The Iceman Cometh

Ross McKibbin

  • Addicted by Tony Adams and Ian Ridley
    HarperCollins, 384 pp, £6.99, August 1999, ISBN 0 00 218795 7

For those who do not admire it, football must seem like American popular culture does to those who do not admire America: something whose spread is both inexorable and destructive. Football is not just the ‘beautiful game’, it is the ‘world game’; something not simply to be played or watched, but an activity powered by all the resources of global wealth and technology. It is, for example, obvious in this country that football is slowly eliminating alternative sports, even ones deeply grounded in British society. Both rugby codes are gradually decaying; not really because football is a ‘better’ game than they (although it might be) but because they have lost their character as class ‘badges’ – activities which affirm and legitimate ‘middle classness’ (Rugby Union) or ‘working classness’ (Rugby League). The decay of cricket has, no doubt, many causes, but one is competition from football. As the football season is extended, cricket is losing its monopoly as the nation’s (or at least England’s) major summer sport. And it has long been known – since before the First World War – that people would play and watch football regardless of the season, as long as they were given the opportunity. It has also long been known that football has a unique status among Britain’s sports. It was always, however reluctantly, conceded to be the ‘national’ game. But this concession is now much less reluctant. Hardly anyone would deny that football is today central to the public culture of British life: not merely something for Saturday afternoon or Match of the Day but a culture which represents much of the reality of British life itself. Every time (say) Alan Hansen makes a general comment on the nature of British football he is in part making a general comment on Britain – a fact of which he is probably aware. Yet in one important respect it is still not universal. Although the huge numbers of people who play recreational football represent a cross-section of British male society (and even to some extent of female society), those who play professional football do not: they are still overwhelmingly young workingclass men.

Which brings us to Arsenal. To the extent that any individual club historically stands for this culture (for better and worse) it is Arsenal: no other club has had such continuous membership of whatever has been at the time the senior division of English football. In the last few years, like most other Premiership sides, it has of course much changed its character. It has a French manager and is now an Anglo-French-Dutch-African side. Yet its ‘spirit’, for those who believe in these things, has changed less. It remains a side capable of heroic deeds; but it does nothing easily and lives on its own and its supporters’ nerves. Furthermore, its ‘foreign’ players absorb this spirit even as they modify it. And as long as they play the game (in both senses) they are simply assimilated by supporters into the club’s traditions – ‘Bergkamp, 100 per cent Arsenal’. But if they do not play the game they are forgotten. And in one important respect Arsenal remains almost bulldog British: in its ageing but still formidable defence. Which brings us to Tony Adams. Of those bulldogs Adams is the most redoubtable; a man of immense pertinacity and skill who has saved both Arsenal and England on many occasions. And he has been in the game long enough to see it transformed within his own playing lifetime. He was, for instance, a long-time player for the club before he even acquired an agent and until then seems to have relied for advice on his dad (to whom he is obviously very attached) or just signed the contracts the club prepared for him.

Adams would be justly remembered and admired for his pertinacity and skill, if for nothing else. But he has written with Ian Ridley an exceptionally interesting autobiography. Sporting autobiography is a difficult genre. Many are written but few survive. They are too often catalogues of games lost and won, or merely self-congratulatory. And they only rarely connect to the wider world. Addicted, however, emphatically connects to the wider world. For this book, as is now well known, is about two addictions: football and drink – and both are treated with remarkable candour. There are, as a result, several people prominent in English football who will not read the book with pleasure. Its organisation is not perfect: there is some repetition and it is occasionally difficult for the reader to know quite where he or she is. There are, however, two good reasons for this: one is that the drinking and the football were, until the final debacle, separate, if related, activities; the other is that Adams himself showed great discipline in keeping them separate. Some days were for football and other days were for drinking:

drink and football, my two saviours. I was into my routine for life. 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.

It was only as the fixture lists got more crowded and the seasons longer that this routine broke down. In a way the structure of the book is more that of a conversion narrative than a sporting autobiography. Its pivot is 5 p.m. on Friday, 16 August 1996, when Adams last had a drink. And that moment is preceded by descriptions of physical drunkenness (including a bout of delirium tremens) which are appalling to read and must have been painful to recount. Adams will never be a social drinker. He recalls that after the match which won Arsenal the Premiership in 1998, Stephen Hughes in the general excitement sprayed beer over him, some of which went on his lips: ‘It made me angry and I told him so – after which the poor kid spent the whole time apologising to me.’

Much of the book is inevitably about football, and Adams’s comments are always perceptive. Yet it is difficult to distinguish the football from everything else. The drinking was extraordinarily heavy, and Adams was never short of drinking companions. This was something successive managers had to cope with and none was very successful. According to Adams, Bruce Rioch’s period as manager ended ‘when he apparently told the boys that he “felt like Marje Proops” trying to deal with all their problems’. Adams made things worse, he says, ‘by lying to him about my whereabouts and state of fitness’. The luckless Don Howe, who Adams liked and respected, was, he thinks, happier at Wimbledon ‘than dealing with some of the problem players he had at Arsenal’. The most powerful manager during Adams’s time at Arsenal – excluding for the moment Arsène Wenger – was George Graham. Graham looms very large indeed in Adams’s account. He undoubtedly admired Graham as manager; he thought him tough and a pro. He, like Adams, knew Arsenal’s limitations and successfully exploited its strengths. He appears as manager in Adams’s ideal Arsenal team. Yet the picture drawn of him here is rather chilling. Graham, he notes, liked to ‘foster an atmosphere of creative tension’. A little later, into his stride, Adams says that the dominant feeling around Graham was ‘one of fear’. And the little details are little put-downs. He twice refers to Graham’s ‘smirk’. A dapper dresser, Graham ‘usually reeked of Paco Rabane aftershave, as Martin Hayes always pointed out to us’.

What the reader wants to know, of course, is whether Graham could have done anything about Adams’s drinking. He asks himself this question directly. The answer is somewhat ambiguous. ‘Who knows. Perhaps there were times when he could have been tougher with me ... He could have been concerned for my welfare rather than that of the team at times.’ But Graham was a realist. ‘He needed me performing and didn’t want to do anything to upset that.’ If Adams had not been performing ‘he would have come down on me.’ Indeed, after one bad performance Graham called him a ‘disgrace’ and Adams ‘sensed’ he knew he had been drinking. That Graham was a ‘realist’ is probably a fair assessment, but it seems clear that for Adams ‘realism’ had its price:

Once on a pre-season tour of Sweden I was still pissed from the night before and I was falling about all over the place, to the amusement of the boys, but George never said a word. It might have been the same Scandinavian tour where we were in a pub in Oslo called the Gunners and I was pulling pints for everyone, loving being the centre of attention. George sat in the corner observing it all. I was putting brandy in my Guinness which was the only way I drank spirits really.

It says much for Adams’s resolve and basic physical strength that he was able to play so often so successfully. But it is still surprising, given that alcoholism was a problem not confined to Adams, that the Arsenal authorities either knew little of what was going on or felt helpless to do anything about it. Shortly after Adams had given up drinking, and was understandably having a hard time of it, he was given a new contract. He was asked by David Dein, the club’s vice-chairman, whether he was all right: ‘I think he expected me to be buzzing and grateful to him for my new deal but I just said, “Actually, David, I’m not,” and proceeded to tell him what was wrong with me. I think he was a bit taken aback.’ But Arsenal’s problems were not a secret. After Dennis Bergkamp was signed for the club in 1995, one football magazine ran a headline something like; ‘Bergkamp: No Sex, No Drugs, No Booze – What’s He Doing at Arsenal?’ In fact, it would be very interesting to know what Bergkamp did make of Arsenal when he first arrived. Notoriously, he was known by his team-mates as ‘the Iceman’. He is certainly reserved, but I suspect he was an Iceman only by the slightly crazy standards that then ruled the Arsenal changing rooms. Adams’s treatment of Bergkamp is nothing if not frank. His first serious reference to him is to note that he refused Adams’s offer of help with his fear of flying (a fear Adams shared) – ‘it didn’t seem like he wanted any help at that time.’ His second is to report the telling of home truths: ‘ “You have been over here two and a half years, Dennis,” I said, half in sarcasm, half in motivation. “Isn’t it about time you won something? It would be a shame not to with your ability.” ’ But Bergkamp has class and Adams is fair. In the end he admits Bergkamp’s extraordinary intelligence and skill, and pays him the highest tribute: a place in Adams’s ideal Arsenal side. In any case, Bergkamp is 100 percent Arsenal: he, too, has a problem. Now that the roaring boys are on the wagon or have left the club or both, Wenger’s greatest burden (apart from the unerring capacity of his side to collect red cards), is probably Bergkamp’s absolute refusal to get on a plane.

The neurotic Arsenal players are perhaps atypical of English football sides, but the personal story Adams tells in Addicted is not unusual. This is an account of an exceptionally talented working-class boy who was ill-equipped to cope with the life his talents demanded. He got little from school – something he now greatly regrets. ‘I was not,’ he writes, ‘an educated young man, had a limited attention span and no other interests.’ He was easily bored: football and then drink were the only things that held boredom at bay. He was socially insecure, shy with girls and acutely conscious of jibes from the terraces or the press: a photo of him with a superimposed pair of donkey’s ears was especially upsetting. So he drank: he drank to celebrate victory, to block out defeat, to pass the time, to overcome his fear of flying, to ease relationships with women, to make himself popular. And until he decided enough was enough, no one seriously tried to stop him (if anything, the reverse). He went to Alcoholics Anonymous (he was taken to his second meeting by Paul Merson), and it seems that he still goes. AA could not have asked for better advertising than this book. He also turned to self-help books. To overcome his anxieties, he read Susan Jeffers’s Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and found one section of her book ‘Very helpful’ in organising his life. While preparing for the World Cup, he read James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, a book about ‘meditation, human insight and spirituality’.

Adams notes that the then England manager, Glenn Hoddle, was also reading it. Hoddle’s first appearance in Addicted is not as a footballer but as someone who wrote to Adams while he was serving a prison sentence for drink-driving: ‘Glenn was not long into his own spiritual awakening and wrote powerfully about the demons in my soul and the drink poisoning my spirit.’ Hoddle’s ‘spiritual awakening’ was, of course, to get him into real trouble, and lose him the England managership. What Hoddle said about people’s past lives was unwise, but it is hard to read Adams’s book without feeling that he was treated churlishly. Adams says of Hoddle’s resignation that ‘he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about ... He is a very spiritual man and I didn’t see anything in him that was cruel to anybody.’ Like Adams, he had to find his own way of dealing with the stresses of professional football, and if that way seemed to many rather barmy, a society which gave him scarcely any other way of dealing with them is in no position to say so. Particularly as both Adams and Hoddle plainly did find this literature helpful. Indeed, three of the things that impress the reader most in Adams’s book are: first, the search for tranquillity of spirit; second, how difficult it is for professional footballers to find it; and third, how little help they get in their search.

There is also a strong sense of waste. Others who figure in Addicted have been victims of the same demons as Adams. What has developed is a social system which produces intelligent, sometimes very intelligent, young working-class footballers, often exceptionally creative in their own vocation, and gives them nothing to fall back on. Some will become extremely rich, a few will make successful careers in football management or the media, but many, even among the rich, will have difficult and limited lives. Social relationships suffer as much as the chance of a useful education. And these men are put under enormous stress when very young. Adams speaks of David Beckham’s disaster at the World Cup. He thinks that Beckham behaved with dignity over the whole thing, and showed great restraint until he met his mum in the bus-park as the team was about to leave, when he burst into tears. This was the man who was the bearer of the nation’s hopes and was about to make one of the more celebrated marriages of the decade. Adams says: ‘I do have fears’ – for Michael Owen – ‘just as I do for David Beckham. We have so much talent in this country if we don’t destroy it.’ The country does indeed have much talent; but the culture Adams describes has not conduced to its effective use. It is a culture which, above all, lacks an organised intellectuality. The distance between Bergkamp and his colleagues at Arsenal in the early days was perhaps as much one of culture as personality. He was raised by Ajax in a system which placed much more emphasis on education than anything in Britain. Adams’s team-mates at Arsenal were no fools; but the footballing culture, as Adams and, presumably, the Arsenal board realised, apart from its other problems, was routine-minded and introverted, and that, also presumably, was why Arsène Wenger was made manager. Adams is now a real fan of Wenger’s, but there was at first a definite culture shock; Wenger was known to the team as ‘Clouseau’ and then as ‘windows’ – because of his ‘boffin’s glasses’. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that this missing intellectuality is one reason why England as a footballing nation never really achieves what its raw talent suggests it should. (And, indeed, not just as a footballing nation.) It would be unfair to say that England alone has produced casualties of the footballing life. There are a number of overseas footballers as famous for their problems off the field as for their feats on it. But it is hard to think of any other comparable country where such a culture was either permitted in the first place or lasted as long. Adams argues that we are now ‘getting the knowledge and experience to complement talent’. We can only hope he is right.

Addicted is in its own way a remarkable book; and Tony Adams emerges as an admirable man. He is honest with himself, and not just about drinking. Of his time in prison, when he might have been tempted to stress his toughness, he actually admits to being terrified of breaking the rules. The reader trusts that he now has the tranquillity in his life which fame and wealth conspicuously did not bring him. Addicted points to one other aspect of the British social system. This year Adams was awarded the MBE. He was very pleased by this; and right to be pleased. He hopes it is a recognition of both his football and his struggle against alcoholism. The MBE is the award normally given to distinguished sportsmen: only a handful receive a knighthood. But knighthoods are routinely given to civil servants, diplomats, businessmen, friends of the government of the day, even academics: people who, however worthy, usually mean little to society at large. Since the present Government insists on preserving the honours list they might at least rejig it so that it represents something like a democratic rank of esteem. In which case, Tony Adams, captain of Arsenal and sometime captain of England, might get the kind of honour his actual – that is, very high – standing in British society deserves.