NS Profile - Tony Adams

The ex-football star and ex-drunk, in the English tradition of self-improvement, has used his wealth

On 26 June 1996, England lost the semi-final of the European Championship to Germany in a penalty shoot-out. This was no ordinary football match. It was a rare occasion of national unity, a game played on a warm and windless summer evening at Wembley where, three decades earlier, England had won the World Cup against another German side, since when the English team had been consistent only in its inconsistency and mediocrity. The semi-final was watched by a home television audience of more than 24 million and was the culmination of a febrile fortnight during which Chesterton's secret people had wrapped themselves in the flag of St George and begun at last to find their voice.

The defeat that night at Wembley was a disappointment for all who had hoped that the match would mark the end of "30 years of hurt", to use a line from the song by Baddiel and Skinner that topped the charts during Euro '96. But for the England captain Tony Adams, the game was more than a disappointment: it was the absolute end, a point of definitive rupture.

The morning after the defeat, Adams went straight to his local pub in Essex and began to drink pint after pint of Guinness. He continued drinking through the next six weeks until, early one morning, he woke after yet another "bender" to find himself in a central London hotel room beside a woman whose name he did not know. "My next memory," he wrote in his memoir Addicted (1998), "is of daylight coming through the curtain . . . having sex with the girl but looking at my watch to read 7am and wondering where I could get a drink at this time of day. That was the grip which booze had on me . . . No longer was I concerned with the feelings of another human being. There was no pleasure in anything, only need. I just wanted to have her and for her to leave, so that I could get back to my drinking. . . Cans and miniature bottles from the now-empty minibar littered the room."

Addicted is unlike any other sports autobiography I have read. For a start, it is well written (the ghost in this particular machine was the admirable Ian Ridley, now of the Observer) and can be read as a study in what Nietzsche called "self-overcoming". Adams presents a portrait of his former self notable for its candour and disgust. He writes about his old aggression and arrogance, his persistent bed-wetting in disturbed adulthood, his rampages in bars and nightclubs, his prison sentence (he was jailed for 58 days for drink-driving in 1990), his failed first marriage and his complete dependence on alcohol, first as a means to help conquer an innate reserve and later, as his drinking became more desperate, as a means through which to escape the inertia and boredom of life away from the pitch. As Arsene Wenger once remarked, it was a wonder, with everything that was going on, that Adams was able to play so well for so long.

Born in Romford, Essex on 10 October 1966, Tony Adams retired last season after 20 years at Arsenal. He was an outstanding schoolboy player, signed by Arsenal as a young apprentice. By the time he was in the first team, his manager was George Graham, a remote, authoritarian Scot who ruled his squad of young players with fanaticism and zeal. They were scared of him. Under Graham's tutelage, Adams became a great defender. Arsenal won six trophies in eight years during the Graham years, including the championship (twice), though the dourness of their style meant that the team were admired but never liked.

Having played his final five seasons at Highbury under the more progressive Arsene Wenger, Adams is now in his first year at Brunel University, studying for a degree in sports science (his minors are philosophy and psychology). He has set up his own charity, Sporting Chance, dedicated to helping sportsmen and women who are grappling with addictive illness; he donated £500,000 from his testimonial to charity; and he has recently become a patron of young writers at the Royal Court Theatre. He no longer, like most London-based footballers, lives anxiously behind high walls in one of the model gated estates emerging throughout the Essex and Hertfordshire suburbs, but has a house in Putney, so as to be near - Ridley told me - the cultural attractions of the city centre, and has bought a manor house in the Cotswolds which, if reports are to be believed, he shares with his new, aristocratic girlfriend, the Oxford graduate Poppy Teacher, of the whisky dynasty.

He reads poetry, philosophy and good literature, he goes regularly to the theatre, he plays the piano, he is learning French and has become interested in fine food and restaurants. He has, in effect, become culturally middle class, in a way that old socialists envisaged would happen once people were freed from hardship and toil.

In this, he is unique among modern footballers, most of whom conform to the Thatcherite stereotype of vacuous, ostentatious acquisition. They also remind us, too, of the self-confidence of the moneyed working class: people who have no interest in becoming culturally middle class.

"I can't tell you how much Tony has changed," says his former Arsenal team-mate Alan Smith, who now writes for the Daily Telegraph. "When I first joined Arsenal, Tony was the captain. But he really enjoyed being one of the lads, and I guess he was typical of young footballers at the time, in that he was a simple working-class lad who enjoyed a drink. It is heroic the way he has remade himself."

The life of the successful modern sportsman is largely one of spectacular excess. Liberated by wealth from mundane restraint, he is, like latter-day landed gentry, mostly free to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. But what happens when, materially, you have everything you can possibly want - the houses, the cars, the girls, the exotic holidays, the clothes; when all financial needs are sated before you have reached the age of 30? What does this do to a young man of little education, to his desire and motivation? "Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity," writes John Gray in Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (Granta). "It is to keep boredom at bay. Where affluence is the rule the chief threat is the loss of desire."

When I met Adams, several years ago, at the launch of Addicted, he spoke of how he was motivated as a player by - as Gray suggests - the fear of boredom: of not knowing what to do with himself in the long, empty afternoons after training. Now that he had stopped drinking, he was determined to educate himself, "to make up for the lost time". In this sense, he conforms, like Gordon Comstock (in Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying) or Leonard Bast (in E M Forster's Howards End) or Jude Fawley (in Hardy's Jude the Obscure), to the old model of the working-class hero who seeks a way out, through learning and culture, from the low expectations of his birthright.

The Adams story is not a local version of the American dream (that better describes David Beckham's story), but a peculiarly British affair: it is less about money and status than it is about culture and the old-fashioned desire to become a gentleman. This is why Adams's motivation is more Leonard Bast than Jay Gatsby, the self-made plutocrat who foolishly believed that money would buy him everything he wanted.

Would Adams have achieved such a cultural transformation without the support of his wealth? In his new book, Consciousness and the Novel (Secker & Warburg), David Lodge poses a question, in an essay on Howards End, that has always preoccupied the left: is the acquisition of culture dependent on the availability of money? In Forster's novel, the unhappy striving of the young, impoverished, yet intelligent and culturally aspirational Leonard Bast is contrasted with the liberal ease and superiority of the upper-middle-class Schlegel sisters, who have private incomes. They can pursue their cultural interests with a freedom unavailable to Bast who, in the way of these things, is eventually punished for his presumption by premature death - he dies symbolically under a tower of falling books.

Today, characters such as Bast have all but disappeared from English fiction, perhaps because we are led to believe that they have disappeared from modern British society, with its increased social mobility, its absence of anything resembling a common culture, its remorseless populism, and its fashionable rhetoric of meritocracy. And yet, Leonard Bast is everywhere you care to look: he is one of the deprived inner-city youths whose interest in food has led them to find a place in Jamie Oliver's London kitchen; he is the fireman who brings with him to work Simon Schama's latest history and a copy of, say, the Guardian, as he prepares for the long shift ahead; he is the Asian youth from a decrepit northern mill town who, ignoring the taunts of classmates, studies late into the night to win a scholarship to Cambridge; he is one of the many tens of thousands of people who this autumn will have enrolled in a night class to learn a second language or more about wine. He is, in effect, anyone who understands, as Adams does, that the real value of life resides not in the pursuit of power and profit, nor in the accumulation of money for its own sake, but in the courage to face, and desire to change, the truth about our everyday reality.

As Adams writes, at the end of Addicted: "Today I am not just Tony Adams the footballer, I am Tony Adams the human being. I do my best every day in every walk of life and seek to treat myself and other people with respect. In that there is also victory."