An Open Letter from Tony Adams to Today's Young Footballers

Tony AdamsContributor IJune 27, 2017

Tony Adams is speaking out to help young footballers.
Tony Adams is speaking out to help young footballers.Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Tony Adams is an Arsenal legend and former England international with 66 international caps to his name.  He has moved from playing into management, but has had battles with alcoholism. Here, he offers advice to the players of today.

Why should you listen to me?

I am 50 now and probably seem old to you; you might not even have heard of me, but I do know how to survive in this game.

I finished playing 15 years ago after making 669 appearances for Arsenal, and 66 for England, and have since managed players like you in the Premier League, and last season in La Liga with Granada, so I know the game, and know the problems you face.

There is even a statue of me outside the Emirates; the plaque says, ‘Tony Adams 1983-2002’, but I am not dead yet.

I know players are seen as invincible, it is thought we have it all, and live a life free of the normal concerns, but we are not immune from the same doubts, illnesses and addictions as everyone else.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24:  A general view of the Tony Adams statue outside the stadium before the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on January 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
Clive Mason/Getty Images

I have suffered, I have been unwell, but I have combated those problems, and have now been healthy and sober for 21 years.

You don’t have to listen to me, I don’t care, it is your choice, but it might be helpful; you could learn something.

I could shock you, and tell you I have been to prison, drunk far too much, I have wet myself, soiled myself, and suffered horrible lows, but what is more important for you is to know how to avoid that.

I am not anti-drinking, or drugs, or gambling, it is none of my business. Live and let live, but if you need help, I know how.

I crossed the line, but I got back, and have stayed there ever since.

My salvation was opening my mouth. If you have problems, whatever they may be, go and get help, and speak to people. Don’t carry anything around with you, don’t be British, and keep it all in.

Some footballers are only comfortable on the pitch, and a complete mess off it. I know I was. For far too long I didn’t speak to anyone about my illnesses, and so I drunk too much, which only hurt me.

A secret makes you sick. You keep it inside you, and it will only make it worse. Whatever it is, share it. Talk to someone.

Too many footballers still see talking to someone, admitting you have a problem, as a weakness.

Everyone is vulnerable, and has self-doubt; you are not alone, but you must come to realise talking is a sign of strength.

I know it is tough: speaking to someone, confessing you have a problem. It has got better since I played, but it is still not easy.

You might just be surprised; you can misjudge your fellow footballers. I remember when I stood up in front of the Arsenal dressing room and admitted I was an alcoholic, I got support. Ian Wright said, “That took some bottle Tone.” That was 21 years ago.

I started my charity Sporting Chance in 2000 to give my fellow players somewhere to go, and have someone to speak to. We now have a network of 76 counsellors in the UK helping sports people. If you choose to get help, there are places to get it now; the FA and PFA have worked incredibly hard to provide this.

Unfortunately we are busier than ever, but that also means more people are asking for help. It is becoming more acceptable.

When a train driver or postman seeks help, they are not on the front of newspapers, who sneer and question how they can be depressed or have any problems if they earn £50,000 a week.

You have your illness, but then also you have this exposure.

I still don’t like to think of myself as unwell. I was this superstar, so how could it affect me? It is confusing for young men who have had so much go their way, so much privilege and praise, to suddenly feel unsettled and realise they are not in control.

When you admit your problems, you are infused with this incredible strength you probably didn’t realise you had.

In the last 20 years I have been able to handle things with this strength. I have just lost seven games in a row as manager of Granada; it was tough, but I could handle it.

Adams and Ian Wright enjoyed great success at Arsenal.
Adams and Ian Wright enjoyed great success at Arsenal.Getty Images/Getty Images

It was horrible, but it didn’t mean I had to drink again, or buy a Ferrari to cheer me up. I just don’t do that any more. I have strength and can control things in my life.

Players are given so much money so young, which can disrupt everything. Even if you are the most emotionally well and articulate person, having that much money at 19 causes problems, and provides you with a lot of new temptations.

The long periods of down time remain a problem, because compared to the highs of playing, the rest of your life can often feel quite drab, and you can struggle to fill that time.

You can get a bit down, it’s only human to feel blue, and it can be difficult, so for me, I would change the way I felt with booze.

But today the big change is that gambling is now instead the biggest addiction for footballers.

At my charity, around 70% of our football clients are gambling addicts, especially from the Premier League. Though in the lower leagues, there remains more of a drinking culture.

Gambling is a silent problem, because it is still seen as socially acceptable, and does not have the same in-your-face quality of booze, where you will eventually start slurring, and fall over.

I love the saying the gambling industry has: “Gamble responsibly”. Come on, you can’t tell an addict to do that.

Overall, the pressure is far more intense on players today. I don’t know if I could have played today, I don’t think I would have coped, I might have been destroyed.

In the late eighties I was the captain of Arsenal, and an England player, and could walk through the streets of central London without a single person noticing me. And then the game exploded!

Players now have to carry the burden of being instantly recognised, and social media spreading anything they do around the world.

You probably saw my coaching video from my first day at Granada. Ok, I’ll admit it was hilarious, and it got over 200 million hits. When I was playing, it would take 20 years to get that sort of coverage, but that took about a day!

If you are caught doing or saying something you shouldn’t, it goes around the world in seconds.

Players are under constant surveillance with the increase in camera phones, which means they have to be careful at all times.

I can understand why young players have become more guarded, and isolated from fans, but the more you lock yourself away, the more protected you are, I think it can make things worse.

I have big electric gates at my house, and they were broken and wide open for a while. During that time, no one came in, no one was interested, no problems, but as soon as they were fixed, and closed again, I’ve got people ringing the bell, “Where’s Tony?”

The more you put up barriers, the more you put up a force field to avoid any attention, then in my experience it gets worse.

It is what I did at Granada, I opened up the gates of training, and let people in, to feel a part of the club. Come on in. There is such a detachment from the fans, and I think that only hurts players.

When you’re a footballer it is so important to know who you are. For too long, I knew how to get drunk, I knew how to play football, but I didn’t know who I was. This is a bigger problem now with players living in a bubble.

Young players only identify themselves as footballers, not people, and it is incredibly difficult to let go of that.

There is a lot of problems with retired footballers, going broke and getting divorced after they finish. The transition can be brutal. It is such a short career that young footballers in their early twenties are only 10 years away from finishing, so you have to take notice.

If you don’t really know yourself, you’re only storing up problems. Who are you? It is important to know during your career.

I became a better and more successful player when I began to know myself better and got sober. The former England player Neil Ruddock said to me, “Tony, you were a good player when you were drinking, but when you gave it up you were a great player.”

I won the Double twice after that. I fulfilled my potential. I was a calmer, smarter and better footballer.

You really need good people around you to find out who you are. You have half a chance if you have people talking to you straight.

I have friends and family, and have benefitted from their wisdom. I talk to my wife too, dump stuff on her, she can sometimes tell me to pull my finger out and not be such a baby, but always listens.

I can remember talking to Jose Mourinho once, and asked how he deals with difficult players, like Mario Balotelli, and these sort of characters. He said you try to find a family member or a friend, and you use them to fix and help the player. The problem with Balotelli is he said he’s got no one around him.

Adams has expressed concerns for Mario Balotelli.
Adams has expressed concerns for Mario Balotelli.FRANCK PENNANT/Getty Images

If you have good people around you, you start finding out about other things in life. Put things in your life in boxes, and see what you have. For a lot of the time I had two boxes: football and drink, and I wasn’t happy. Then I found I had family, my charity, my therapy, football, theatre, relationships, cinema and reading. All of a sudden, you have a lot more to yourself.

It is worth taking this all seriously, because these illnesses can destroy careers. It has robbed this country of some great players. Paul Gascoigne should have been at the World Cup in 1998, winning it for England, instead of Zinedine Zidane for France.

Problems remain rife in football; there is constant pressure and attention. You have to be emotionally and mentally fit to handle it. But when you do, football is the best thing in the world. That physical and mental buzz it gives you is the absolute best.

When I cast my mind back I think about winning at Anfield in 1989, scoring against Everton in 1998, and my debut when I heard the cheers from the crowd and realised I could make it as a footballer.

Whenever I am at the Emirates, I have a look at my statue, because it shows it was all worth it. The last time I was there I had a picture of me and my kids all hanging off it.

I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I got through it. I made mistakes, but I grew from them, and it made me who I am today.

As told to Sam Pilger

Sober by Tony Adams is published by Simon & Schuster and out now.

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