Through Gritted Teeth #21: Tony Adams

by Greg Theoharis

I’ve never held much truck with what commentators so prosaically like to call ‘bragging rights’. They’re transitory. And despite having the chance to lord it over colleagues and friends of your vanquished rivals the day after the night before, you always know that such bravado can be erased from the football supporter’s consciousness the next time your teams meet.

Oh, how we — Tottenham — rubbed Arsenal fans’ faces in it after the 1991 FA Cup semi-final. A thunderous opening five minutes resulting in that whip-crack of a free-kick and a poacher’s special culminated in Gazza telling the world he was going to have his suit measured. The Final itself, dramatic as it was, could never match the jubilation most Spurs fans indulged in after we beat that lot up the road. And we revelled in reminding them of it at every available opportunity.

Being what they are, the football fates conspired against us two years later. Inevitably we were paired up with Arsenal to play it all over again. Predictably, the ‘bragging rights’ changed hands and Paul Merson famously mocked Gascoigne’s celebrations by performing an impromptu tribute to an inebriated Marcel Marceau on the Wembley turf. We felt sick. And what made it worse was the person receiving all the plaudits for getting the winner.

I can still hear the braying now. Tony Adams was never blessed with the composure of Bobby Moore or the blinding pace of Des Walker and for that reason he was targeted and mocked for his perceived limitations. He was ridiculed as a donkey by opposing fans but that seemed to drive him on even more. His record stands alone in Arsenal history as the most successful club captain the club has ever known: 10 trophies and 669 appearances. Not bad for a ‘clogger’ with a penchant for alcoholic refreshment.

Whether Spurs fans care to admit it or not, we were always envious of Adams and the rest of that legendary, arms-aloft back four. Spurs may have arguably possessed more technically-gifted players in the early nineties, but Adams epitomised the benefits of adhering to a well-drilled system and despite the criticisms that came their way, Arsenal, and Adams in particular, didn’t give a damn. The fact remains that Arsenal won trophies under his captaincy; Spurs, during that period, didn’t quite match them. I could easily trot out the famous Danny Blanchflower quote about the game being about ‘glory’ but when you’re an early teenager as I was at the time, such abstract notions didn’t mean much in the playground. It’s hard sitting back and watching Adams lifting the League trophy at Anfield, however many mesmerising step-overs Chris Waddle does.

That was the thing about Adams. He didn’t try and hide who he was. And as we saw him publicly shamed and convicted for drink-driving, his rehabilitation only served to make me admire him even more. Long before the very public self-flagellations of celebrities and reality television ‘never-beens’, Adams could well have buckled after such a fall from grace.

Enter the Professor. Arsène Wenger has been credited with influencing much in the English game but the most symbolic transformation is the one Adams underwent under the Frenchman’s tutelage. Adams went from that particularly lumpen type of defender that is so inexplicably admired and celebrated in this country, full of beer and heart and bloody bandages, to a disciple of healthy eating, rigorous training and a willingness to play the role of an adventurous centre-back. Surrounded by the more cultured players brought in by Wenger, Adams flourished and became something of a Renaissance man. The metamorphosis was perfectly captured as Adams ran through to rifle the ball into the top corner in the final game of the 1997/98 season; capping off the club’s second Double and Adams’ legendary status at Highbury.

In that respect, Adams can be seen to be the bridge between two eras in English football. Having seen Arsenal win trophies in a manner that the aesthete would find unpalatable, he fully embraced the more cosmopolitan and expansive play that Arsenal specifically and the Premier League in general were moving towards. In that respect, his ability to change his style of play and remain loyal and committed to the club can be said to be more influential to the Arsenal of today than the flamboyancy and crowd-pleasing of the likes of Ian Wright and Thierry Henry.

His managerial career may not have so far been as glittering as his playing days but his choice of teams and somewhat eccentric methods of coaching and speaking make him immensely watchable whenever interviewed. Like a new-age Cockney version of Jimmy Nail, his quixotic statements often jar because they sound as if they shouldn’t be leaving his lips. Perhaps that sums up Adams as a person. There is an ongoing duality to his personality, which has caused him to experience failure and success in equal measure. The only thing that remained constant was his commitment to Arsenal. And that has to be admired, however begrudgingly.

If it had to be anyone who scored the winner in ’93, it had to be Tony Adams. I’d always rather a long-standing foe than some one-season journeyman entering the mythology of the old rivalry. Gascoigne entered our pantheon in ’91, Adams followed into theirs. Both flawed. Both troubled. Only one chose to change. The rest is history. The braggarts would have to wait a few more years.

Nayim. From the halfway line.

Greg is the proprietor of the quite wonderful Dispatches From A Football Sofa, which comes highly and unequivocally recommended. Bother him on Twitter here: @gregtheoharis.

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