Football: Wembley Focus: Adams constructing a colossal reputation: A top stopper is out to thwart Spurs in tomorrow's FA Cup semi-final. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Tony Adams brings out the Arsenal defence in line abreast tomorrow, catching Tottenham offside, he would have us envisage that familiar raised hand appeal as a Churchillian gesture. A two-finger salute to his many critics.

The erstwhile 'donkey' again made asses of those who deride him in midweek, when he contributed more than most as England put the Turkish thugs in their place.

Graham Taylor called him a colossus; George Graham reacted with a knowing, 'I-told-you-so' smile. The Arsenal manager has been telling us for years now that Adams is the defender others would most like to sign. After Izmir, we had better believe it.

The man himself responds to praise with the same water-off-a-ducks-back detachment with which he used to shrug off the carrots and stick.

Cucumber-cool composure has always been one of his greatest assets, witness this week's tale from Terry Murphy, his old youth development officer, of how Teenage Tony gave away an early goal on his first-team debut, then put it behind him to be acclaimed as man of the match.

Arsenal v Tottenham tomorrow, for a place in the FA Cup final, will see him keeping his head, and using it, while some about him are losing theirs.

Motivation will never be lacking in a north London derby, but Adams and his team should have an edge this time. Two years ago, Lineker and Gascoigne saw them off in another semi-final at the same venue, ending their dreams of the Double.

'We got stuffed in the first 10 minutes, and it still hurts,' the Arsenal captain said. 'Anyone who was with us that day will remember the singing and cheering from across the corridor, in the Spurs dressing-room, and the desperate feeling in ours. We had a great team that season. We won the League, and will always believe that losing to Tottenham cost us the Double.'

Revenge was in order, and you will not find Adams pleading fatigue in the aftermath of Wednesday's bruising exertions.

'Playing for England in Turkey and the semi-final is much the same to my mind,' he said. 'They are both big games, but playing two in five days is not a problem. Any good professional will tell you that these are the matches you love to be involved in.

'We are talking about the dreams you have as a kid. To play in an important World Cup tie and an FA Cup semi-final in the same week, you have got to be at the very top of your profession. When I'm 46, I can look back and say: 'I played for England in that game in Turkey and in the semis for Arsenal'. It's a nice thought.'

He will also recall how he was within an inch or two of missing both. Whether he is playing or socialising, Adams uses both barrels, and Graham was much vexed when a player whose career was once jeopardised by imprisonment for drink-driving emerged from another night on the tiles, five weeks ago, with 29 stitches above his left eye.

The Arsenal manager supported him throughout his 57-day confinement which started in December 1990, and did so again after his latest escapade, but the club's patience is not limitless, and the law of moderation has been laid down with the sort of emphasis which strips paint from walls.

Taylor has also had reason to rue Adams's over-indulgence, and left no doubt as to his meaning on Thursday when he spoke of how a favoured player's development had been needlessly interrupted 'because of circumstances which were out of my control'. Mr Gregarious sounds unrepentant. 'I've got nothing to hide,' he said, displaying a nasty, self-inflicted wound. 'I just had a few drinks, missed my footing and tumbled down some stairs.'

A difficult upbringing, which saw him caricatured as a donkey by one national newspaper, and pelted with carrots from the terraces, is said to have inured him to public opinion, and he claims to have the thickest of skins.

'The taunting from the fans has never bothered me. If they don't like the way I play, I can live with that. I just get on with the job. If you want to build me up as a character who relishes challenges, I'd agree with you. I do.

'I thrive on people knocking me. I like putting two fingers up to them - not literally, but in the way I play. That's how I react to criticism. I like to think I've made a few people eat their words.'

Tough as teak? Not quite. There is more than a hint of how a bad press does get to him in his apparent obsession with respect. Lack of, and need for.

'I'll accept it if people say Wednesday's was my best performance for England. It was nice to get a bit of praise and credit for it. I hope now, that when it comes to the day when I have a bad game, I won't instantly be put under pressure - getting four out of 10 in the papers, with an 'Adams Out' campaign started straight away.

'Des Walker has got respect. I hope I can get it. It will take me longer than it has taken Des, but that's what I've got my sights set on.'

In playing terms, he courts comparison with Terry Butcher, another stereotypical British stopper who was England's centre-half throughout the Eighties.

Adams identifies with the Ipswich and Rangers stalwart not just because of his uncomplicated style, but in the belief that he, too, was underrated.

'In the past, people have come into the international team and have tried to do things they are not good at. They think international players have to do a bit more, and change their game. I won't do that. I have only one way of playing. I know what I'm good at.

'I like to think I make Arsenal and England hard teams to beat. I'm 6ft 3in, and when the ball comes into the box I expect either to win it or for the goalkeeper to catch it.

'I also have something to offer verbally. I'm a great believer in talking other people through the game. Terry Butcher did that superbly well. He had great qualities which he wasn't always given credit for. People had a go at him, too, but he had many strengths, and I learned a lot from him when I first got into the England team. Terry was a great pro, and I'd be happy to be thought of as someone from the same mould.'

Taylor thinks he could be even better. Having recalled him this season, to the exclusion of Mark Wright, the England manager is looking for Adams to marry some of Wright's ball- playing composure to his natural ball- winning authority.

He said: 'What I think about Tony - and its true about a few of our centre-halves - is that he can be a better footballer if he is encouraged to be, and is told that he is.

'I think Tony Adams can play - particularly off his right side - far better than we give him credit for. We label people too easily. Over his career he has had to get over this donkey image, and he still lunges in now and again, but at 26 he's still learning.

'He is a bit stiff, and people say all he does is head it away or dive in, and that he can't turn. I say to that: 'Hold on a minute; let's wait and see. Let's start to tell the boy: I think you can play, son, and see what happens'.

'I say to him: You're a far better player than (1) you're given credit for and (2) than you think you are. We know you can head the ball and we know you can tackle. You don't have to prove those things. Now, can you come out with it and play? Can you have a bit of composure on the ball?

'There are times, because of the way our league football is played, that players like Tony have to clear it long, or lunge in with a tackle or a header, and sometimes that's all we see in them. I think Tony has got a bit more to give.'

If he has, we will have to wait to see it. Arsenal v Tottenham calls for Tony Adams Mark One - he of the skyscraping header and all- consuming tackle. No one will enjoy it more.

(Photograph omitted)

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