Football: Adams to lead by example

The England defender talks to Ian Ridley about his return to captaincy and sobriety
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The Independent Online
Today, on the 84th day of the rest of his life, Tony Adams returns to captain England against Georgia in a World Cup qualifying match in Tbilisi. This one should not be confused with the Adams with attitude, angry face contorted and arm seemingly ever aloft appealing for offside; defender on the pitch, defensive off it.

The Tony Adams who spoke yesterday, with a new softness in his voice, of his gratitude at being restored to a sanity in his life, as well as the leadership of his country, was one reborn out of the humiliation that active alcoholism inflicts. In its place, we had a humility that recovery from the illness inspires. Now he just folds his hands up.

Adams had always been able to cover up his drinking with consistent performances for Arsenal and England, solid and dependable, if sometimes exposed by the highest quality of striker at international level. Such was the fierce intensity of his desire to succeed at Euro 96 that he white-knuckled his way through May and June without a drink.

After England's exit from the competition in the semi- final, and with more knee surgery pending - seven pain-killing injections saw him through the tournament - he hit the bottle again. Six weeks later, his marriage also failing, he was in a despair that no footballing disappointment can match.

One morning in August, a new season in the offing, he woke up, took a look at the man in the mirror and despised the reflection. His team-mate Paul Merson had done it; now he knew he had to. A day at a time, he has not had a drink for those 84 days and the change in behaviour and attitude was there for all to see yesterday.

"I have been this person who has had this mask on for all these years," he said slowly and thoughtfully. "I have had a good look at myself, warts and all, and I think I am changing in lots of ways."

His relief at being released from a personal prison worse than the real one in which he was banged up for a stretch for drink-driving five years ago was evident.

Looking lean - "Well, I'm not drinking Guinness" - but not mean, he was polite and indulgent, with a wit that surprised. When did he know he would be captain? "I had an idea when Glenn started calling me 'Skip'," he said. It was a far cry from the figure who took the intercom on the plane trip home from a successful raid on Auxerre with Arsenal and sarcastically thanked the press for winding up the team by writing them off.

He could also be assertive without being aggressive when something displeased him. "It's becoming a trend, all this stuff, isn't it?" someone wondered. "I don't mean it to be," he said. "I needed to do it for me, trend or no trend. But I don't think some of us need it. I need it."

And England need Adams. Physical and emotional pain meant him missing Moldova, while it was early days in his recuperation from the wounded knee when Poland came around last month, a game in which the defence looked alarmingly vulnerable at times. Since then, his form has been splendid as he seeks to graft more thought on to the dependability under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, whose coaching he is enjoying.

"Like any other human being, I like a bit of praise and recognition," Adams said. "I think I have been playing well." He wants, he added, to be judged as a captain and footballer, rather than any role model. "A player who goes out and tries his best, with a commitment to being the best footballer he can be, for people to say: 'He's got a few qualities everyone can look at.'

"I think any kids out there should look at the player. How many games he has played, how many times he has played for his country," he added. And although Adams does not like to project, he does concede that a 50th cap, five games down the line, would thrill him.

"I think Glenn knows I have changed," he said, and elaborated neatly - it is, after all, ultimately impossible to divorce the person from the player. "In footballing terms, I have tried to lead by example. I'm doing it more for myself now. If I get myself performing to the best of what Tony Adams can do, then I am going to help everyone else.

"I said to the players at Arsenal: 'Look, you might not get the verbals or a kick up the backside like you used to, but have a look at me. I can assure you I will be giving 100 per cent, my best for the team. I am running and heading and kicking for me and for you.'

"If I see someone not pulling their weight or not doing something, then I am only human. I will talk to them. But there are certain ways of putting things over. There is a thin line and you can go over the top a bit. I have seen certain players go over the line. If it's all verbal, it goes in one ear and out of another. If you are constructive with it, it works."

Although he always admired George Graham - indeed, was the symbol of his management - the change at Arsenal has also been appropriate to him, with the central role in a three-man defence mirroring what will be expected in Hoddle's England.

"It opened up new fields for me," he said. "With George Graham for eight years I was suppressed in the way I was playing. He wanted a particular style of playing, a back four, and we all want to please our boss. Besides, he got success with it.

"Going into a different system when he left, I have been able to express myself a bit more and I think a few people have been surprised that maybe I can play a bit. But I do think it is important in that position to be able to defend.

"Some people have talked about a Glenn Hoddle-type player in there, but sooner or later you have to head and kick the ball. At some stage, the other team is going to attack and I would rather have a defender in there. I can bring the ball out a little bit, but then I give it to Gazza or whoever."

Ah, Gazza. Has Adams spoken to him? "He has asked me about things once or twice. But I'm not here to change anyone else. I am happy with myself."

It has, he admitted, been difficult with Paul Merson having withdrawn from the squad. But he has been talking to "the right people". At pounds 7.50 a minute to telephone England, it is a costly business. "That's for the FA," he said with a smile.

Clearly, he did not get sober to get sombre, serious business as it all is. I ventured that I had written last week in a match report that when his brow was stitched and dressed against Wimbledon, it was the first time he had been plastered in months. "Yeah, good one," he replied, laughing. By retaining the best of the old and harnessing the new, England could now see the very best of the new Tony Adams.



(at Boris Paichadze stadium, Tbilisi; today, 12.0 GMT)

Group Two

P W D L F A Pts

England 2 2 0 0 5 1 6

Italy 2 2 0 0 4 1 6

Poland 1 0 0 1 1 2 0

Georgia 1 0 0 1 0 1 0

Moldova 2 0 0 2 1 6 0

RESULTS: 1996: 1 Sept: Moldova 0 England 3 (Barmby 23, Gascoigne 24, Shearer 61). 5 Oct: Moldova 1 (Curtianu 11) Italy 3 (Ravanelli 8, 87, Casiraghi 68). 9 Oct: England 2 (Shearer 24, 37) Poland 1 (Citko 6); Italy 1 (Ravanelli 42) Georgia 0.

FIXTURES: Today: Georgia v England. Tomorrow: Poland v Moldova. 1997: 12 Feb: England v Italy. 29 Mar: Italy v Moldova. 2 Apr: Poland v Italy. 30 Apr: England v Georgia; Italy v Poland. 7 June: Georgia v Moldova. 14 June: Poland v Georgia. 10 Sept: England v Moldova; Georgia v Italy. 24 Sept: Moldova v Georgia. 7 Oct: Moldova v Poland. 11 Oct: Italy v England; Georgia v Poland.