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Tony Adams: The resilient winner

Who is the greatest captain of all-time? From Aug. 18-29, ESPN FC will reveal its 10-man shortlist of the finest skippers to have graced the game, before conducting a vote for the winner. The result will be revealed on Sept. 1.

The image is an iconic one, and, just this once, you can be safe in the knowledge that you're not misusing the term. Any photograph of Tony Adams' arms-aloft celebration after charging up the pitch to score that cherry-on-the-cake goal against Everton in 1998 is justification enough; its rendering in statue form outside Emirates Stadium, committing it to eternity, removes any doubts at all.

"That sums it all up," went Martin Tyler's commentary, and it did: The goal had been as defiant as it had triumphant, a reminder that Arsenal's old guard had been as complicit as anybody in the first of Arsene Wenger's many successes and had fully bought into the plan for what lay ahead -- and perhaps a more personal statement, too.

Tony Adams

Teams captained: Arsenal, England.

Trophies won: First Division/Premier League (1989, 1991, 1998, 2002), FA Cup (1993, 1998, 2002), League Cup (1987, 1993), Cup Winners' Cup (1994).

It was nine entire years after Anfield '89, nearly 10½ since Adams had first captained Arsenal, and four years before the skipper would finally hang up his boots. It was just 20 months since he had publicly admitted to being an alcoholic. Adams had been obliged to show several different on- and off-pitch faces as his time with the Gunners drew on, but one thing had remained constant: His "captain" persona was unlike any the club had ever seen.

It shone through the most chaotic of backdrops. In March 1993, Arsenal travelled to Ipswich for an FA Cup tie. Adams' preparation -- a night out earlier in the week -- had not been especially unusual, but this time the evidence wasn't easy to mask. A head-first tumble down a flight of nightclub steps had resulted in cut above his eye that required more than 20 stitches, and manager George Graham braced himself to call on reinforcements.

Not a chance: A bandaged Adams wouldn't let this get in the way of leading his troops out and, with the game nearing halftime and Arsenal a goal down, muscled ahead of two men at the back post and flung himself goalward to head home a Paul Merson free kick. Arsenal won 4-2 and, eventually, at some length, lifted the cup. And not even that could top what had gone on two years previously, when he completed a two-month spell in prison for drink-driving in February 1991 and proceeded to lead his club to their second title in three seasons.

All-time greatest captains

Tony Adams - Aug. 18
Franco Baresi - Aug. 19
Franz Beckenbauer - Aug. 20
Francisco Gento - Aug. 21
Steven Gerrard - Aug. 22
Roy Keane - Aug. 25
Bobby Moore - Aug. 26
Carles Puyol - Aug. 27
Obdulio Varela - Aug. 28
Dino Zoff - Aug. 29

Vote: Aug. 29
Result: Sept. 1

And that was what Adams did. Extraneous distractions, pressures, mishaps and misdeeds were all sliced through when he walked out onto the pitch. He was consistent in performing and in adapting, too. Take something as relatively trivial as his prematch meal, as described in an interview with the Daily Mail this year: "During the early years it was a sausage sandwich," he said. "But when Arsene Wenger came along, that was chicken and pasta." Just one of many changes, but the kind that ensured his longevity against what had been fairly sizeable odds. Wenger, who became profoundly attuned to what made Arsenal's soul within a very short time of walking through the door, recognised Adams' commitment to the cause and, on top of that, his intelligence.

That was, in some ways, what marked him out. "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," the manager famously said in 1997. It was huge praise from a man whose academic credentials are widely documented, and it told plenty about what Wenger saw in the skipper he inherited. It explained why he worked with him to fit into his style, cajoled him into using the latent technical ability he detected to play the ball from the back and persuaded him that a healthier diet would extend his Arsenal career significantly. For Adams, Wenger's arrival could not have been better times.

Tony Adams nonchalantly celebrates his goal for Arsenal against Everton that clinched the Premier League title in 1998.

Wenger's biggest statement of faith in Adams came during a 1997-98 season that ended so remarkably in a Premier League and FA Cup double. A 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn in December had been absolutely dire; Kevin Gallacher and Chris Sutton had outsmarted Adams and Martin Keown throughout; a back line that could see Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and, increasingly, Patrick Vieira through its front windscreen seemed, to put it kindly, to have become "of its time."

Adams was distraught, rocked in part by fans' comments on the Arsenal website proclaiming that his time was up. Wenger told him to take three weeks off, sending him to a French fitness specialist and, presumably, to clear his head as well. When Arsenal next played Blackburn, at Ewood Park that April, they won 4-1; it was their seventh win in nine games, and Adams had led by example in all of them.

"Eastenders find it hard to be winners," the Romford-born Adams, whose family came from the belt-and-braces Stepney area, said in an interview with the Guardian back in December 2003. "They're fighters. They'll do anything for you, but there's an element in the East End culture that likes knocking their own." By this time, he had retired as a player and was manager of Wycombe Wanderers, a post he would fill for only another 11 months. He certainly found it hard to be a winner there, and subsequently in spells with Portsmouth and Azerbaijani side Gabala. But the passage is illuminating.

Tony Adams holds the Premier League and FA Cup trophies aloft in 2002.

Adams seemingly had that self-destructive gene but was hell-bent upon battling it and becoming the champion Graham marked him out as when Graham first gave Adams the Arsenal captain's armband at the age of just 21. A televised -- and, unknown to Adams, miked up -- haranguing of referee David Elleray during a match against Millwall in 1989 (calling Elleray a "f-----g cheat" after his close-range effort, that appeared to have crossed the line, was not given) was indicative of Adams' early fire; its high pitch was equally illustrative of the age at which he had been given such responsibility. Whatever it took, whatever it cost Adams on or off the pitch, he would sweat everything to be a winner.

You wonder what would happen to the Adams of back then in this day and age. How tolerant would a modern, Twitter-fuelled media be of the jail sentence, the nightclub escapades, the drinking, the flaws Wenger was patient enough to work on? In an era of constant apologies and ever-elevated moral high ground, it is difficult to see how long he would have lasted -- particularly when it came to his role with England, whom he captained in 15 of his 66 appearances. But perhaps Adams, as he managed to do throughout his career, would just have kept on keeping on, his commitment to the club and country he loved managing, somehow, to wash away everything that lay outside.


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