The 10 Most Influential Captains of the modern era: Tony Adams

Tony Adams of Arsenal with former team-mate Steve Bould
Tony Adams of Arsenal chats with his partner in the back four, Steve Bould
Rohith Nair
Modified 10 Oct 2016
Top 5 / Top 10

Tony Adams

I will sign every contract Arsenal put in front of me without reading it. - Tony Adams

One-club players in this age of football are very hard to come by. ‘Loyalty’ is a term that is now sparingly used by fans who reminisce of heroes who took to the field proudly wearing the club’s crest on their chest throughout their careers. Players who would, in a heartbeat, do what was necessary for their clubs.

And when we talk of Arsenal, no other name tops the list but that of one of the greatest defenders and leaders they have ever produced – Tony Adams.

Born in Romford, Essex in 1966 and signing for Arsenal when he was a teenager in 1980, Adams became the heart and soul of the club that embodied the fighting spirit and desire that took the club to glorious heights in his 22 years of service. He made his first-team debut in 1983 as a 17-year-old boy.

Nearly 670 games and 10 major trophies later, he retired as ‘Mr. Arsenal’ – a club legend in the eyes of the Highbury faithful. 

Early Years

Adams didn’t become a regular player for the club until the 1985-86 season. As a defender, Adams was nothing short of a resilient warrior. Well-timed tackles and a powerful presence in the air were just some of the highly polished skills in his repertoire. His reading of the game was unparalleled. Commitment was his middle name and he was never afraid of putting his body on the line. And in 1988, it was these qualities that made up George Graham’s mind in giving Adams the captain’s armband at the young age of 21.

I made Tony Adams one of the youngest captains in Arsenal’s history and I never had any doubts about him doing the job. The modern game is short of dominant personalities, so Tony stands out like a beacon. – George Graham

Tony Adams never looked back and he remained Arsenal’s captain until the day he retired. 14 years later.

In his first full season as captain (1988-89), Tony Adams led the side to the First Division title. A title that will long be remembered in Gunner folklore as they clinched it at Anfield on the final day of the season, thanks to a dramatic last minute goal by Michael Thomas. Arsenal won the title again under his leadership in 1990-91, which was much more impressive because they lost only one game and conceded only 18 goals (the next best was Liverpool who conceded 40)!

In 1992-93, he captained the first English side in history to win the League Cup and FA Cup double. It was his header against North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final that gave them victory. The very next season, they won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Again, his goal against Torino saw them progress to the semi-final.

Arsenal beat Parma 1-0 in the final thanks to an Alan Smith goal. Till date, that has been Arsenal’s last European triumph (apart from an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup victory in 1970 which became the UEFA cup in 1971).

One of Adams’ biggest claims to fame was that he was an integral part of George Graham’s ‘Famous Back Four’. Paired with fellow centre-back Steve Bould and full-backs Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, this efficient and near-impenetrable defence developed an almost telepathic understanding that allowed them to play the offside trap to perfection. Countless times, their movement and synchronized raising of the arm to signal a player offside would frustrate opponents to no end. And if they did somehow get through, they had the indomitable David Seaman to contend with.

When I first came to Arsenal, I realised the back four were all university graduates in the art of defending. As for Tony Adams, I consider him to be a doctor of defence. He is simply outstanding. – Arsène Wenger

International Career

Tony Adams was the first of a new generation of players to be born after England’s 1966 World Cup win. He made his debut against Spain in 1987 and represented England in his first major tournament at Euro ’88, scoring once. But he was controversially left out of the 1990 World Cup squad and an injury kept him out of Euro ’92. And England didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

He made his comeback and was righteously appointed captain in 1996 when England hosted the Euro. England progressed until the quarter-final, where they were beaten by the eventual champions Germany on penalties. He didn’t play in his first (and last) World Cup until 1998, where they lost on penalties again to Argentina in the pre-quarters.

England’s disappointing Euro 2000 campaign, where they didn’t even qualify from their group, tuned out to be Adams’ last major international tournament. By the time the squad for the 2002 World Cup was picked, Tony Adams had already announced his retirement from international football (in 2000), with 5 goals to his name.

Adams holds the record for having appeared at Wembley 60 times and was also the last English player to score at the old Wembley, before it was rebuilt, in a friendly match against Ukraine in 2000.

To rock bottom and back

But Tony Adams’ career was not without controversy. Since the mid-‘80s, he had been fighting a losing battle with alcohol abuse. His involvement in brawls at night clubs often made headlines. In 1990, a drunken driving charge was levied on him when he crashed his car with blood alcohol levels way over the legal limit, which eventually led to a couple of months in prison.

Though people thought this would help him realize that he had a serious problem, it only got worse. It was found that he even played a match while being drunk. Other drunken episodes included more fights with fans and falling down a flight of stairs, which required him to get 29 stitches on his head. In fact, to get over England’s painful Euro exit at the hands of Germany in 1996, he went on a drinking spree that lasted six weeks!

In his autobiography Addicted, Adams recounts how he “was no longer concerned with the feelings of another human being…. There was no pleasure in anything.” It wasn’t until September 1996 that he publicly admitted that he was an alcoholic and sought rehabilitation. The timing couldn’t have been any better. For that was then that Arsenal appointed a new manager to take over from Bruce Rioch – a Frenchman by the name of Arsène Wenger.

Wenger revolutionized the club not just on the pitch but off it too. He sought to discourage alcohol, knowing very well that there was no way he could ban it with the well-known pub culture of English teams. Diets filled with meat and sugar were replaced with boiled vegetables, fish and rice; something he picked up during his time in Japan. He talked the Arsenal board into building a new complex with the best facilities available, apart from hiring masseurs and an osteopath.

The result? The new system added years to the well-worn defence. Careers received a new lease of life. Adams’ career in particular, as Wenger was reluctant to take away the captain’s armband from him. From a football point of view, Wenger transformed Adams from a direct, no-nonsense centre-back to one who was more composed in possession and could maraud forward when the situation demanded it.

Perhaps no goal of his in the Wenger era is more iconic than the one he scored on the final day of the 1997-98 title winning season when Steve Bould put him through (“Would you believe it?! That sums it all up! - Martin Tyler) to shoot into the bottom corner. It truly marked the transformation of Arsenal from “Boring, boring Arsenal” to something that would go on to be its exact opposite.

Tony Adams! What a leader, what a player, what a man!  – Pat Rice

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and club captain Tony Adams
3 May 1998: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and club captain Tony Adams hold the championship trophy after the FA Carling Premiership match against Everton at Highbury in London. Arsenal won 4-0 to secure the title.

Wenger’s faith in Adams’ leadership and ability to inspire the team was duly rewarded as Arsenal won the Premier League – FA Cup ‘double’ not once, but twice – in 1997–98 and 2001–02. This gave Tony Adams the unique achievement of being the only player in English football history to have captained a title-winning team in three different decades! He made his last appearance for Arsenal, fittingly at Highbury, in May 2002 in the final league game of the season against Everton, signing off with a flourish.

“There’s only one Tony Adams”

There was obviously no surprise when he was selected in the top three of the 50 Greatest Gunners by the fans (alongside Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp). Adams was Arsenal through and through. And even though he left a big void at Arsenal upon his retirement, fans will always catch a glimpse of their hero as his bronze statue stands tall outside Emirates Stadium, arms aloft in celebration.

Arsenal v Everton - Premier League
The Tony Adams statue  outside Emirates Stadium

Over the years, there were many players who could lead and motivate the Gunners. But none more so than the battle hardened Tony Adams – the most successful captain in Arsenal’s rich history!

Published 21 Feb 2013
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