We live in the age of fiction. A time when every human has their own story to tell and an audience to listen. On social media every human becomes the publisher of their autobiography. It is a work in progress. It tells the story of their life past and present and sells the most perfect version of themselves. Rarely, do our modern autobiographies show the world our pain, our sensitivity, our struggle, or our humanity.
We see this “image production” in autobiographies all the time. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is considered the first secular, English language autobiography. It is also the very first American “rags to riches” story and as is common these days in almost any story of the self, that story of the self is intended to serve as a light to others, as a “self-help” book¹.
Franklin lays out his self-help philosophy for the reader in his 13 virtues. Fittingly for this review, the first virtue is temperance in which he says “eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.” If only Tony Adams had read Ben Franklin, and adhered to the first virtue, how much different his life could have been. The other 12 virtues are (in order) silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. In my favorite line in the entire book, Franklin adds after humility “imitate Jesus and Socrates.” It sure takes a humble man to aim to imitate the son of God.
Tony Adams’s Addicted (co-authored with Ian Ridley) follows the model set out by Ben Franklin. He tells the story of an industrious young man, who worked his way to the top and who now wants to share the life lessons he has learned along the way in order to help. But where Tony’s book differs greatly from Franklin and most other autobiographies is in the honest and unashamed way in which he describes his downfall.
That might sound as if I’m making fun of Addicted, I’m not. It is a powerful piece of work and I recommend reading it for anyone who even remotely feels like their life is being consumed by alcohol. Tony recounts in gory detail the depths of his personal despair and it’s a tale that many alcoholics can relate to. As Tony would put it, if that helps just one person then he feels as if his book was a success. But you could also read Addicted not just for the story of Tony’s alcoholism and any help that might give someone but for its insight into the footballing world of the 80’s and 90’s, something many of us more recent fans never lived through.
Adams gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a young footballer in a time before every touch you make in every game was published on YouTube. Tony made his Arsenal debut as a 16 year old against Sunderland on 5 November 1983 and his very first touch was a disaster,
In only the second minute Colin Hill threw the ball inside from the right-back position to me and instead of whacking it upfield, I thought I would show everyone what a good player I was. Before I could do that, Colin West had robbed me and chipped Pat Jennings from 20 yards to put us a goal down.
Over his early career the remarkable thing is how many mistakes he made. These days, center backs playing for Arsenal are allowed no margin for error among large swathes of Arsenal fans. But Tony got away with mistakes early in his career because as he put it, Arsenal under Terry Neill were desperate.
Adams also offers a first-hand recollection of playing football under George Graham which is required reading for any Arsenal fan. Graham has attained an almost mythical presence about his tenure at Arsenal and for good reason. The 1989 and 1991 Arsenal title runs along with three domestic cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup will give a manager a certain halcyon glow.
That 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup run exposed the Arsenal tactics for what they were:
Good delivery into the danger area, plenty of movement, timing of runs and solid headers of the ball were the ingredients. We had been like this for some time, but on such high-profile European nights, it was becoming noticed more and more what sort of an attritional Arsenal this team was… If we had tried to compete with talented players in open games, we would have been blown away, I am sure.
This all took its toll on Tony who was beginning to drink more to cover up for the fact that he hated both the football he was playing and the fact that his life was quickly spinning out of control:
Naturally I enjoyed the success, and the release and excitement engendered by the big cup games, but the grind of training and weekly League matches was becoming hard work mentally and physically. We had been getting battered every week because there was no rest for the back four, no protection from elsewhere in the team. It was taking its toll. It was no fun. Drinking, when I got the chance between games, was helping me to cope with it all, I thought.
And Arsenal weren’t helping George and the players either. Arsenal have always been a stingy club when it comes to new signings but it was particularly problematic that they weren’t signing anyone nor bringing in youth players. The team was stagnant, playing an attritional style of football, under the dictatorship of King George. Tony admits that it was a relief when George was fired for taking bungs.
People in the modern age simply want the players to perform. Get out there and play better. Get out there and get stuck in. But these players have feelings, in spite of how much money they are paid and the number of times fans use that as a stick to beat them.
Famously, The Daily Mirror published a picture of Adams with donkey ears after he scored an own goal against Man U, and in typical press fashion, the papers drove the narrative. Tony had to suffer opposition fans braying at him and calling him donkey for nearly 20 years.
Adams admits that the constant abuse hurt his feelings. A few weeks after the “donkey” picture, Middlesbrough fans rained carrots down on Tony. Publicly, he put on a brave face and said that they would win the League in spite of these fans but privately he started to numb the emotional pain with booze. “Drink and football, my two saviours” he said.
That donkey incident occurred during Arsenal’s famous 1989 season. That was the year that Arsenal won the League at Anfield and which was immortalized in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. In the stands, the fans were calling him donkey, but that abuse drove Tony
My whole way of being was to get up and train, sleep in the afternoon, maybe go out with my pals in the evening then get up and do it again. Fish and chips on a Friday night and before you know it, it’s a Saturday game, to be followed by a drinking session. Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday. I lived for those two days, fully committed to the cause, fully determined. That way I didn’t have time to dwell on the hurt.
What’s astonishing is Tony’s recall of this period considering how much he was drinking but alcoholism is a creeping addiction and often allows the younger years to be bathed in limelight until it finally catches up to you. In fact, Tony recalls a bender leading up to the famous game at Anfield. While Nick Hornby was pacing about in his apartment in the lead up to that final game, Tony was out pounding Guinness with Niall Quinn, Paul Merson, and Steve Bould.
Tony’s recount of the 2-0 win over Liverpool is worth the price of the book alone. It is a clear, insider’s account of the match and the party after.
One thing that Tony never does is take George to task for allowing Tony’s alcoholism to develop the way that it did. It was under George’s watch that Tony had all of his most infamous drinking episodes: George Graham was the manager of Arsenal FC when Tony busted his head open falling down the stairs, when he and Ray Parlor let off a fire extinguisher in a Pizza Hut, and George was manager when Tony crashed his car and spent 8 weeks in jail for drunk driving. Tony asks just once in the entire book what George could have done differently, concluding that it was his own fault in what must be the most co-dependent passage ever unintentionally written,
Perhaps he could have been concerned for my welfare rather than that of the team at times. But I was an alcoholic denying I had a problem, so it would have been hard for him not to deny it too. I do know he could have never stopped me. And he was a realist. He needed me performing and didn’t want to do anything to upset that. If I had not been performing, then he would have come down on me.
Arsenal too could have stepped in but didn’t. When Tony crashed his car into a brick wall he was 4 times the legal limit. He spent 8 weeks in jail, which he recalls with great humor I might add, and the club paid his salary during that time.
When he got out of prison he was hardly reformed. Something he complains about toward the end of the book, that he feels the prison system should offer AA meetings and the like. Again, an odd thing to say considering how much of a pass he offers Arsenal and Graham for their silence during his raging years. They traded that silence for trophies.
After prison was when Tony’s alcoholism went into overdrive. As he said “though I lost my driving license; I gained a drinking license.” He married Jane, whom he met on a pub crawl. She was an addict as well, he doesn’t mention to what but I learned later that it was crack and heroin. And he would often go on benders of five or six days from 1992 until he hit rock bottom in 1996.
Tony’s rock bottom came in August of 1996, just 4 days after manager Bruce Rioch had been fired. He was suffering from various injuries, including a knee injury which required surgery and he had spent the previous four weeks alternating between periods of depression and drunkenness. His marriage had ended and Jane had moved on – this was especially hard on Tony as he was very much smitten with Jane and often mentions how he would even just go to where she lived to check in on her after they divorced. Tony was unable to cope with the pressures of his work, his children, his lack of a love life, and his second job, alcohol.
I woke up in my room, kit and clothes strewn everywhere. That set of questions familiar to any drunk started to penetrate my brain. Where am I? What happened? What did I say? Have I embarrassed myself, as I have done so many times in the past?
Instead of attending to his Arsenal duties, Tony spent his final few drinking days in a blur. He drank early and often. And on the night before his final drink, Tony went to a strip club, got a prostitute, and spent the night in a seedy motel surrounded by the detritus of his addictions.
From there it only gets worse but I’ll save you the description of his final day as an alcoholic and instead simply suggest that the entire chapter on his boozing is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to know what anguish looks like.
The most interesting part of the book is how sensitive Tony Adams is. He seems more like a shy, quiet boy, who is afraid of having his feelings hurt than the image I had of him as a tougher than leather Arsenal captain who piloted the team through some of the most physically demanding times in football history.
In that sense, the book is a detailed account of a sensitive and insecure young man who makes up for his feelings of inadequacy with alcohol and bravado. In one passage he is away on international duty in 1988 and got so drunk that he pissed the bed. A few paragraphs later he recalls dinner with the same England players a year later and how he got drunk and started bantering off the Liverpool boys for losing the title to Arsenal at Anfield.
Before he quit drinking I have to wonder whether Tony sensed that things were changing at Arsenal and in football in general. His sobriety dovetails perfectly with the arrival of Arsene Wenger and a massive change in the club and the League. As soon as Wenger arrived he brought with him modern techniques of diet and exercise. Gone were the days that Arsenal could be described as a “drinking club” which they were before 1996².
As it was, sober Tony helped Arsene get established at Arsenal and win two additional titles as the two of them formed a new sort of codependency around winning football. Tony was Arsene’s lifeline to the past, his rock around which he could lash his bow line. And Arsene gave Tony a freedom to express himself in a way that previous managers wouldn’t.
Adams spent 6 more years at Arsenal after getting sober, 4 more years after the conclusion of the book. He credits Arsene Wenger’s fresh approaches to fitness and stretching along with his own sobriety for lengthening his career. Wenger once told Adams, “I cannot believe how you achieved everything you have with the way that you abused your body and your mind. You have played to only 70 percent of your capacity.” After their League and cup double in 1998, Tony turned to Wenger and said “Now Arsene, you have seen the best of Tony Adams.”
We don’t know if Arsene would have won the League without Tony in 1998 – if Tony would have completely lost himself in the bottle we have no idea what would have happened to that much vaunted back four. But we do know that on the title winning day, it was Bould who played to Adams, who scored the fourth goal against Everton. As he held his arms wide, he drank in the adulation of his new manager, the love Arsenal, and his new life.
¹You can’t get self-help from someone else.
²Merson and Adams weren’t the only players to develop drinking problems while under George Graham. Niall Quinn and Kenny Sansom both also suffered from dipsomania. And Ray Parlour, Nigel Winterburn, and even Steve Bould all had public problems with their drunkenness.