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Tony Adams: “My first addiction was football”

"It took me away from thoughts and feelings, just like alcohol did later"

Other than football, my teenage years were troubled. I was a very shy and insecure boy. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin other than when I was playing football. I had the worst attendance of my school. You couldn’t get me into a classroom. I wasn’t good at it so I ran away. I didn’t face my fears. The first time I turned up at the school gates I cried. That was the last time I cried until I sobered up aged 29. My mum took me home and it was a repeating pattern. She took me in, by 10am I was in the sick room making out I was ill, she came to get me and by 11am I was in the park playing footy.

At five I knew I wanted to be a footballer. My first addiction was football. It took me away from thoughts and feelings, just like alcohol did later. I felt assertive on the football pitch, which was in complete contrast to the real me, who was scared and introverted. As a kid going through pain, I had football. But there is only so much time you can be on the football pitch – sooner or later you have to look in that mirror.

I was emotionally and mentally crippled when I sobered up at 29

I don’t want to come across as arrogant, but football was the easy bit. I was gifted. My playing success wouldn’t have surprised my younger self. It was perfectly normal for me to win. Our under-nines team at Dagenham United won five years on the trot, then Essex County, on to Arsenal where we won the FA Youth Cup, Reserve League, and after four years I was in the team. There were a couple of setbacks, I broke my metatarsal, which started me drinking because I didn’t have football. But I was always confident.

Turning 16 is a strange time for a footballer and their family. My football completely took over. I have two sisters, but I was the focal point of the family. It was all-consuming. And it is an even more anxious time now. When I joined Arsenal there were only three centre-backs to go past. It was about quality, not quantity. Now 99 per cent of EPL players taken on at 16 fall out of the system by 21. The trawler goes out for Man City and washes up the sardines.

Tony Adams FA Cup, Arsenal, Cardiff 2002
Adams lifts the FA Cup for Arsenal in Cardiff in 2002

I go into football clubs to talk to players who are 16 or 17. I set up Sporting Chance so it would be different for today’s young players. Every one of the England team at the World Cup would have had access to my seminars, so they all have a bit of education around drink, drugs, fear, anxiety, depression. I don’t know if I would have listened, but we didn’t have that. I was dragged, and I didn’t need much dragging, to the pub by the old pros, talking about team spirit. Kenny Sansom and David O’Leary were the role models. Big drinkers, big entertainers, funny men. Go home to my thoughts and feelings? No thanks, I’ll go to the pub on another bender.

I really had to work at being a drunk. That is the madness. I started on shandy and never liked the taste. Anyone in their right mind would have a Coke. Why was I trying to be a good drinker? It was for effect and to quieten those thoughts and feelings. It was one hell of a drug. Win or lose, hit the booze.

We could have won more if I had been sober. In 1991 Arsenal only lost one game. We should have been the invincibles. But I was in Chelmsford Prison for that match. When they went unbeaten in 2003-4, their captain Patrick Vieira wasn’t in prison, he was leading the team. We won the league in 1989 and 1991 then didn’t win it again until I was sober. I was a young man so could get away with a lot. We could get it together for cup games, but season-long? Not sober enough. Did Bobby Robson think actually this guy is more trouble than he is worth? When I was rejected by England in 1990 I went straight to the pub and got absolutely shitfaced. I met my first wife in a drunken blackout that summer because I wasn’t at the World Cup.

In 1982 the year Tony Adams turns 16…

  • Aston Villa win the European Cup
  • ET: The Extra-Terrestrial is released
  • IRA bombs in Regent’s Park and Hyde Park kill eight soldiers

Before Euro 96, for the first time in 12 years, I didn’t want to drink – but I was still getting shitfaced and it frightened me. In January I had put my first wife into treatment. Her drug was crack cocaine then, which masked my drinking, as in my mind she had a bigger problem. In February I was injured. In March, my mother-in-law took my children off me because I kept passing out. I threw myself into getting fit to captain England, but after the tournament I had nothing to stay sober for. I went on an almighty six-week bender then finally surrendered and hallelujah, I started to cry again. I’m thankful I had the courage to walk through the door for my first AA meeting. I got it straight away. Within weeks I had told the world, come clean to my teammates and was free of the past.

I was emotionally and mentally crippled when I sobered up at 29. I felt like a baby. I have six children and two grandchildren and try to pass on what I missed out on. I’m the child of addicts. My dad smoked himself to death and my mum ate herself to death. Now we talk about breaking the cycle. When I’m talking to my children, I am really talking to myself. And over the past 22 years I have been able to nurture little Tony, and be kind and forgiving and accepting to that boy I neglected.

When the pupil’s ready, the teachers appear. If Arsène Wenger had arrived two months earlier, it could have been a different story. It was unlucky for Bruce Rioch that his captain was an active alcoholic spending more time in pubs than training. I really let him down. Fate, call it what you want, but when Arsène came to Arsenal, he had a captain who was six weeks into sobriety and wanted to grasp every living thing out of the future. I had two playing careers. After getting sober, I experienced the enormous highs of playing the game, free as a bird, for six more years. I felt invincible.

Tony Adams and wife Poppy Teacher
With wife Poppy Teacher in 2013

The grieving process after you retire from football is huge. It was so much worse than the grieving for alcohol when I quit. Because it is in my DNA. It goes back so far with me. I have football dreams today, but I never have drinking dreams.

I have done a lot of tears. I cried at Paddington 2 the other day and he is not even a real bear! I would never have done that as a kid. I would never have opened up and been human. I thought it was weakness. I see it as a strength today. I tell my little boy it is all about talking. My salvation has been my mouth. I couldn’t tell you how I was feeling or what I was thinking when I was younger. Now I can’t shut up.

I lived six years on my own to get to know myself warts and all. I was just in the position where I was perfectly happy to be on my own for the rest of my life when I found my wife. Or she found me. And, like with Arsène, it is one of those meant-to-be things. Sometimes I am not easy. But I have a decent relationship with a wonderful human being. She is remarkable – when she is sad, she cries. When she gets angry, she expresses it appropriately. These are weird things for this emotional cripple.

It is all change at the Arsenal at the minute. I’m a little bit disconnected from the club. But I am doing a book signing, they have started to let me back into the building – which is nice! But I could never control that. I’ve never had a problem with Arsenal. I love it to bits and always will to the day I die. The fans have been unbelievable to me and I think I have been great to them.

I don’t know what my future holds – and it is all right not to know. I have never really been given the opportunity to manage a successful, good club. I have had 23 games at the highest level, 16 with one club, seven with the other. I don’t know if I want to manage. It is about people. I do know I don’t want to work with idiots any more. And that is 99 per cent. In the past, even in sobriety, I jumped into the first opportunity to come along. I did it to the best of my ability but was it an avoidance from the irritable discontent Tony when he is not working? Sometimes I tell people I am retired. It gets them off my back!

I would just want to let my younger self know everything is going to be all right. And if I could also tell myself this when I gave up drinking, it would be a fantastic relief to know I would be retired 16 years and sober 22 years and that everything is great today, that mentally and emotionally I am having a super life.

Maybe I wasn’t ready for someone to hold my hand when I was younger. But I was with my boy Hector last week at a soccer camp in Palm Beach. He was feeling a bit vulnerable. We walked down the beach and he slipped his hand in mine. I’m going to cry now… but I never had that – a hand to slip my hand into, someone to ask for help.

Tony Adams – Sober: Football. My Story. My Life. is out now in paperback (Simon & Schuster, £8.99). Tony Adams is appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 19.