Football: Beating the world with a clenched fist: Jeered by opposing fans, cheered by fellow professionals, Tony Adams is considered by some to be the very face of English football. Richard Williams reports

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The Independent Online
THERE'S a man in front of me, an Arsenal season-ticket holder, and he's wearing a pair of huge plastic donkey's ears. They're attached to a piece of wire, concealed under a baseball cap. He's sitting in the front row of the main stand at Highbury, and the ears waggle as he jumps up and down. Anybody who goes to football recognises these ears for what they are: a weird tribute to Tony Adams, the Arsenal captain and centre-half, 'The Donkey' to opposing fans, a player who inspires unusual extremes of affection and distaste.

Think about Tony Adams, and you get a series of strong images. The clenched fist, the bared teeth. A mask of resistance, often of rage. Unstinting physical effort. Clumsy, artless, accident-prone, forever trying to pit muscle against skill, to some people Tony Adams is the face of English football.

On Wednesday, he will turn out for England in a crucial World Cup qualifying group match against the Netherlands - the team that, five years ago this summer, seemed to have ended his international career. In Izmir the other week, Adams was perhaps England's most effective player in the 2-0 defeat of Turkey. But in Dusseldorf in 1988, during the European championship finals, an England defence anchored by the 21-year-old Adams was run ragged by Marco van Basten, who helped himself to a hat-trick. Which is when the donkey business began.

'Nobody deserves that,' Bobby Robson, who was England's manager that day in Dusseldorf, said last week. 'It was bloody disgraceful. A character assassination. What an ordeal]'

Robson was talking about what happened when Adams got back home from Germany, with an England team that had lost three matches out of three. The next season, Arsenal won the league championship - but everywhere Adams went he heard a chant: 'Ee-yore, ee-yore'. A bit of a joke, but to Adams it was seriously hurtful. And it got worse when, as the season approached its climax, Adams scored both goals in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, Manchester United's 'equaliser' coming from his wildly sliced clearance. The next morning, the back page of the Daily Mirror carried a huge mug-shot of Adams, with a pair of donkey's ears attached by the art department. Now everybody knew who The Donkey was.

There was talk of legal action against the Mirror. 'No comment', says Alex Adams, the player's father and, famously, his No 1 fan. 'But I know what I'd like to have done.' There's a bitter laugh down the telephone.

'In '88 we were going for the championship,' says Brian Marwood, who played on the wing in that year's Arsenal side and is a past chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association. 'Tony was the captain, he was having to think about his own game, he was in and out of the England squad. That's a lot of responsibility, which made the taunting an even greater thing to handle. I've seen players who've succumbed to that sort of thing. Tony was very young when it happened to him. But whether or not it hurt him deep down, and I'm sure it did, he never showed it. He handled it all with great dignity. It helped him to grow up.'

'He never drops his head,' says Don Howe, who put the 17-year-old Adams into the Arsenal first team. 'He treats criticism as a gee-up. In fact it makes him stronger.'

ON THE terraces, they chant 'Ee- yore' and talk about The Donkey. Inside football, though, the words people use when they talk about Tony Adams are 'character', 'strength' and 'leadership'. And, sooner or later, they all talk about how he's 'come through'.

There's certainly been plenty through which to come. On 20 December 1990, he was sent to prison after crashing his XR4 while three times over the alcohol limit. The papers were full of it, not least because the new England manager, Graham Taylor, had just launched a pre-Christmas don't-drink-and-drive campaign. Released after 57 days of a four-month sentence, he was greeted with more headlines: 'How Minder Mick Guarded Soccer Star Tony', that kind of thing.

There were more accidents to come, some of them tinged with farce. In February this year, for instance, he went out for a drink to celebrate his daughter's first birthday, fell down some stairs in a night club and woke up with 29 stitches in his head. More headlines, of course. And the 'coming through' doesn't seem to have stopped there. Only last Sunday, after the Coca-Cola Cup final, he picked up the young team-mate who'd scored the winning goal, the pair of them overbalanced, and a minute later Adams was watching in horror as Steve Morrow was being taken to hospital to have a four-inch steel plate screwed to his broken right arm, when he should have been climbing the Wembley steps to collect his medal. More Tony Adams jokes, like the one about the man who asks Steve Morrow how he broke his arm: 'I fell off a donkey . . .'

But then Adams has always been accident-prone. Here's a story from the dim and distant past, told by Terry Murphy, who was a coach at Highbury when the 14-year-old centre-half signed schoolboy forms with the club in 1980. It also explains why Adams, an outstanding prospect, never made it into the England Schools squad.

'He was on his way down to the final trials with half a dozen other boys,' Murphy said last week. 'Apparently there was some larking about on the train. Tony wasn't involved. But there was a selector on board and they were sent straight back home. All of them.'

It was a similar story on 5 November 1983, when he made his first-team debut for Arsenal. 'It was at Sunderland,' Murphy remembered. 'After five minutes, Peter Nicholas threw the ball to him on the edge of the area. He fumbled it. They scored.'

Right here, though, we have a twist that begins to explain the special nature of Tony Adams. 'Arsenal lost that match 2-1,' Murphy continued, 'but by the end of the 90 minutes Tony was the man of the match. He was 17 years old. A mistake like that could have finished some youngsters. It's an example I always give to young players now.

'Actually,' Arsenal's youth officer says of a chap who's done time in the big house, 'I think he's a great example to every youngster.'

WHEN HE was five years old, his mother took him to play football at a youth club in Hornchurch. Within weeks he was playing with older boys - under-eights, under-nines. A year later, his father had given up his own amateur career to encourage his son.

'Personally, I never had any hopes of a professional career for him,' Alex Adams says. 'It wasn't until he was 10 or 11, when clubs started asking him to go training. But Tony was always tall and quick - and every side he was involved with made him skipper. He learnt a lot from coming to coaching sessions with me. Eventually I was coaching four or five nights a week, and he used to join in and help me.'

People tend to mention the father when they talk about the formation of his son's character. 'He's a very determined man, a big influence,' Brian Marwood says. 'A good man', says Don Howe. But, although he trained as a boy with West Ham, Alex Adams never planned a professional career for himself. 'My interests were different.' Such as? 'Oh, there was swimming . . . and enjoying myself. We're not all like Tony. Tony's pure football. There's nothing else in life for him.'

Tony Adams's present manager, George Graham, has described him as 'my colossus', and Adams was already 6ft tall when, at the age of 14, he chose to sign with Arsenal rather than West Ham or Tottenham, who were also keen. 'We were lucky,' Don Howe says. 'He was a leader from the start. If he thought something should be said, he said it. But if it was his turn to get criticised, he took it like a man - even when he was a boy.'

'He was a quiet lad,' Murphy adds, 'but on the field he'd always be talking to people. Even if he wasn't having the best of games himself, he'd be talking to the others, encouraging them.'

Paul Mariner, who joined Arsenal just before Adams's first-team debut, remembers Howe and Pat Rice, another youth coach, talking about him even then as a captain of the future. 'One or two others needed convincing. I have to be honest and say that, myself, I didn't think he'd become the asset he is now. I thought of him as an ugly duckling, and ugly ducklings don't always turn into wonderful swans. But the lads in the dressing room always felt that if you were having a five-a-side, he was the one you'd want in your side because he always gave everything. Always.'

He leads by example, Brian Marwood says. 'When you're in trouble, you tend to look at him. He's the one who's winning the tackles and getting hold of the ball. And if you got into one of those games where it's a bit of a battle, he'd be at the front of it.'

THE CLENCHED fist, the bared teeth. Images of Arsenal players mob- handed, squaring up to opponents, snarling at a referee.

'Anybody who plays for Arsenal is unpopular with the rest of the nation,' Paul Mariner says. 'As soon as you pull that shirt on, everybody seems to have it in for you. And we're taught at an early age to look after each other on the field. Whatever you think of that, it helps bond team-mates together.'

Don Howe describes how Adams came through the Arsenal system with 'a terrific bunch of young players, all of whom lived not far from each other - Tony and Paul Merson were from the east side; Michael Thomas, David Rocastle and Paul Davis were from south of the river. You could see they were all going to make the grade.'

But, bonded by the outside world's animosity, they also developed the ability to pile in at the slightest hint of provocation. 'To an extent, it was blown out of proportion,' Brian Marwood says. 'They were good friends, very conscious of the need to stick together on and off the field. They were having to live with the everybody- hates-Arsenal thing. And I think it did bother them, yes.'

Those images of aggression didn't help when young Arsenal players found themselves in trouble with the law. 'I look at Tony and Paul Merson,' says Marwood, 'who went through a very similar thing. They were both very young, and they wanted to go out and do the things that people of their age do, without realising that everything they do or say is scrutinised very closely. It's the price they have to pay for the big careers they're going to have, with Arsenal and with England.'

SO HOW good a player is he? Did the duckling turn into a swan, or is it a case of once a donkey, always a donkey?

'The strength of his game is defending,' Don Howe says, which will only be a statement of the obvious to those who haven't seen some of the central defenders in the Premier League this season. 'That's what being a centre-half is about. Can this bloke defend? He can. And he's gradually improving his ability on the ball. My criticism of today's players is that they're not self-critical. Tony is clever enough to see the areas of his game that need improvement, and to work on them.'

After Paul Mariner had left Arsenal for Portsmouth, he looked forward to facing his former colleague when the two clubs met. 'I thought, well, you've always got a chance against Tony - you could be a little bit cleverer, or maybe outpace him. But it wasn't the case. I didn't get a kick.'

'He's a difficult boy to get past,' Bobby Robson says. 'If you're chasing a 50-50 ball with him, you're going to lose it. If it's 60-40 to you, you'll probably still lose it. He never gives up. I wouldn't like to play against Tony Adams too often.'

Nevertheless, Robson dropped Adams after the disastrous European championships, and he stayed dropped through the 1990 World Cup. 'He was a young player in Germany,' Robson says, 'up against the best in Europe. You have to chuck them in, and they have to learn how to swim. But it showed his inexperience, not his lack of ability. And now what he's done is to show what I always believed he had: the character to come through.'

It was Graham Taylor, Robson's successor, who revived Adams's international career. 'To many people,' Taylor said last week, 'Tony's seen as the typical English centre-half - a fine leader, good in the air and a strong tackler, but perhaps susceptible when playing against quick forwards. I happen to think that maybe he's all these things, but he's certainly a far better footballer than he's been given credit for. Perhaps because of that, he limits himself when he's in possession. But I'm constantly encouraging him to become a much more complete player.'

'THESE THINGS happen to people,' Don Howe says, talking about the trials of Tony Adams, 'and it's a bit of a test. 'See how you handle that.' We all get tested in life. He came through it.'

You can't talk to all these people and not be struck by the warmth of their admiration for a man who, at 26, has spent much of his career as the butt of derision. 'I loved his character,' Bobby Robson said. 'He's a competitor. He's a talker. He's brave. He'd get in there for you. After all that's happened to him, I wish him well.'

'He's a leader,' Howe says. 'And he leads in the right way. A real leader. We haven't got too many of those, have we? In football, or in life generally.'

(Photograph omitted)