Almost 30 years have elapsed since Tony Adams, the former England and Arsenal captain, was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment in Chelmsford Prison, after crashing his car into a wall while driving at four times the legal limit.
And last week, Adams was back in the city once again, albeit half a mile down the road at Essex’s County Ground, passing on the harsh lessons he learnt in 12 years as an alcoholic, as part of a county-wide education initiative in conjunction with the Professional Cricketers’ Association.
“For 12 years I was drinking, and for 11 and a half I didn’t want to stop,” Adams told ESPNcricinfo. “The denial was really strong, and the consequences too, but even a spell in Chelmsford prison down the road didn’t stop me drinking. I came out of prison and drunk and drove again. The denial was still in me and I wasn’t ready.”
It is now coming up for 23 years since Adams last touched alcohol, his “drug of choice” for the majority of a storied career which featured more than 500 appearances for Arsenal, as well as 66 England caps, including 15 as captain.
And it is now 20 years since he set up his charity, the Sporting Chance Clinic, to provide treatment, counselling and support for sportsmen and women suffering from similar addictions – be it drink, drugs or gambling – as well as anxiety and depression.
Endorsed initially by Sir Alex Ferguson – who invited Adams to address his Manchester United squad before the programme was rolled out to all Premier League clubs – Sporting Chance has been working with the Rugby Football League since 2011, and from this season onwards, all 18 county cricket clubs.
“Since 2011, we’ve helped about 400 players with our network of counsellors, a treatment centre in Hampshire, a 24-hour helpline and seminars,” said Adams. “They say that 10 percent of population, or one player at every club, is going to slip on the addiction front and they know where to come.”
Adams was addressing the Essex squad on the eve of their pre-season tour of the UAE – the sort of trip that has for years been a byword among sporting teams for excessive behaviour.
And while insisting that the differences between football and cricket are as marked as the similarities, Adams recognised that the nature of cricket tours – with their long weeks away from home and lots of down time between engagements – could lend itself to the sort of slippery slope that undermined his own career.
“Injuries and holidays were definitely the opportunity for this addict to get absolutely smashed, and the situation around tours and camps, when there’s lots of down time, they are similar,” said Adams. “You don’t have to go to the bottom, there was a spell in my career when football was enough for me, but then it creeps round and you use, and there’s consequences, and you use again, and there are more consequences.”
English cricket has recently drawn a line under a difficult 12 months, centred around the Ben Stokes incident in Bristol, but also encompassing a number of drink-related controversies on the 2017-18 Ashes tour.
And while Adams wouldn’t be drawn on the lessons that Stokes might have learnt from his brush with career oblivion last year, when he was found not guilty of affray after appearing at Bristol Crown Court, he cited his own career as proof of how easy it can be to ignore the warning signs of self-destructive behaviour.
“For the last six to eight months of my drinking career, I didn’t actually want a drink but I was still getting drunk,” he said. “It crossed the line and once it crosses the line there’s no getting back.
“And in my day, there was no help. No-one was coming to my football club or cricket club, it just wasn’t done. You shoved it in a box and buried it, or they’d drag you down the pub, and I didn’t need much dragging.
“I was unhappy with how I felt,” he added. “I had low self-esteem and self-worth, but a huge ego because, as footballers, you’d be getting massaged as a great player. But off the pitch I felt worthless, a scared little boy.”
On three occasions in his career, Adams even took the field drunk – once, against Sheffield United, emerging with the Man-of-the-Match award.
“I mistimed the drinking,” he said. “I remember looking out of the window thinking ‘how did that happen?’ I was so confused. There was no point sobering up because I’d have had a complete headache, so I had a couple in the morning.”
“I said to George [Graham, Arsenal’s manager], ‘I’m not feeling very well’, and he said, ‘thanks for trying’. We’re very good at concealing it and masking the pain and trouble we’re in, and when got a pat on the back, it was like ‘oh, I got away with that one’.”
Adams’ destructive tendencies had a knock-on effect on those around him – and he believes that had he not finally been ready to sober up in time for the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996, the new Arsenal coach would have struggled to make his mark on the club.
“I was six weeks clean and sober, and when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears,” said Adams. “And if Wenger had come into the club two months before that, I don’t think he would have lasted. I got the last manager sacked, because when the captain’s spending more time in the pub than on the training pitch, I think the coach is let down. I definitely let down Bruce Rioch and I’ve apologised for that.”
In the course of an hour-long seminar, delivered by Adams and Ian Thomas, the PCA’s director of development and welfare, the Essex squad were given guidance in how to spot the warning signs, both personally and among team-mates, and how to go about seeking the sort of help that Adams himself recognised he so desperately needed.
“We talk about the gift of desperation,” he said. “when the pain gets too much. I didn’t know how to kill myself, but I didn’t want to live. I was confused and bewildered, and in terror, and I never want to go back there.
“Self-knowledge didn’t get me sober. It got me to my bottom and as soon as you hit the bottom and surrender, then therapy gets you well and gets you stronger.
“It’s about giving someone their life back.”