Six foot three, broad shouldered, loud yet dignified, Tony Adams could have been a leader into battle in any era, instead he was Arsenal captain and arguably the greatest captain the club ever had.
Making his debut in 1983 just a month after his 17th birthday, by 1988 he was named the Gunners youngest ever skipper at 21-years-old and would remain the head boy until his retirement in 2002.
It was a near three-decade spell in the side that was synonymous with their most dominant period in English football since the 1930s.
George Graham era
Although he had made his debut years earlier, it was under George Graham where Adams really started to shine, part of the famous back four alongside acquisitions Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould.
The young centre-back had come into the side when local youth players were coming into prevalence at Highbury, with David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Perry Groves all joining Adams in Graham’s first team as the foundations of two title teams began to develop.
Arsenal had suffered a trophy drought throughout the 1980s, after losing two finals in a matter of days in 1980, the 1979 FA Cup winning team was slowly broken up with key figures Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and others all making way.
As Merseyside dominated the league standings and humiliatingly crosstown neighbours Tottenham Hotspur won two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup during the decade, the Gunners fell to midtable finishes, Adams and Graham’s first task was to get Arsenal back to winning ways.
Graham, a double winner himself in 1971 with the Gunners found success in his first season, Arsenal ended their eight year wait for silverware by beating Liverpool 2-1 in the League Cup final at Wembley, becoming the first team to beat Liverpool after legendary Reds striker Ian Rush scored.
Their league position also improved, finishing 4th, the foundations for a league title win were starting to be built and after playing every game Adams was named PFA Young Player of the Year in 1987, the first defender since inaugural recipient Kevin Beattie in 1974.
The 1987 League Cup victory was a catalyst and Adams succeeded legendary fullback Kenny Samson as Gunners captain at the end of the following season.
Adams was a natural choice; from his debut he had been a vocal figure in a team that contained the likes of Samson, David O’Leary and Viv Anderson and his on field presence alone raised the game of the team around him, Adams was not content to look second best at anything.
With the famous back four in place and John Lukic in goal, Arsenal pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history when they defeated team of the 1980s, Liverpool on the final day of the Football League season at Anfield by 2 goals to lift themselves above the Reds to take the League title.
Off field troubles and on field successes
Arsenal would yet again win the league title in 1991, losing only one game all league season and conceding only 18 league goals, more than half than the next best Liverpool (40), however, it wouldn’t just be lifting trophies that Adams’ season would be remembered for.
An incident in May 1990 where Adams crashed his Ford Sierra into a wall at four times over the legal drinking limit saw the Gunners captain sentenced to four months in prison over Christmas 1990.
After serving half his sentence, he was undeterred in his quest for a second league title and was ultimately successful but the drinking didn’t stop.
It seems strange to say, but Adams off field demons almost heightened his character, he was the troubled hero that would be at the forefront of a Hollywood blockbuster today.
Such was his toughness, that he once played the day after falling down a flight of stairs, even scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup tie on his 29 stitches, of course his injuries were sadly attributed to the sorry side of his life.
But Adams was tough, he was the snarling, lumbering figure Arsenal’s take no prisoners back four needed, even when being almost kicked in the head by Manchester United’s Eric Cantona in March 1994, Adams only had eyes for the ball in front of him.
No league titles followed under Graham, an FA Cup and League Cup double were the highlights of 1993, followed up by the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994 – a game that started the chant “One-nil to the Arsenal” and was one of the many highlights of Adams’ career.
Faced with the front three of Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Tomas Brolin, Adams and the Arsenal defence masterminded one of the greatest clean sheets in European football and Alan Smith’s unlikely volley secured their first European trophy since the 1970 Inter Cities Fairs Cup.
His toughest act of all however, came in admitting he was beat, his alcoholism hadn’t subsided after the sentencing in 1990 and had only gotten worse, with the England captain admitting he’d played a league game for Arsenal whilst intoxicated.
He still led the troops into battle, he led England to the semi-finals of Euro 1996 on home turf but it was the penalty shootout defeat to Germany that tipped him over the edge and as Arsene Wenger came into the fold as Arsenal manager his fierce captain was admitting to the world he was a man in need of help.
The Frenchman’s new diet and lifestyle changes transformed the bingey Tuesday Clubbers into a title force again and in Wenger’s first full season, Adams emulated the Arsenal heroes of 1971 by collecting the League & FA Cup double, capping the season with a fairy tale goal against Everton to seal the league title at Highbury.
Adams only improved with age, scoring some stunning goals including a winning volley against rivals Tottenham in Wenger’s first North London derby that lives long in the memory of Arsenal fans.
Trips to Copenhagen and Cardiff for UEFA Cup and FA Cup Finals followed the double success in 2000 and 2001 but Arsenal came up short and as more and more of Arsenal’s legendary back four were phased out, even Mr. Arsenal, whose career had been giving a new lease of life by Wenger couldn’t keep up.
He left Arsenal in the club’s greatest hour, winning their third ever double in 2002, it also made him the first player in English history to captain a title winning side in three separate decades, a unique feat that may never be matched.
His post-football career has not been the same as the successes of his playing career and sadly with each passing year and more and more coaching failures, the dreams that Tony Adams will one day manage Arsenal seem to fade.
However, his Sporting Chance Clinic deserves commending, it has helped athletes overcome their personal demons the same as Adams did himself in 1996, Adams own two-decade sobriety, perhaps the greatest commendation of his own strength of character he could receive.
Quite frankly, Tony Adams embodied the word leader, from his statuesque physique, to his vocal rallying cry, to his win at all costs attitude to defending – Adams was Mr. Arsenal.