Until that Dusseldorf afternoon Adams had been heralded as a successor to Bobby Moore. An impressive first full season with Arsenal had been followed by a commanding England debut at 20. Years of honour and respect beckoned as he headed for Germany and the European Championships.
Then came Van Basten's hat-trick, the most memorable of which involved a turn which left Adams looking as mobile as an oil tanker. In the next few years he lost his England place, was ridiculed as a "donkey", then found himself in jail after being found guilty of drinking and driving.
It would be stretching a point to blame all that on Van Basten but it did not help. Even now, after another eight years, 28 caps and six trophies with Arsenal that memory lingers.
Yesterday, at Bisham Abbey, he ventured the connection even before being asked. Later on a Dutch journalist, stepping in where even the English media had feared to tread, asked: "Is it a nightmare for you?"
"Yes, I have nightmares all the time," said Adams, with a big enough grin to suggest that, while the match occasionally crossed his mind the years have considerably dimmed the pain. He added, in similar vein. "I am never going to get revenge on Mr van Basten as he has "bottled it" and retired. I can't put that record straight - but I've got to get on with the next one, it's a new era, a new competition."
The "next one" is Dennis Bergkamp, Adams' Highbury team-mate. "They are both terrific players," Adams said. "Van Basten was one of the best in the world at that time, a fabulous player. Bergkamp is very similar in the way he plays and he is also world-class.
"He is a great player, he has done fabulously well for Arsenal. He's scored about 15 goals and made about 20 of Ian Wright's. He is big factor in our getting into Europe.
Bergkamp has scored twice against Adams for the Netherlands, in the 2- 2 draw at Wembley and the 2-0 defeat at Rotterdam - both qualifiers for the last World Cup. "He has a good record," Adams said, "but you can't just worry about him, they have other players too. But, like every side, they have their strengths and they also have weaknesses. We will try to exploit their weaknesses and get to grips with their strengths."
Bergkamp tipped Scotland to beat England on Saturday and is, Adams suggested, already "playing mind games with me". In response Adams said, somewhat tongue in cheek, "He's always beating me in training, every time. He's such a nice man, such a tremendous gentleman, with such a lovely family - it is going to be very hard for me to kick him."
That Adams is now relaxed enough to entertain the media with such throwaway lines (which could look terrible out of context) is a measure of his growing maturity. If any player has reason to distrust the media it is Adams, given his jail sentence, his "donkey" image - one paper even drew ears on him - and some unfortunate coverage of his private life.
He is clearly no fan of the press, but is aware of (and thrives on) the responsibilities of being England and Arsenal captain. He has also realised that he can be a positive role model for people who have made mistakes in life, he is proof that you can recover from them and regain people's respect. He still likes a drink but is more careful about where and when - and he certainly does not get in the car afterwards.
His maturity showed at Wembley in his calm response to the penalty. When asked if his restraint was due to team orders he replied: "No, that's just me. They [referees] don't change their minds so it's foolish to run up to them." Many a refereeing victim of Arsenal's late Eighties policy of mass dissent will listen and wonder.
"I did think it was a penalty at the time," Adams added. "I thought `what have I done'. I was thinking `stay on your feet, stay on your feet, stay on your feet' but I was so confident I was going to get the ball I went for the challenge. I've seen it on TV since and at times I think I made contact with ball. I know I did wrong because I should have stayed on my feet."
The penalty came just as Adams was beginning to feel the after-effects of his January knee operation. "There is some scar tissue behind the knee but it has settled down now. I feel it towards the end of games but it is not `mechanical' - it does not affect movement. I was bound to have niggles, it is only four months since the operation."
Judging by his and Terry Venables' reluctance to answer further queries Adams is probably having treatment before each match to enable him to get through them. He has not looked entirely fit, although he was more comfortable against John Spencer and Gordon Durie on Saturday than Switzerland's Marco Grassi and Kubilay Turkyilmaz the previous week. Bergkamp and, if he plays, Patrick Kluivert, will present the stiffest test so far. Adams will be hoping that, by subduing them, he can also still the ghosts of the past.Reuse content