In modern-day football the idea of a player staying with one club for his entire career is rare. The transient nature of football today simply makes it impractical but even by the standards of football a generation ago Tony Adams was exceptional. Adams made over 600 appearances in his professional club career, all for Arsenal. He made his debut when he was barely 17, was appointed club captain at 21 and remained so until he retired 14 years later. For most of that time, he stood at the top of the game despite suffering the brutal effects of alcoholism that could easily have scuppered his career.
Adams joined Arsenal aged thirteen in 1980, leaving school two years later to fully concentrate on football. A month after his 17th birthday in November 1983, he made his first-team debut in a league game against Sunderland, thrown in as Arsenal struggled with injuries alongside fellow youngster Chris White, a comparative veteran at 22. He took a little while to find his feet, making an error that cost Arsenal a goal that day and didn’t become a first-team regular until 1986 but once he was in, it was like he’d been there forever. It’s easy to forget that when Adams was breaking into the Arsenal side, joy and success was in relatively short supply. They had won only one trophy in the previous decade and rarely threatened to challenge for the league title but after he established himself in George Graham’s side things improved.
They won the League Cup in 1987 including a thrilling win over Tottenham in the semi-final. Two years later they won their first league title since 1971 with Adams lifting the trophy after Michael Thomas’s phenomenal late winner over Liverpool at Anfield. “I feel particularly pleased for Tony who has suffered an awful lot of stick,” said Graham after the game. Arsenal won the league again in 1991, losing only once in the process but Adams had bigger concerns that year. In December 1990 he crashed his car into a wall when he was four times over the drink-driving limit. He was later sentenced to four months in prison actually serving a little under half of that time.
After his release he was welcomed straight back into the Arsenal team, more trophies coming in 1993 with the FA and League Cups but his drinking continued. He captained England at Euro 96 but a few months later his alcoholism reached a peak with the four-day bender in London, ending with him bursting into tears in a pub and finally acknowledging his problem. He hasn’t had a drink since, laying out the stark details of his illness in ‘Addicted’, his first autobiography in 1998. Then Adams established the Sporting Chance Clinic to help athletes with similar problems in the year 2000.
Many thought that the arrival of Arsene Wenger to Arsenal in 1996 would spell the end of Adams but Wenger was smart enough to recognize that his captain along with the rest of that famous back four of Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn with David Seaman in goal, was a solid base upon which he could build his team. Wengers first Premier League win came in 1998 with Adams scoring in the game that ultimately clinched the title. The sight of Adams, arms raised and eyes closed, is one of the most iconic sights of Wenger years and it’s in that pose that a statue of Adams was erected outside the Emirates in 2011.
Adams was more of a peripheral figure when Wenger’s second title arrived in 2002 and he announced his retirement just before the start of the following season. “I could have got away with a few more games but I’m not the type of guy to do that,” he said. Adams became a manager the following year but the less said about that the better. He took over at Wycombe in November 2003 but resigned a year later. Further stints at Portsmouth, Azerbaijani side Gabala FK and Granada, where he was previously an advisor to the club’s owners were not anymore successful but hopefully more will remember Adams as a player. One of the finest central defenders of his generation and a man who didn’t allow his career to disappear.