“We find ourselves in the Wembley dressing room, hearing the showers cease, towels flung in a corner, and boots clattering. It’s time for me to deliver the captain’s speech.
‘Boys, heads up. We’ve made our country proud; we’ve represented ourselves brilliantly.’
After that, I reach for a beer, some Carling, which tastes like the finest Dom Pérignon champagne at that moment. And at the same time, like urine. It’s our last night together before the team goes their separate ways. It’s the night after our elimination.
No one wants to head home; everyone gathers around the bar, discussing what transpired. One by one, the guys start leaving, but not me. I still have company at 3-4 in the morning. Then, I continue alone. It’s the norm. I’m an ‘alkie,’ an alcoholic. I’m addicted.
The next morning, my teammates’ rooms are empty. Everyone has gone home to their families or on vacation, preparing for the new season. I have nowhere to go. I call some friends, and we find a pub with a garden. I embark on a six-week bender…”
This excerpt is from Tony Adams’ book, recounting the night and the following day after England’s elimination from Euro 96 when he was the captain of the Three Lions. This story is cinematic, and this man’s fate is like something out of a movie. One more thing – the passage above, marking the end of Euro 96 and the beginning of the summer binge, serves as a turning point, a transition from one phase to another.
Over the years, the nickname ‘The Donkey’ remains shrouded in mystery. Some believe it’s self-explanatory. Every time there was a corner kick or set piece for Arsenal and England, Adams would be seen with his hand on his back, hunched over and leaning forward, as if he carried a burden on his back. Others interpreted it as a sign of chronic problems or a lack of regular training (far from the truth). A more romantic interpretation is that he resembled a donkey carrying the weight of his entire club on his back. For football romantics, the latter version resonates.
Adams was one of those rare specimens no longer seen on the modern football pitch, except perhaps in lower English divisions. He appeared as a man visibly tormented by being on the field at that moment, yet in reality, he would have given anything to be nowhere else but on that football pitch. Football saved his life, even though he put it at risk again.
His story begins in Romford, the birthplace of an entire team of great English players, including recent talents like Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. This area was Arsenal’s default territory, where kids grew up dreaming of wearing the red jersey with white sleeves. Here, Charlie George and Charlie Nicholas were more significant names than the Prime Minister. The last send-off to the neighborhood and then it’s off to that tireless russet-haired guy, Ray Parlour, known for running tirelessly from one end to the other in Arsenal’s kit, earning him the nickname “Pele from Romford.”
Tony Alexander Adams was born there, just months after England’s 1966 World Cup triumph. He grew up in Dagenham, another stronghold of North London’s red and white, and at the age of 14, he joined the Arsenal Academy. Tall, strong, utterly devoted to football, with immense potential in the center of defense and remarkable ball skills. On November 5, 1983, he made his debut in the old First Division, shortly after turning 17. By the age of 20, he became a regular starter, playing in all 42 matches of the 1985/86 season. He became the new leader of the defense, alongside authorities like Viv Anderson, Kenny Sansom, and David O’Leary.
This coincided with George Graham’s first season as the team’s manager, and finishing in fourth place was considered a success. At 21, Adams was chosen by Graham as Arsenal’s new captain, a role he would hold for a remarkable 14 and a half years. On and off the field, he led by example. With his puffed-up chest, charging forward, raising his hand to “pull Dixon, Bould, and Winterburn (from right to left) behind him,” he embodied the famous “Arsenal defense” that became legendary.
The two league titles in 1989, including that unforgettable victory at Anfield in a decisive direct match against Liverpool, and another title in 1991 with only one loss… These were the highlights before the Arsène Wenger era. With Wenger, there were two more league titles and three FA Cups. The final for the Cup Winners’ Cup, that unforgettable evening in Copenhagen against Parma when, after Alan Smith’s early goal, 30,000 English fans chanted “One-nil to the Arsenal” powerfully, believing that the score couldn’t change. And it didn’t – it remained 1:0. The Iron Defense led by Adams left no chance for Zola and the other stars.
However, the off-field stories are more movie-like than his on-field success. When it all began is challenging to pinpoint. However, in 1990, Adams crashed his car into a tree, with his blood alcohol level four times the legal limit. He lost his driver’s license and, due to it being his second offense in two years, ended up in jail.
To lighten the mood, there were also humorous moments. Tony often recalls with a smile the incident at Nigel Quinn’s wedding (a fellow footballer of Irish descent, though not a central defender but a forward) when he got very drunk in Dublin and ended up in a street altercation with three Chinese men. “I smashed a beer bottle over my head and shouted at them. They ran away, probably thinking, ‘If this guy does this to himself, what will he do to us?!’ What a joke, right!?”
Days went by monotonously – beer for breakfast, training, beer at the pub with the entire team, training again, endless binges…
“On Sundays, Tony would gather us around noon at the pub,” says Parlour, the aforementioned “Pele from Romford.” “He would set the rules, a true captain and leader both on and off the field. If the pub’s closing time was 7 in the evening, no one would leave earlier. Leaving before closing time incurred a £200 fine. Those were Tony Adams’ rules.”
Arsenal had an exceptional team, but Adams’ body and marriage were suffering. In 1992, he married Jane Shreeve, and they had two children, seemingly living a good life. But she left with the kids a few months before Euro 96, unable to cope with Tony’s lifestyle and what he had become. Little did he suspect that during these long months, Jane had developed her own addiction, no less destructive – to cocaine.
“In the mornings, I would wake up, splash some water on my face, and head out,” Adams recalls. “I couldn’t even muster the energy for a shower. Paul Merson would come to pick me up for training. Sometimes, before that, I’d quickly have a beer to regain my focus.”
He played while drunk or at the very least, after drinking. “Once they awarded me the Man of the Match, and I had had three or four beers,” he recalls in his book “Addicted.” “I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t remember much of the game.” Things escalated to alarming levels, and legends circulated in London. Paul Merson recalls one shocking incident.
“We were early at ‘The Chequers,’ our local pub,” Parlor recalls, referring to Adams. “Tony came and said, ‘Today, curfew is at 3 p.m.’ It seemed quite early; we wondered what was going on. At 2:30 p.m., a car pulled up outside the pub, and Tony left. He just said they invited him to participate in the draw ceremony for the Football Association Cup in the studio. Yeah, right! We didn’t pay much attention.
At 3 p.m., someone in the pub turned on the television, and there was Tony, on screen, with Terry Venables and the host! Graham Kelly, the FA boss, was there too. Our Tony was completely drunk, his shirt was hanging out of his trousers, and he was wearing sneakers. Terry invited him to pick a ball, and Tony said in a slurred voice: ’31.’ Graham gently advised him to take a closer look; there were only 16 balls in the hat, as it was the round of 16! It turned out there were 13… We burst out laughing in the pub. Around 6 p.m., Tony returned to the pub, and we continued.”
Christmas parties at Arsenal started around 11 a.m. The pranks in the bars and clubs often got quite outrageous. “During therapy, they asked me if I had ever stolen alcohol,” Adams says. “I said ‘no,’ but then I remembered – many times I would go to the bar and pour myself a beer from the tap while the bartender wasn’t looking. I didn’t see it as theft; it was just a joke…” Then there’s the famous incident where he fell into the orchestra pit, only to show up at training the next day with a gash on his head. He, who had never been afraid of a high ball, now had stitches on his forehead.
And then, there’s the story of his time in prison in 1991. His punishment was 58 days behind bars because driving dead drunk on the streets of London (the second time in two years) cost him that much. He started going to the gym three times a day to stay in shape. “The food, however, wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t good enough to sustain my workouts. So, I bribed a guard to bring me roasted chickens. You can do anything with money in there,” he says. After getting out, Arsenal won the title the same season, and he was back in familiar form.
Binges, blackouts, waking up next to unfamiliar women, hallucinations, sweating before training, family scandals, vague conversations with his father, who would say on the phone, “Tony, you’re drunk again…”. Before Euro 96, he is alone, abandoned by Jane and the kids, preparing for the most important tournament of his life, the European Championship hosted in England. He gives up alcohol completely for the sake of it.
The English team embarks on a tour to Hong Kong a few days before the European Championship, an unusual decision by Venables. Tony had been there before with Arsenal and knows the temptation. “I stayed in my room during the free evening. The whole team went out, and I told them, ‘Guys, count me out.’ I sat on the terrace, looking at the lights, burning with the desire to be with them. But I didn’t go.”
That night became legendary in English football, with Teddy Sheringham, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince, and Robbie Fowler famously having tequila and whiskey poured into their mouths at the so-called “dentist’s chair” in a local bar. The scandal that ensued was enormous, and after his goal against Scotland in the Euros, Gazza celebrated by lying on the ground, and his teammates poured water into his mouth.
Tony resisted temptation and had a fantastic tournament. But then, for six weeks, he didn’t stop drinking. “One morning, I woke up and heard voices. The phone was ringing, but I couldn’t move towards it. I simply didn’t know what was happening; someone was speaking in my head, and I was alone.” One day, Paul Merson picked him up for training, and Tony told him, “Mers, I have a problem. A problem with alcohol.” The response was surprisingly quick and somewhat simple: “Welcome to the club!” Paul had already started therapy, though Tony didn’t know about it. It was August 1996, and this was the turning point. Adams decided to follow Merson’s path, who recommended a group and the right therapists.
He found solace in the meetings and often stayed, sometimes even with the last people there. This was his way of avoiding temptation. However, one evening, reporters were waiting at the door, sensing a sensation. “£50,000 for an exclusive interview with us,” one of them shouted, with camera flashes behind them. The Arsenal and England captain was on the front pages the next morning: “TONY ADAMS IS AN ALCOHOLIC.”
The ensuing months were tough, but Adams emerged as a new person. The arrival of Arsène Wenger from France played a significant role.
“Arsene Wenger came to Arsenal like a professor from the Sorbonne. He spoke, gestured, and was involved in everything,” Adams jokes. “We were lucky – both us and him – that he didn’t arrive two years earlier. We wouldn’t have listened to him much at all!” But this was a group of men who had already changed or were on the path to change. Adams led by example in following Wenger’s methods, which were radical. No drinking. No junk food, no sandwiches, chips, or pies.
“I could never give up fried potatoes,” Adams admits. But everything else was strictly adhered to. Transformed, the captain led a rejuvenated, young, and hungry team. A title in 1998, then another in 2002.
The separation from Jane was inevitable, even though in early 1997, they tried to reconcile before the divorce came. Two addicted parents… It just couldn’t work. Today, Tony is clean, and Jane, even though she was with him, didn’t intervene, is now in prison – drugs claimed another man in her life, and she simply wasn’t capable.
That’s how fate decided. Fate also decided that in 2004, Adams would marry for the second time. And what irony it was. His wife’s name is Popi Teacher, a wealthy heiress from a family with a great reputation on the island. Can you guess who that is? Let’s help you – Teacher is the family name, as it’s spelled in English… Teacher’s whiskey was born in the hands of William Teacher’s great-great-grandfather! Irony, isn’t it?
Tony Alexander Adams only kept the shirt of one team throughout his career – Arsenal. He never played for another club. 669 matches. 22 years from youth to veteran. Today, there is a statue of him in front of the stadium, and damn it, who deserves it more than him!?
The only stronger addiction than his to this team, he managed to overcome. He tried coaching in the Netherlands, Spain, England, and Azerbaijan, but… it didn’t work out. Now he’s an analyst, mainly talking and commenting on what’s happening at Arsenal, and there was a lot of noise about him potentially having a role at the club after Wenger left. It didn’t happen.
His figure, hunched at the corners and standing tall with the ball at his feet, remains memorable. That one leaning over the bar to sneakily pour himself a beer – also. Two different Tony Adams. The two faces of a legend of a kind that no longer exists in the changed world of modern football.