The question is a fair one. Why Tony Adams? What does he know about Rugby League, a thrilling if niche sport rooted in a northern enclave some distance removed from his footballing hinterland of Dagenham? The answer is not a lot, technically. He does, however, know a little about people. More precisely, about people in distress.
Adams takes over as president of the Rugby Football League from Andy Burnham next week and there are a great deal of reconstituted players grateful for the association. The founder of Sporting Chance, a charity dedicated to helping sportspeople deal with addiction and mental health issues, has seen more than 400 league players walk through the organisation’s doors. That’s a lot of big fellas. It’s just the kind of crisis documented in his autobiography, Addicted, that engulfed him toward the end of his career.
“The stigma around addiction in those days – no-one was interested,” Adams tells i. “‘Sort your life out, what’s wrong with you? You haven’t got mental illness mate, you are weak. Pull your finger out. Man up.’ It’s a vicious circle, the fear, the loneliness, the anxiety. With the addiction you try to escape that and get hooked on something else. At first I was comfortable on the pitch. That was my escape. I was lucid, the dogs bollocks, you are alive. It’s what I did. I got my self-esteem from what I did rather than who I was. I didn’t know who I was.”
‘That’s just how it was’
Adams does not claim a profound clinical comprehension of mental health, rather he has through experience and study arrived at a working understanding of the human condition. I shared an anecdote from my student days when, to support what was a meagre stipend, I worked on the door of a West End nightclub. Yes, I was a bouncer. It was the late Eighties. A group of Arsenal players were celebrating at the season’s end. Adams staggered past me in a state of oblivion shouting abuse as he rolled out of the Limelight and on down Shaftesbury Avenue.
“That’s just how it was. When we won the cup [in the Nineties] Michael Hart [Evening Standard football reporter], bless him, took me down the Crown in Billericay. I was so drunk. We used to do that in those days. Different now.” I intercepted Adams on the morning of him paying a visit to the Houses of Parliament to meet with MPs about a prison scheme for addicts. He still walks like an English centre-half – big stride, back ramrod straight.
He betrays none of the damage that brought him low. And fully recovered from a heart operation four years ago, he presents a glowing outer that he insists reflects the inner peace he feels.
‘I’m looking after myself’
“I’m so grateful to be free of it. So painful. It got very dark at the end. My head was scrambled. So much fear. Addiction is a mental illness. My head was on fire. Walking down the street, having blackouts, peeing myself, sleeping with people I didn’t want to sleep with, going to prison. You telling me that’s not a mental problem? You look at me today, my brain is great, I’m looking after myself mentally and emotionally. I did some really bad stuff when I was sick. I don’t do bad stuff today. It is hard to talk about it now because it was so far away. I still go to meetings to remind myself that it was really bad. It’s not really bad today. It’s really great.”
Happily married a second time, to Poppy Teacher, and living in Bohemian bliss in Gloucestershire, Adams has reached an accommodation with life that suits him. He no longer hankers after football fulfilment. There are nil regrets about past coaching ventures that didn’t quite come off. His work is focused entirely on Sporting Chance and three patronships with related charities. “I’d like to think I have grown emotionally and become quite educated, particularly around my illness, about who I am. I’m comfortable with who I am, no better or worse than any other human being. I used to have loads of judgments about stuff, I’m better than others, that sort of thing. My life was competition. Before I got clean I was not conscious of what I was acting like, how I was behaving. I didn’t have the gift of self-awareness. It was all ego-led behaviour.”
Sporting Chance celebrates its 20th birthday next year. Adams captained Arsenal and England in a career that spanned three decades. He remains the only Arsenal skipper to win trophies across a timescale as expansive as that. There is no sign of the player he was in the man before us, other than the impressive physical dimensions that fill his beautifully cut suit. As good as he was as a player, his contribution to sport is more significant now. He nods his agreement.
‘It’s always been my calling’
“Twenty years. That’s pretty bloody amazing. We are the biggest provider of mental and emotional support for the sports industry. It’s gobsmacking. I’ve been thrust into this position to lead it. I think it’s always been my calling. I have tried to do other stuff. There is no other place I am supposed to be at the moment. I don’t know how else to put that. I’m here today talking to you. It’s the right thing for me.”
As is the presidency he is so proud to accept. “It was a natural progression. The first talk I did with the Rugby League was at the Warrington Wolves in 2011. A few of their players asked for help. We were there to support them. Addiction was an issue, tramadol, painkillers. We started to do education. That’s our front door, We went around all the clubs. The 400 players we have helped since have been across a range of services. Coming to the clinic has been a fantastic dynamic for others in treatment. I’m generalising here but that M62 corridor, they are working-class boys, rough and ready, honest. They come in broken. They have had trauma, addiction. They are crying their eyes out. It is just beautiful to see them reborn.”
Adams too. He still attends Alcoholics’ Anonymous meetings, still meets with the same therapist he had 23 years ago. “If I stopped going to meetings, stopped taking to my therapist, if I closed down, isolate, it is inevitable that I would look for something else to fix me. There is a lot of shit out there. Life happens. Our brains are like sponges. Stuff can creep in.” He also swears by meditation. “I try to do 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. Close my eyes, stuff comes up, thoughts and feelings, and I’m not scared of them. It’s like guests, you invite ’em for lunch and you can be stuck with them all day. So what I do, come four o’clock, I say ‘sorry we are busy tonight, out you go.’”
‘Education is the answer’
The reconstructed Adams is a national treasure. Giving back does not begin to do justice to the difference he is making to young people struggling to cope with the unique pressures brought about under the arc lights of fame. Education, he believes, is the ultimate answer, a position he will seek to reinforce over the 12 months of his presidency.
“It’s so important. Education around emotions, thoughts and feelings. It is on the curriculum at some schools now. In my neck of the woods, Dagenham, Barking, Becontree, the truancy levels were horrific. We never had educational help. My parents had no emotional training either. My dad was a roofer, a magnificent man, fantastic at what he did. I shook his hand on his deathbed. If I’d hugged him he would have killed me.”
Adams travelled to Westminster on the tube. I left him sitting on a bench on the opposite platform as I jumped on a train to Wimbledon. “Look there’s Tony Adams,” said a middle-aged couple looking up from their crossword. “What a player he was.”
I wanted to tell them he is an even better one now.