France '98: Adams addicted to glory

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The Independent Online
Arsenal's talismanic captain is hoping France will provide

a final chapter in a remarkable success story this season.

His biographer Ian Ridley charts the highs and highs

MOMENTS after Tony Adams had lifted the FA Cup just three weeks ago, television coverage cut to the advertisements. Up came one for Guinness, whose latest slogan reminds you that "the best things come to those who wait".

The irony was that the black stuff was Adams' preferred tipple - though, really, towards the end anything would do - in his days as an active alcoholic. In fact, it was the last drink to pass his lips on a Friday afternoon in August 1996. After a patient 21 months as a recovering alcoholic, the best things in football, as well as in life, are indeed coming to him.

First the Premiership, then the Cup to give Arsenal the Double. Now a World Cup beckons for England's stalwart defender and vice-captain. Surely not? But then again, as the French hosts say - jamais deux sans trois; things always come in threes.

The change in Adams is astonishing, as I have been lucky enough to witness at first hand during the England defender's period of recovery from his illness over those 21 months. In fact, it has been a privilege to collaborate with him during that time on his autobiography.

It was probably around early last September, at about 11 one Sunday night, when the phone rang. "I was lying in bed, and the title just came to me," said an excited Adams. "I just had to get up and tell you. How does Addicted grab you?"

It could not fail to. I had suggested several - some corny, some seeking to be appropriately inspirational - in an attempt to capture in a phrase what is undoubtedly one of the most astonishing stories of any character in the English game, the story of one of its most significant figures over the last decade, on and off the field. It was simple, direct and utterly fitting.

For addicted is what Adams has been, first to playing football, then to alcohol when the game alone no longer worked as fuel for his perfectionist, driven nature. As a boy and teenager he had worked at his chosen - or given - trade harder than all around him.

Addicted, too, to winning, so that now he has eight winners' medals to his name, having lifted the championship three times, the FA Cup twice, the League Cup twice and the European Cup-Winners' Cup. Addicts will tell you, though, that some compulsions are healthier than others. Now it is self-esteem, rather than fear of failing and being ridiculed, that drives Adams to achieve.

Once, Adams could be an obstructive figure with a chip on his shoulder about a press which he felt had hounded him through the bad old booze- fuelled days - a time when he was once jailed for 58 days for drink-driving and another time fell down nightclub steps and needed 29 stitches in his forehead. He seemed to think that being defensive stretched into all areas of his life.

He showed as much on the way home three years ago from the Cup-Winners' Cup tie in Auxerre, which Arsenal had stolen 1-0. "And thank you to all you lot down the back, who keep writing me and the team off," he announced over the aeroplane's intercom. It was a boorish and ungracious outburst from a sometimes gauche figure who would mostly ignore requests from journalists for interviews. Now there is an easy charm to him and he simply cannot stop himself from being honest and communicative. Often he is as interested in his interviewer and how they are feeling, about life in general and the human condition, as in talking about himself or on the subject of football. No longer does he appear bedevilled or beleaguered, but benevolent instead. The donkey has become a swan.

BY HIS own admission, Tony Adams was a gangling teenager lacking confidence, except when it came to football. Encouraged by his father, Alex, who acquired an FA coaching badge so better to teach him, he developed into a fiercely competitive centre-half - as his dad had been - who gained his self-worth on the field.

Rejection by England schoolboys only increased his ambition and he had no inhibitions as a footballer after turning professional with Arsenal, becoming the second youngest debutant in the club's history, and their youngest captain at 21. It was George Graham who made him so and the two enjoyed, sometimes endured, one of the most fascinating relationships in modern football, akin to Don Revie and Billy Bremner at Leeds United in the Seventies. There was the same professional intensity to the two; a desire - a need, even - to win.

Adams became Graham's persona on the field. Efficient and inspirational, face contorted and giving it what he describes as "the big roar"; he embodied teak-tough, no-frills Arsenal. It earned him the "ee-aw" braying of opposing fans who labelled him that donkey.

He insisted it spurred him on to the trophies, but deep down it hurt. In the macho world of football and Arsenal at that time, you didn't show it, though. The silverware helped, of course, but always there was booze in the background as an outlet for all the intensity.

Adams always felt, too, he was a more talented player than he was given credit for or allowed to be. Despite all the success, he was strangely unfulfilled at times. "With George I was suppressed in the way I was playing for eight years," he says. "He wanted a particular style of playing and we all wanted to please our boss. Besides, he got success with it."

When Graham departed, Adams hurtled to that turning point that recovering alcoholics call the rock bottom, when they got sick and tired of being sick and tired. The figure who would become immortalised in The Full Monty as the man who led the Arsenal back four with his right arm aloft now had to hold both hands up. Change had to come.

WHAT you first notice with Adams these days is the steely, attentive blue eyes that give his face a far more open and attractive appearance than the don't-mess-with-me figure of yore. That and his sense of humour, which has gone from the traditional dressing-room japes to a more subtle and witty figure. I once phoned him on his mobile on a Friday afternoon as Arsenal were travelling north by train for a game. "It's a terrible reception," I said. "I've never got a good reception at Derby," he replied.

Then there was the time we were talking for the book about his time in Chelmsford jail. I asked him what the reception area was like. "Like a doctor's waiting-room," he said. "What," I asked, "with magazines?" "Well, I don't remember Time Out being there," he said.

It is symbolic that Arsene Wenger's tenure at Highbury has coincided with Adams' recovery. At first there was a scepticism about this bespectacled, urbane figure, while Wenger must have wondered whether he would see the best of Adams, who was dogged by a persistent ankle injury.

So low did Adams become with it that last Christmas, he considered retirement, unwilling to compete at less than his best and to short-change people. Wenger's idea of sending him to the South of France in January for intensive warm-weather rehabilitation was a masterstroke, a turning point in Adams' late career and in Arsenal's season.

Not only did Adams emerge physically fitter, but a chance encounter in a restaurant with Marco van Basten, his scourge at Euro 88, who had been forced to retire prematurely, convinced him that he should continue, gratefully, while he was able. "It was a sign," Adams said. Gradually, Wenger has got to see the best of Adams, who describes his boss as "shrewd and clever", as the pair's relationship has blossomed. The two have been right for each other at the right time. The one-time roaring captain of George Graham is now Wenger's more thoughtful message bearer.

WHEN England last reached the World Cup finals, in 1990, Bobby Robson had to let go three players from his pre-tournament squad of 25. Adams was one of them - along with his Arsenal team-mates Alan Smith and David Rocastle - and the rejection stung him into winning his second title with his club in 1991.

This time he will go to France as one of the four elements of Glenn Hoddle's spine, that also includes David Seaman, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer. At 31, he is probably at his last finals and he is determined to savour the occasion.

"The World Cup is the biggest of the big, the ultimate," says Adams. "You have got the whole of the nation willing you on and you have to be strong and confident in your talent to handle that on a world stage. There is so much quality there. That's why fear can grip you. It is being able to deal with the fear so that it doesn't touch you. I acknowledge it today but I don't let it overcome me."

Indeed, over the last year or so, the transformation of Adams as a person - he has broadened his horizons from pub and football club to take in learning the piano and reading poetry - has been mirrored by changing perceptions of his quality as a player.

It is not simply that his distribution has improved, or his tactical awareness has increased. He has developed his innate ability and built on the defensive soundness that Terry Coleman and Don Howe taught him in his youth team days and onwards, in line with Wenger's less rigid regime.

"Tony is a much better player than many people give him credit for. He is also very strong mentally in the big games," Wenger says. "I think he is undervalued and underrated technically. He is a captain among captains, a natural leader of men and players." Wenger believes, in fact, that Adams will make a good coach and manager.

Adams himself, at peace in his life, is at ease with his game. Would he have liked the chance of another go at Van Basten, now that he is the player he is rather than the overawed 21-year-old? "Oh yes. I don't fear anybody. I respect them all but there is not one player in the world I fear.

"As I said before the Cup final, I would rather play against rubbish than Alan Shearer, but I know that there is no rubbish at this level. There is a difference between fear, which can put you off your game, and respect for world-class professionals, which can inspire you. Ronaldo... Del Piero... they will be fun to play against. It would be lovely to meet one of them in the final."

Adams becomes annoyed with portraits of him as a saint these days simply because he cannot, does not, drink alcohol one day at a time. He is simply, he says, a sick person trying to get well rather than a bad person trying to get good. He is human, makes mistakes, feels the full range of feelings from depressed to angry to elated, precisely the emotions he sought to block out with booze, and prefers to be portrayed in a real and honest picture. He needs it if he is not to become dangerously egotistical and complacent.

Similarly, he refuses to indulge in excess on England's World Cup chances, but his simple analysis is as optimistic as his outlook to life these days. "On our day, by getting the right team spirit, we can beat anybody. We proved it at Euro 96 when we were the best team there, in my opinion. If we can get players playing to their potential, then we have got a hell of a chance."

Once it was black stuff, now it all looks brighter.

Addicted: Tony Adams with Ian Ridley is published by Collins Willow in September.