn't know how. I went home and slept and when I woke up, I just surrendered.

"For a couple of weeks I was walking about, not drinking, surviving on blind faith and will-power but I knew that wasn't going to be enough. I found out about Alcoholics Anonymous and went to my first meeting in Fulham. I wondered what was going on but the compulsion to drink left me straight away."

WITH seven other schoolboys, including Michael Thomas, Dennis Wise and John Moncur, Tony Adams was travelling up to Lilleshall for an England trial. After some "out of order" behaviour on the train - "nothing to do with me," insists Adams - all eight were kicked out of the squad. At 14, it was a formative experience.

"I prayed that I would make that team," he says. "When I didn't, I thought, 'Right, I'm going to do it my way now'." A month later, in 1979, he signed schoolboy forms for Arsenal in the toilets at the London Colney training ground, the only place Terry Neill and Steve Burtenshaw could find. "Then I rolled up my sleeves for the Arsenal."

Such grim determination is the enduring image of Adams. In his teens, he was a classy, ball-playing centre-back. Under George Graham, arm aloft appealing for offside, he became the epitome of the uncompromising, often unlovely and unloved red machine that accumulated silverware. Opposition supporters ee-awed the donkey but Adams brayed last and longest.

"Of course the donkey stuff hurt," he says. "It was one of the reasons I drank. I wanted to get so drunk that when people came up to me and said 'You're a donkey', I was oblivious to what they were saying.

"You play under orders," he adds. "Plus we got success playing that way. I would do it to the best of my ability but all the time I was not expressing myself. I wanted to tell the world, the public, 'Hold on a minute, I don't want to play like this.' I didn't stand up. I wasn't a man. It wouldn't happen now. For the first time in my life I am a man. And I don't want to play that way again.

"But I respected George and what he achieved. He had some great ideas and the flair was in the final third. When we beat Parma to win the Cup- Winners' Cup, we weren't a good side but we knew that, with solid defence and midfield and 100 per cent commitment, we could pull it off.

George supported me in everything I did and I had to make sure everyone played the way he wanted. I just felt that maybe he could have given me a few more tellings-off. He would make the odd remark like 'You're coming in a bit drunk, Tony. Watch that.' But then I suppose I was in denial. We did what we did."

Neither did three months in Chelmsford jail help. "It was after a Sunday lunchtime session down in Southend. It got to five o'clock and I had to be at Heathrow at six. Looking back, it was total insanity, getting into a car. I was four times over the limit, 132 I think the reading was.

"It was one of the falls I needed to get me where I am today. I really have been a lucky boy all the way through this. It's funny. Glenn Hoddle wrote to me while I was in there saying I should mend my ways. I didn't take any notice. I laughed about it when he became England coach."

The drinking had kicked in at the age of19, when Adams was out for six weeks with a broken foot as he sought to fill a hole in the soul without football. Thereafter, a routine developed, even with England. "I was fearful of getting on a plane, so I was drinking every time we went abroad. Get in, get sober, play the game, drink again.

"I remember being left out of the squad for the 1990 World Cup. I was on standby, would you believe, and just got on a plane to Rhodes with a pal. If Bobby Robson had called me up, I wouldn't have made it. That whole summer I was drunk. It seemed that when England were doing badly it was 'Send for Tony'. But I always think the cream comes to the top in the end. Sorry to sound big-headed.

"There were some pretty rough days under Graham Taylor, too, though I always gave England everything. It was also at a time when George was coming to the end at Arsenal. Players sensed he had lost it. A lot of the team was getting old. In my opinion, he had concentrated too much on the first team and not on players coming through. I was gutted when he went but I can't say it came as a shock."

Terry Venables was the coach Adams most admired. "The most knowledgeable in the country," he says. "And he was so interested in what I thought. He showed that we do have the talent, despite all the knocking. He proved that all we need is the knowledge."

Both enjoyed their sweetest moment. Ridiculed after being tormented by Marco Van Basten's hat-trick in the 3-1 defeat by the Dutch at Euro 88, Adams revelled in the 4-1 victory at Wembley eight years later.

HE sat down with his Arsenal team-mates one morning in September to tell them of his alcoholism. "It was a relief," says Adams. "I didn't have to go out and drink with them any more. I didn't have to organise the Tuesday club in weeks when we weren't playing on a Wednesday. They didn't know I had a Monday club of my own.

"I can't paint footballers all the same but a lot of us never grow up. You come straight out of school into a macho lads' environment. You don't have to learn about life. It's escapism and ego. Some of the boys may think I am an oddball or a weirdo and they make jokes but I also think there's a lot of respect. It doesn't matter anyway. I did it for me.

"The football has come back very quickly. I have just worked the recovery programme of AA into it. I just do my bit, my best; I don't get all the anxiety about games any more. I'm bothered about winning obviously, because it's a better feeling than losing. Bruce Rioch helped me through my darkest days and now Arsene Wenger is the right man at the right time. When his appointment was announced, I thought, 'Who is this Frenchman? Who does he think he is?' At first I wanted to get away, to move clubs. Negatives, negatives, negatives. But something told me to give him a chance. He has been very understanding towards me and he is approachable, bright and humorous. His training is excellent - quality rather than quantity."

Under him, leaner and fitter, Adams has prospered anew, being recalled, as captain, for his 46th cap for England in Georgia and striding forward for Arsenal as his early career promised, a volleyed goal against Tottenham the picture of the change. "It's not that the manager has told me to get forward; more that I want to and he hasn't stopped me."

It is a result of change off the field that sees him content to walk his dog, go to AA meetings and study for an English Literature GCSE. "I used to be afraid of dying, of flying, my career ending. I was ruled by fear. Not any more. I have been searching for something and I feel I am finding it. It's about being comfortable with me. I used to worry about how I would get a buzz without football, without drink. Now I just want to seize the day. And that's a wonderful, wonderful place to be. Whether I win anything again or not, I feel I am a winner anyway."

A few days after our cappuccino rush, Adams phones me. "You won't make me sound goody-goody will you?" he asks. He can still get down and be moody, he says. He knows there is still much to address as he goes through a divorce and seeks to be a more attentive father to his three children. He is a sick person trying to get well rather than a bad person trying to get good. "I'll try and make it real," I reply. "Real," he ponderers. "That's what this is all about. Trying to find the real Tony Adams."

c Independent on Sunday