Football: Adams fit to face the world

Exclusive: The Arsenal and England man gets away from it all to prove a point to himself and the doubters; Ian Ridley travels to Nice to witness the remarkable revival of a troubled international
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AS Tony Adams entered the restaurant, the figure in the corner caught his eye. He sent a smile of recognition and received one back. "Best I ever played against," said the Arsenal captain as we sat down at the table next to Marco Van Basten, scourge of Adams and England in the European Championships of 10 years ago.

After his meal, Adams went over to shake hands. Van Basten asked him how he was. Adams lamented his own recent injuries, then returned the enquiry. "I wish I was still playing," said the one-time Holland centre-forward wistfully. As merely a distant admirer, this observer's own sadness at the curtailment of Van Basten's brilliant career with Milan because of a serious ankle injury is bad enough.

"I think it was a sign," said the English game's defensive stalwart later as we pondered the encounter in Antibes in the South of France. So low has Adams been with injury in the last few months that the question of his future had crossed his mind. Now, after a week of fierce physical work came a more spiritual moment that inspired a humility beyond his joke that this was the closest he had come to Van Basten. It also confirmed that he is ready - lucky, indeed, to be able - to re-enter the fray. "I'm raring to go. I want to get back in there and do it," he said.

That Adams sounds so positive after long absences from the Arsenal team this season is the result of a carefully planned three-week programme, culminating in five days of intensive fitness work based at a spa and health club near Nice, arranged by the Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, once in charge of nearby Monaco. It will be music to the Frenchman's ears. Adams could even be pitched in against Port Vale on Wednesday; and will almost certainly be at Coventry next Saturday.

Adams has endured long hours of rehabilitation work under the watchful eye of a specialist conditioning coach, the expansive and autocratic Tiburce Darrou, well known in France for his work with tennis players such as Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah as well as the footballers of Paris Saint- Germain among many others. There has been cycling, swimming, all manner of hydrotherapy and even training with a professional basketball team in an attempt to help him rediscover what Darrou calls the "explosive powair" of which Adams has been robbed by ankle, knee and back injuries.

"It's got me wanting to get out of bed again," Adams told me after his daily lunchtime walk in the Mediterranean at Juan-les-Pins, out of season a resort resembling Eastbourne in season, not least in its weather, and which Peter Sarstedt celebrated in song. Now, after all the recent supposed sightings, Arsenal fans know the answer to the question: "Where do you go to my lovely?"

"Arsenal come first but over the next month it would be nice to work towards the England match against Chile on 11 February," Adams added. "I think people will be surprised with Tony Adams. A few players are going to be very jealous with the way there is a spring in my step in January."

Adams is surprised himself by his change in attitude. He arrived last Sunday not knowing what to expect and aware of all the rumours circulating about him: the recovering alcoholic had turned up drunk again for training and Wenger had sent him home; he was a spent force, no longer the Captain Fantastic of yore; he was considering quitting the game. In fact, Adams has been touching nothing stronger than a cup of his favourite Earl Grey before retiring to bed with his Ben Okri novel, though he did - shock, horror - hit an English pub in Antibes on Tuesday night. That was because it had TV coverage of Arsenal's Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final at West Ham. After two cappuccini and the 2-1 win, he smiled at the thought that he was in the warmth of the Cote d'Azur while his team-mates toiled on a mudheap in the wind and rain.

Adams admitted, though, that he had been toying with the idea of retiring after the World Cup finals if his worn and torn 31-year-old body did not get any better and if he was no longer able to motivate himself, let alone team-mates. "Before Christmas I was in a bad space, deep in depression," he says. "I was frustrated that I wasn't doing myself justice. After missing the start of the season with an ankle injury, I had played a 13-game spell where I was just getting by, just doing a job, which for Tony Adams is not good enough. Even in Rome with England, I thought I only did what was needed."

The problem was that after two operations on a knee damaged two years ago and another on his right ankle, after which he played in Euro 96 only with pain-killing injections, his posture was affected and back pain resulted, leading this season to a cycle of injuries down his right side. With doubts about his body came a drop in form.

"I was getting out of bed and couldn't walk," he said. "It was taking me a long time to get going in the mornings. That takes a toll on you mentally. Training became a chore, a strain. I was not happy, resting, having treatment, going back. I was controlling the inflammation with tablets.

"We have high standards at Arsenal Football Club and it's a great thing in me that I have always had high standards myself. These days I give myself a bit more of a break but I still need goals, to push myself. When it's not happening, it becomes frustrating. Soul-destroying, in fact. Then the physical affects the mental and you start thinking you are not playing well, that this hurts. Everything is playing on your mind."

The final straw came against Blackburn Rovers last month. Almost unthinkably, Adams made two mistakes that led to goals. "I couldn't jump," he said. "I was getting by on the right-hand side of the defence but when I moved to the left, I was struggling, not able to kick the ball properly. It was similar to the previous year against Manchester United and Andy Cole when I shouldn't have played and I thought, 'Jesus, this is ridiculous. A year has gone by and I've got no improvement.'"

Suddenly Adams feared the worst. "It worried me a great deal," he said. "Sometimes you think, 'Hold on a minute, is it all over?' You do get that thought because of the physical pain and the inability to perform. I have given the Arsenal public so much and I didn't want to just get by so that the fans remember me being an also-ran. They would end up booing me. They deserve the Tony Adams that's giving, wanting and doing. In a way I'm glad I played badly against Blackburn. It shot me out of the cannon to do something about it."

In the next few days, Adams spent long hours talking to Wenger about the problem. "Arsene said to me, 'Watch your little boy jump out of bed. He runs, he jumps and he wants to get on with his life.' He told me I wasn't playing off my front foot, that I was backing off. He said, 'That will destroy you Tony, because you are so proud, you will suffer.' I completely agreed with him. The man is amazing like that; he can tell.

"You look at other areas, like why certain players may not be performing well, then you get back to you. The only way I ever work is if I can do my bit, then I can give to the team. First things first with me. I took a good honest look at myself, said to Arsene that I wasn't feeling the way a professional athlete should and he came up with a plan."

The idea was that Adams would have a fortnight away from the game, though seeing a posture specialist as well as an osteopath and acupuncturist, then come to France for the five-day treatment. "It was brave of Arsene, because we had the FA Cup and Coca-Cola Cup coming up but he is looking at Arsenal's investment long-term," said Adams.

"I knew it was going to be make or break for me, very reminiscent of before Euro 96 when I played in China," he added. "It's been very good. The sea acts like an ice pack and has enabled me to do so much work on my ankle. For the first couple of days it was so tough. Tiburce was trying to break my ankle, basically. It was shit or bust. I could have gone back with a broken ankle but it took the test. I have stayed the journey."

That journey has involved a mixture of fierce fitness and agility work, as well as massage and hydrotherapy. On Thursday, he trained with the French national league basketball team Olympique Antibes. "Can you feel some explosive powair?" Darrou asked. "I'm ready to blow up," Adams replied.

"It's been the hardest physical work I have ever done. But the older you get, the harder you have to work. It's important that I get on that front foot again. I think my style has always been a bit loping and I feel at my best when I'm light on my feet. George Graham always used to say to me 'quick feet, son. Work on your quick feet'. At times because you get success you can neglect it and go through the motions.

"As English people we get stuck in the old ways. The game is moving on and there are always things we can learn. This is why our physio at Arsenal, Gary Lewin, has been so good, because he is open-minded. We need to keep the best of English methods but take the good stuff from abroad. The days are gone when you could drink 14 pints on a Thursday night and go and play on a Saturday as I used to. The great thing over here is the weather that allows me to get much more work done."

Indeed, you say, all this sounds excellent on a beach in the South of France but what of Coventry on a cold January Saturday? "Coming back, I think, is the easy part," Adams insisted. "I now have confidence in my body. What I have been doing here is 10 times harder than a football game. Now I need four or five months under my belt playing to a high level. The World Cup will come after Arsenal. I will make mistakes, and I am not going to be brilliant every week but I am fit and ready to battle. I just can't wait to show everyone that I am 100 per cent. The problem for everyone now is that I am going to be on their backs."

The backs of team-mates and opponents alike, it seems. Out of season Adams may have been last week, but he's beginning to feel back in it. The Ben Okri book he was reading is called Astonishing The Gods.

Independent on Sunday