Player, Arsenal, 1983-2002
I’d been clean and sober for six weeks when Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal.
The hard work was done. I’d hit bottom, and got to my jumping-off point where I didn’t want to live any more. I didn’t want to live with the pain – I was in too much pain – but I didn’t know how to kill myself.
I was in purgatory. It was awful, and I don’t ever want to go back there.
I then asked something inside – a spiritual moment, call it what you want. I just had a moment of clarity. “I can’t take this any more.” I just surrendered.
The club hadn’t been able to find me. I’d been spending more time in pubs and clubs, and getting smashed, and I’d let Bruce Rioch down. The physio was trying to find me and I wasn’t there.
We’d been back to training for four weeks, and I’d spent more time in pubs and clubs. I was nowhere near training – I was too busy getting smashed.
After I hit rock bottom, I went back to training to see if I still had a job. That was six weeks before Arsène (below) came in.
I was doing a daily journal, and going to an AA meeting every day. We didn’t have a manager at the time, but I said to Pat Rice: “I need to get my head sorted out.”
"I’ve given up boozing. I’ve got some self-esteem, self-worth"
He was brilliant. “Do what you need to do, Skip.”
I wasn’t doing a lot of football, but I was doing a lot of recovering, and a lot of meetings.
I then got a phone call from the chairman, when I was driving around Wandsworth in my Range Rover.
“Hello, Tony. Peter Hill-Wood here. I hear the shit’s hit the fan back there. Don’t worry. Good man on the way. Rally the troops. I’m in America at the moment, but I’ll be back soon. See you in the boardroom on Monday.”
"I was sober and I was clean – motivated and ready to win"
I saw him on the Monday morning, and we had a good conversation.
I said: “Look, Alex Ferguson’s been on the phone. I’ve got some self-esteem now. I’ve given up boozing. I’m feeling a bit of self-worth. We’ve not won the league for five years – maybe I’ll go to Man U.”
Ferguson (above, right) had tried to sign me in 1990, but I was too scared and we were winning things with George Graham. In 1996 I was sober and I was clean – I was motivated and ready to win stuff again.
I wanted to know if Arsenal had ambition, so I asked the chairman.
"Then Arsène came in, and immediately I felt resentment"
He said: “Danny Fiszman – a very good man – has come on board, Tony. He’s invested into the club. We’re going to treble your salary, and we’re going to give it a go. David Platt’s come in, and with Dennis Bergkamp, we’re going to put some money into it and improve.
“I know you’re very concerned with Bouldy’s contract, and Dicko’s. We’re going to give them some money.
“We’ve got a good French man, and friend of David Dein’s, coming in. He’s a very good man. He’s been coaching in Japan.”
Mentally, I hadn’t been there for Bruce Rioch, and I’ve apologised to him for that, but the club had previously got the right man in George Graham. I trusted Peter Hill-Wood, and I trusted the system in Arsenal in those days.
"Arsène’s so charming – he’s wonderful, and he's spiritual"
Then Arsène came in, and immediately I felt resentment.
Pat Rice (above, right) was doing a great job as caretaker manager, and we were fourth in the table, and going for the league. Then Arsène swanned into town against Borussia Monchengladbach in the UEFA Cup and demanded Pat took me out of the back three we’d been playing and use a back four. We lost, and then he left.
In the dressing room afterwards, I said: “Pat, what’s that about? I’ve got maybe one opportunity to win this cup and he’s just knocked us out.” I was absolutely livid.
On his first day of work, I showed up ready for a massive fight, but you know Arsène. He’s so charming – he’s wonderful, and spiritual – and he didn’t like confrontation.
"'We’re going to make you look good. How can you look good?’"
“Tony, you’re very athletic. You’re very tall. You’re much bigger and stronger than I thought.”
I’m an absolute sucker for anyone who’s nice to me.
I was so self-obsessed. George always said: “We’re going to try and make you look good, Tony. How can you look good? Get other people to do your work for you. Protect you; make you look good, so you don’t have to do anything. That’s the way to do it.”
“That sounds really good, George.”
"We had a certain way – about behaviour, and standards"
Me and Arsène sat down, and he said: “What do you think?”
“We’ve been playing with a back three – maybe it’s not the right time to change. I’ve won all of my trophies in a back four – I believe we should change at some point, but we’re fourth in the table and have a lot of central defenders at the club. We’ve just got used to this.”
He said: “I agree. We’ll do that.”
In effect, he let us run it. That was his style of management. “Go play – go do your stuff.”
We had a certain way of doing things – about behaviour and standards around the club, and punctuality, and respect. David Rocastle, my old mate, was always: “Remember who you are, what you are, and what you represent.”
So when Dennis (above) came over, and David Platt – these top players – we made it very clear what they had to do to toe the line. Sylvain Wiltord is another who comes to mind. He used to fly in on an EasyJet every Monday morning. “This ain’t going to work for us.” We used to police it – Arsène very rarely got involved.
We ran the club with a set of values and DNA, and I truly believe Arsène went: “This is great. Get on with it.” He didn’t interfere. I think he actually bought into our Arsenal DNA and brought his own physiological ideology. We had a set of principles, and I always tried to pass them on.
Biomechanically, physically, he got me into the best shape that I’ve ever been in. “Tony, my advice is use your strengths.”
The catalyst for everything was the finance and the great players who came in. Because we had the finance, we bought the top players. The French market was untapped at that point, and we got all the best players from France.
That back four was already taught, with the goalie behind us. We then had those great new players – and this game’s about players.
When you put that chemistry with the back four that’s already in place... in 1998, I thought we could win everything. We should have done more than just the double.
We also lost the UEFA Cup final in 2000, and the FA Cup final in 2001. That squad of players should have done more.
"I also really admired Arsène’s philosophy around finance"
Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira (both above, with Adams and Nicolas Anelka) had come in, and Marc Overmars. Add Ray Parlour, and later on Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, with Gilberto and Edu. So many great players came in, but we always thought we could make them better. We always taught them the Arsenal way.
Bouldy used to kick Dennis a lot in training, and I think we taught him how to look after himself. He was such a good technician, but people sometimes overlook the way that he could handle himself. It was still a physical game in those days – and there were a lot of similarities between Dennis and Kenny Dalglish.
Arsène’s philosophy around finance – no player was ever bigger than the club – was something else I really admired. Later with Nicolas Anelka, for instance, he stood by the club’s philosophy. “You’re not going to blackmail me or this club. You’re gone.”
I suppose he got lucky with Thierry Henry – and Arsène would say that too – but it was an Arsenal principle he stuck to.
"'If you’re not going to be 100 per cent right I don’t want you’"
As a team, we dropped off a little bit, because with the pace of Anelka – and Thierry afterwards – we needed space in behind other teams. If we went and pressed, we weren’t playing into the hands of our star players, so we went back another 10 yards.
Arsène wanted us to win the ball back in the defensive and middle thirds, and to counter-attack. We let teams have the ball, robbed them in midfield, exploded, and put balls through to Nicolas and Marc Overmars (above). Teams also had to boot it long, because we were so good at winning the ball back.
In 1997/98, Manchester United were the new kids on the block. Liverpool had become a good cup team but didn’t have the substance or endurance to be a league team, so United were the rivals.
One of the great things that Arsène did that season came in December 1997. We lost at home to Blackburn, and there was a bit of a stewards’ inquiry.
"Football had been such a drug – and my first drug of choice"
I wasn’t fit, but I would have put a few more injections into the injury and kicked on. Arsène went: “No. Go to the south of France. One week of rest, one week of rehab, and one week of training again. If you’re not going to be 100 per cent right, I don’t want you. Go and get right.”
That was revolutionary, because I was thinking: “I’ve got to play. It’s all about me.”
I went there, I got into the best shape of my life, and I came back and exploded. I was invincible.
I didn’t take the team with me, because they were all great players as well, but when you see your captain on fire, you just go: “This is unbelievable.”
"That March’s away game at Old Trafford was monumental"
I also felt invincible because it was the first time in my life that I was comfortable off the pitch, and I knew I didn’t need football. That was a hell of a relief – I knew I could do without it. It’d been such a drug – my first drug of choice.
To actually go on to a football pitch free – mentally and emotionally – and get the physical high of playing football… I just felt so great, so it almost didn’t really matter who I was playing with.
That away game at Old Trafford that March (above) was monumental. Every time we went up to Old Trafford and won during that period, we’d more or less won the league – we did in 2002, too.
We could go to places like that and not only win, but outplay them. We defended against David Beckham delivering balls from the right-hand side all day long.
"I was back in the land of the living – not acting on instinct"
We were eating it up – holding the box, shifting the lines, reducing the lines between us and the midfield, and letting him cross balls and clearing them. He actually went into central midfield and tried to pull the strings from there – wasn’t going to happen.
We were a great counter-attacking team, and Marc Overmars – who felt completely overshadowed by Dennis – scored to give us a 1-0 win. From being 12 points behind them, we went on to win the league with two games to spare.
That game, against Everton, summed up those five months and the new Tony Adams. I was 20 months clean and sober, playing my best football, and in the best physical shape of my life.
I was also in the best place I’d ever been in mentally and emotionally. By now I was experiencing thoughts and feelings, because I was in the land of the living again and not doing everything out of instinct.
"To smash a goal in like that is orgasmic, and it’s spiritual"
I had a lovely life. I had great relationships with people off the pitch. Work was good; finance was good; my health was good. It was just an explosion.
It was a wonderful time in my life. We were 3-0 up when I found myself breaking forwards, chesting down a ball from Bouldy and scoring with my left foot.
At 31, and at the top of my career, to go and smash a goal in like that... it’s orgasmic, spiritual.
I remember Alex Ferguson shouting: “Show him on his left foot. He can’t kick it with his left foot.” I always remind him of when I smashed that one in against Everton.
I was just a cog in the wheel, but it felt great – incredible – to go and lift the trophy as captain. For a professional, to win the trophy over the 38 games – you know you’ve done it week in, week out.
You’re the best centre-half, in the best team in the league. That’s what I signed the contracts with Arsenal to deliver. That’s what they employed me to do, and to do it was amazing.
In the FA Cup final against Newcastle, Martin Keown fell over once to give Alan Shearer a chance when he hit the post, but other than that it was a walk in the park. I don’t want to disrespect Newcastle, but we were so confident. We were on another level.
We were playing triangles around their centre-forwards, which in those days wasn’t done. We rotated – I went and played in midfield sometimes, and Manu Petit played centre-half. Even today you only normally rotate forwards and wide men, but I knew if I went forward Manu would slot in.
Those last six years of my career, playing free – physically, mentally and emotionally – was the best place to be.
Author: Tony Hodson