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Adams recalls Arsenal debut as traditions fade from game

Nearly 24 years ago, when Kajagoogoo topped the charts, the world was young and all football matches kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday, Tony Adams made his Arsenal debut at home to Sunderland.

He was just a few weeks past his 17th birthday on Guy Fawkes Day 1983, but rather than starting with fireworks and a big bang, Adams' first Highbury display for the Gunners was something of a damp squib. His blunder gave away Sunderland's opening goal, Arsenal suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat and he played only two more first-team games that season.

But from such unpromising beginnings Anthony Alexander Adams eventually became one of the finest centre-halves in the English game. He made 668 appearances for Arsenal, leading them to four League Championships, two League and FA Cup Doubles, two League Cups and one other FA Cup triumph plus success in Europe with the now defunct Cup-Winners' Cup in 1994.

Despite an infamous alcohol addiction, climaxed by a spell in prison after being arrested on drunk-driving charges in December 1990, Adams faced his demons and found a more sensitive side to his character than the one so often portrayed on the pitch and in lurid headlines. He won a whole new army of admirers when he not only beat the booze, but also founded the charitable Sporting Chance clinic for addicted sportsmen and sportswomen and finished his playing career with the glory of another FA Cup win over Chelsea in May 2002.

But that 1983 match – to be reprised this weekend when Arsenal, the unbeaten Premier League leaders, play Sunderland at the Emirates Stadium – is still firmly etched in Adams' memory. He recalls: "It was so different to what I had experienced before. I know most people called it 'The Library' because the fans seemed so quiet but I always found it a great atmosphere at Highbury.

"I didn't start too well, did I? I gave the ball away and we went 1-0 down. It was still a great day, though, unlike any I'd known before. The manager, Don Howe, said just keep going. I thought: 'Right, I'll just run around, fly into a few tackles and kick some people'.

"The crowd sensed I was trying to give everything and I had a rapport with them which became magical over the following years."

Adams, from Romford, Essex, won 66 England caps and set a record of 60 Wembley appearances before retiring from international football just before the start of Sven Goran Eriksson's managerial reign.

Now, after an unsuccessful spell as Wycombe Wanderers manager, he coached in the Netherlands with Feyenoord and Utrecht before becoming Portsmouth's assistant manager in June last year.

Adams, who was awarded the MBE for his services to the game and inducted into English football's Hall of Fame in 2004, will be alongside his present manager, Harry Redknapp, in the dug-out when Pompey play Fulham at Craven Cottage this weekend. He will be 41 next Wednesday.

And how football times have changed. The traditional Saturday afternoon kick-off is becoming a thing of the past, thanks to live television coverage and the spread of midweek European club matches.

This weekend there will be only two Saturday afternoon Premier League fixtures: Manchester United and Wigan kick off at 12.45pm at Old Trafford, with Aston Villa against West Ham occupying the once familiar 3pm spot.

When Arsenal and Sunderland, who once attracted Highbury's record attendance of 73,295 on 9 March 1935, meet again, this time at the Gunners' glossy new home – it will be a high noon Sunday shoot-out because Setanta TV has chosen it for live transmission on their subscription service and London's Victoria line tube is out of action.

Adams "may or may not" tune in before helping to prepare Portsmouth for the game with Fulham – which kicks off four hours and 10 minutes after the Arsenal start and is Sky TV's "Super Sunday" live presentation. Reading's game against Derby County goes ahead at 2pm on Sunday as another Sky TV pick. Blackburn, Bolton, Tottenham and Everton have all been allowed to delay their matches to Sunday because of tonight's dates in the Uefa Cup, the final of which will be at the City of Manchester Stadium at the end of the season. That means Manchester City have had to bring forward their May-scheduled game against Middlesbrough to this weekend only to find their neighbours, United, playing at home on Saturday. So it is Sunday again.

Confused? You may well be. Football was a much simpler game when Adams was a lad.