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He may not have been one of the most technically gifted players of his generation but Tony Adams more than made up for it with his never-say-die attitude and fantastic leadership skills. He was one of the best central defenders of his time, despite having to overcome many off-the-field demons.
Known in the red-half of north London simply as ‘Mr Arsenal’, Adams is the ever increasingly rare commodity of a one-club man. Making his first team debut in 1983, his career spanned three decades at the club until he retired in 2002. Incredibly he skippered the Gunners to four league titles, his first in 1989 and his last in 2002 as he bowed out of football on a high. He made a grand total of 669 appearances for Arsenal, weighing in with 48 goals.
As well as being an uncompromising and committed defender Adams was also a great leader of men and in addition to captaining Arsenal he also led his country on many occasions. He led by example and set the standard for his fellow players to follow. His leadership skills were most evident on the countless occasions opposition players were caught offside by the legendary Arsenal back four. It would be up to Adams to decide when to push up and catch their opponents offside. This tactic provided the bedrock of Arsenal’s success over the years.
After signing schoolboy terms for Arsenal in 1980 it was not long before Adams made his first team debut. Just weeks after his seventeenth birthday, Adams made his debut in 1983 against Sunderland in the old First Division. It is very rare that defenders are blooded at this age but it showed just how highly regarded he was by the Arsenal coaches.
He spent the next two seasons on the fringes of the Arsenal first team, making only a handful of first team appearances under the management of Don Howe. It was not until the appointment of George Graham in May 1986 that Adams’ career really began to take off. Graham set about re-modelling the Arsenal side as he got rid of most of the older members of the squad and brought in younger, hungrier players. Adams immediately became a first team regular and despite his lack of experience he was a key part of the Arsenal side as they lifted the 1987 League Cup to end the Gunners’ eight-year wait for silverware.
The relationship between Graham and Adams was mutually beneficial, with Adams acting as his manager’s voice on the pitch. He was awarded the captain’s armband in January 1988 at the relatively young age of 21. This shows just how highly thought of he was in the dressing room as he was expected to lead players much more experienced than him. It would be almost unheard of these days for a Premier League club to appoint a captain at such a young age, ironically the current closest example being Cesc Fabregas again at Arsenal. Adams was a natural leader and stepped up to the role with aplomb. Graham would go on to describe Adams as: “my colossus.”
One of the keys to Arsenal’s success in the late 1980s and through the 1990s was their back four. Graham made some very shrewd acquisitions in the transfer market to bolster his defence. Centre-back Steve Bould joined from Stoke to partner Adams. They were joined by full-backs Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. This back four provided the back bone to Arsenal’s success as they struck up an excellent relationship. They developed the offside trap to near perfection with Adams calling the shots. The defence was later improved with the signing of David Seaman in 1990.
Adams lifted his first trophy as captain in the 1988/89 season as Arsenal won the First Division Championship in dramatic circumstances. They secured their first title in 18 years with the final kick of the game as they defeated fellow challengers Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield.
In his early years Adams suffered from a lot of abuse from the Press and opposition fans. He was unfairly given the tag ‘donkey’ by The Daily Mirror when he scored at both ends of the pitch in a game at Old Trafford. He was at times error prone and ungainly but he more than made up for it with his courage and leadership. Every young defender is bound to make some errors due to the nature of their position, where every mistake is punished. It did not seem to matter to national team Manager Bobby Robson who awarded Adams his first cap in 1987 in a friendly against Spain.
Adams continued on his quest for further silverware by winning the 1990/91 First Division championship. Arsenal cruised to the title, losing only one game that season. As ever, the defence was the foundation of their success as they conceded only 18 goals all season. The following season Arsenal lifted both domestic cups, although they failed in their defence of the title. In 1994 Arsenal won their second European trophy – the Cup Winners’ Cup. Along with his defensive duties, Adams also popped up with some important goals in his career. His header defeated Tottenham in the 1993 FA Cup final. He also scored with a towering header in the Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final against Torino. It is a sign of a great player when they can score important goals in key games. There were few better headers of the ball than Tony Adams.
Adams’ feats on the pitch are even more remarkable when you consider his off-the-field battles. At the time there was a heavy drinking culture in the Arsenal dressing room which Adams was a part of. He was arrested on several occasions for drink related incidents. In 1990 he was imprisoned for four months for drink driving. Adams showed real character to return from jail and lead his side to the title that season. However, Adams did not confront his demons until 1996 when he publicly admitted that he was an alcoholic. That summer he had led his country to the semi-finals of Euro 96 but now he was facing a battle of a different kind. Adams sought treatment to his alcoholism and learnt to play the piano. The change brought a different side to Adams’ character that had rarely been seen before.
A key player in Adams’ rehabilitation was the appointment of Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman was installed as Arsenal manager in 1996 as a relative unknown and he quickly changed the players’ lifestyles and diets, bringing them up to date with the regimes on the continent. Wenger played an important role in getting Adams off the booze and helped to further Adams’ game to another level. Under Wenger, Arsenal played a much more expansive game than with previous managers. Adams played a role in this by helping to build attacks from the back. Arsenal returned to winning ways in the 1997/98 season. In their final league game of the season against Everton Adams’ provided the piece de resistance by scoring a great goal. They also went on to lift the FA Cup that season.