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Tony Adams' demons: "The sweats, hallucinations, terrors... the voices... this is not normal"

Tony Adams

In a brutally frank account, Adams recalls his turmoil in the build-up to Euro 96, the horror of his suicidal bender after England’s exit –​ and how Paul Merson of all people helped him sober up

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Illustration: Paul Lacolley

He’s missed. I don’t believe it.

What a bloody... wait, I’m captain of England – I can’t get too angry with Gareth. I can’t show him how much this hurts. He’s going to be in bits. I need to protect him and rally all the players – think of the team and not myself.

I can remember seeing Gareth walking from the halfway line towards the penalty box. He had seemed really confident. I’d been standing next to the coach, Terry Venables, when he’d come over to us. I was due to take the first sudden-death pen, but there’s Gareth looking at us both and saying, ‘I’ll have the next one’. Super confident. Tel looks at me and we both nod. Go on then, son.

But he’s missed. I don’t even watch as Andreas Möller steps up and wins it for Germany. My arms are around Gareth – I have to help him. If I look after everyone else, my own agony isn’t real. Nobody is going to have a go at Gareth. I’ve got his back.

We take the lap of honour. No, it’s a lap of sadness, really. Here we are on this beautiful, balmy summer’s night in London. We should be celebrating England’s first major final in 30 years but instead, despair. Not me, though. I have to look after everyone. I push Gareth around the pitch. Literally push him around.

I clap the crowd and then head back inside the dressing room. Shin pads and towels hit the floor and there’s the sound of running showers. Team-mates sit, heads in hands. Those who didn’t play try to console, try to find the words, but there are just none. I try to rally the troops. I stand up and make a captain’s speech.

Adams, Möller, Euro 96

Adams and Möller leading out their teams at Euro 96

"Lads, get those heads up," I say. "We have been absolutely brilliant and done this country proud. Each and every one of us should hold our heads up high… except you Gareth." I turn to Gareth Southgate. "Gareth, you f**king idiot. You’ve cost us the European Championship." The room explodes with laughter. I look over to my right and there it is. The fridge with all the drink. That’s what I want. I pull the ring from the can and lager slips down my throat. It’s only Carling, but it tastes like Dom Perignon.

That was my first drink in weeks and it’s bliss. It had been a difficult build-up to Euro 96 – from the January I'd been in the shit. Turmoil. My wife had left me and taken the kids, I was injured after having an operation on my knee and not playing for Arsenal. I was in a bad place where I don’t want to drink, but I’m still getting drunk.

I was worried about even making the England squad but Terry was great, keeping in touch, telling me that I was his main man. One day we meet up in the West End at Scott’s, a lovely fish restaurant. "Fancy a drink, Tone?" he asks. "Yes please, Tel."

We have a couple of bottles of nice wine and Terry leaves. It’s 4pm. I’m in town, make some phone calls and am on a bender. Disappear for a bit. The club can’t find me, but that was the norm – dark places. I’m basically in the shit.

But come April, I’m literally ticking off all the days on my bedroom calendar until the tournament starts. What I could do is use football as a way out. So I get to work. Train like a madman. On the treadmill, running around the pitch, tunnel vision. It’s the only way I know and I’m getting fit, ready to play. Terry made me the team captain, which wasn’t easy as David Platt was pissed off. I would have been. But I’m captain now. 

What I could do is use football as a way out. So I get to work. Train like a madman

- Tony Adams

Then we go to Hong Kong for a pre-tournament tour and that's tough. I’d been out there in 1995 with Arsenal for a debauched trip – sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

I knew how crazy this place was and I’m struggling as the lads have been given a night off and they want me – the captain, big Tony – out with them as well. "Come on, skipper," says a young Robbie Fowler. "We’re all going out." I know where they’re going but I just can’t. I’m terrified but still give it the big responsible captain act. "Not for me, lads. I’ll get drunk with you after we win it."

I must have looked like the most focused man around. The perfect role model. But inside I’m in bits. I get in the lift and go up to my room on the 14th floor. I lock the door behind me and then go out onto my balcony.

I look out over the city. I know what's going on behind all of those flickering lights. I want to be out there, I want to be with them. I can’t wait for morning. That’s such a long night – ‘white-knuckling’ as we call it in AA.

I would always be first to the bus for training, knocking on players’ doors to wake them up – an hour early. Driven. Addicts can be really driven and that’s what I was that summer. But now we’ve lost in the semi-finals against Germany, we’re out and we’re back at the hotel. There are options. We can go home that night but no one wants to.

Tony Adams

Illustration: Paul Lacolley

The team sit around the bar, drinking beers, talking about what had happened. I sit down with Don Howe and Terry, and we drink and talk. Slowly people go to bed, but not me – 3am, 4am, I’m up and drinking. I’m an alkie so that’s normal. Nothing out of order, but I drink to pass out. Eventually it’s what I do. In the morning, people are leaving. Team-mates pat each other on the back, say their goodbyes and drive into the summer sunshine. Off to see their families, off on holidays with their wives or girlfriends.

I sit in my room and it feels barren. I’ve got a packed suitcase but I don’t have anywhere to go. I’ll call some mates. Where’s the nearest pub? That’s it. A pub garden. It’s a beautiful day. I go to the pub, and that’s the start of a six-week bender. Benders like that are hard to explain: I’m lost, bewildered, confused.

You know what? There's no use in over-analysing it – I’m just getting smashed the whole time, day after day. Some of it's fun, and I’m sure I think I’m having the time of my life. The whole country wants to buy me a drink, shake my hand and have a word. I’m captain of the best England side in a generation. "Everyone’s talking about you at school," my 12-year-old says. "Everyone loves you."

I don’t feel any love. I don’t feel nothing. Everything was suppressed. Leading up to the tournament I'd suppressed all my feelings with football. That had finished, so now everything is about the booze and it becomes a blur. Out in a pub garden or at a club, sometimes eating, often not. Personal hygiene? That goes out the window. Wake up and stand in a shower. Sometimes just splash some water in my face. Get back out and start again.

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