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Thursday, 30 August 2007

A Tone Poem...

Wednesday 29th August, 2007. Champions League Qualifier: Arsenal 3 (Rosicky, Fabregas, Eduardo), Sparta Prague 0 (Arsenal win 5-0 on agg.)

Glasses are clinked to the memory of Liz and Joe. Today would have been their 48th wedding anniversary. Then Coronation Street eats up the half hour remaining before the game kicks off. Roy (David Amess, MP) and Hayley (Gary Neville) have gone to the funeral of one of the latter's aunts and the former is, with typically pedantic (and solitary) rectitude, wearing a black armband. It looks exactly like the hastily applied and rather sad strip of black electrician's tape that former Arsenal skipper Tony Adams used to wear, in preference to the more elaborate, spelling-it-out mark of captaincy usually worn by the senior player in the side. It always seemed so unshowy; the forlorn, funereal stripe suggesting less that an honour had been conferred on him than that he bore a heavier burden of grief than all the others; as if he were the chief mourner of the side, and, like Roy, cared alone enough to show it.

And suddenly, there he is; Tony Adams with Jim Rosenthal (The Devil, incarnate) reluctantly observing that other painful ritual; the ITV pre-match bantering sesh. He squirms and shuffles in his seat, at one point almost lying horizontally, long legs twizzled tight like a corkscrew, his comfy chair become a table on which Rosenthal will inflict each hideous new torture upon him. It goes on and on, Rosenthal a sadistic Olivier to Tony's writhing Hoffman until the diabolic one finally puts us all out of our misery by asking Adams a question to which a series of tensed arm gyrations of unknowingness might seem an eloquent reply; how far can Arsenal go in the tournament this time, Tone? Rarely can a commercial break have been so warmly welcomed by studio and audience alike.

If there were a film of his life, I'm sure that Tony Adams' biopic would be called something corny like Addicted!! and they'd rope in all the great and good from what remains of the British film industry to make it; Eccleston as Adams, John Simms as Merson, Ian Hart as Dixon, John Hannah as a sexually ambiguous George Graham and so on. But Adams is one of the few British footballers of recent years whose story genuinely *is* worthy of dramatisation and, as such, perhaps deserves a little better than the standard cinematic fare. It's a tale worthy, in fact, of a great auteur. I can hear those tragic italianate strings already; see the camera arcing in on a scrubbed and grainy eighteen yard area. Inside its confines, a shadowy figure goes through his pre-match warming up routine, one hand on a hip, the other arm upstretched as the titles roll; 'A Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler production'... 'written by Paul Schrader' ... 'directed by Martin Scorcese... 'starring Robert de Niro'.The monochrome is wounded by the lettering as its title fades up, bold and red as blood: RAGING DONKEY.

We flash through the games: Michael Thomas pounds into the box to score the second goal that wins the league for Arsenal at Anfield in the season's final game; another title in 1991. De Niro rises high in slo-mo above an implausibly athletic faux-Spurs defence to head home the winner of the 1993 FA Cup semi final at Wembley. On some Hollywood lot, a ragtail of bogus gooners in historically inaccurate replica shirts yankily serenade him; "Donkey won the durr-by, donkey won the durr-by tra-la-la-la..." Two more Wembley finals, two more winner's medals. The Cup Winners' Cup held aloft the following year, the braying donkey taunts of the crowd replayed ironically on the soundtrack as Copenhagen weeps with joy. Then Marty turns his camera to the life lived off the pitch. The ceaseless boozing sessions with a hideously accurate CGI Martin Keown. The atonement of the training ground; the layer upon layer of bin liners, flagellating swathes that wrap the penitent flesh, sweating out the drink, expunging all the sins ahead of the game. Then the vivid car smash; sombre-lipped, Caprice applies despairing boo-boo kisses to a dark and brooding bruise. Finally imprisoned; the same opening warm up routine, this time paced out within the confines of an even smaller gaol. Succumbing to despair, de Niro moans, de Niro wails, de Niro weeps with every toe-destroying kick aimed at the cold, dank walls of his eternal cell. Moaning, weeping, lost.

Redemption, though, of a kind. 3-1 up at Highbury, Everton beaten, another title won, Mark Strong (Steve Bould) clips a probing ball behind the soon-to-be-losing side's back four. Adams takes a touch, steadies, and then with his left foot lashes home. Behold the man! He stands, legs astride, both arms now upraised, before the worshipful North Bank. A man reborn; donkey no more! Raging no more! One final, sweet coda: Wembley; another final won. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Ray Stubbs) aims a microphone his way. "You never knocked me down, Ray", he'll say. "You never knocked me down...."

But that's only half the story - if that. It skips so many other interesting parts; the piano playing, the poetry, the Thomas Hardy books, the degree in Sports Science he began. All those attempts to find another sort of life - 'part two', as he describes it to dark, satanic Jim - are just so many ways to fill up all the empty space; just as the boozing filled the gaps between the games. Drinking pushed Tony Adams to the brink, only for a love of the game to somehow drag him back. Similarly, the diligent and earnest undergraduate was lured back from the ivory towers of academe to the nervous rigours, the ritual of the dug out. Football's gain. Portsmouth's gain as - and even Paul Schrader could not have scripted this bit better - with them he'll return on Sunday to his spiritual home at Arsenal.

But you sense an Adams loss. As if all of this - the coaching, the media work, the keyboards and the quill - can never make up for having lost the only thing he loved. The only thing that counts; the playing, the thing you can't get back. Footballers have many blessings, but you don't envy them their curse. Who else has to live with being finished at thirty-five? Who else sees the glories of youth become a care home hell in the blinking of an eye as that final final whistle blows?

If there is a tragedy about Tony Adams - and I believe there is - it's that he hasn't been able to let go. Like the Brian Clough imagined by David Peace in his remarkable book The Damned United, you wonder if Tone's life too has perhaps been frozen within the confines of the eighteen yard box. In football Clough attacked that box, attacked life in much the same way, expecting it to budge in sheer awe at his outrageous talent, his unshakeable bottle, his sheer nerve. And many times it did, and that was his genius and his hatefulness combined. If Peace has hit on the essential truth of Cloughie then you can read his managerial career as the playing out of an extended revenge at fate for the premature demise of his career. Adams may have had his back to goal but you get the same sense of discomfiture now, watching his contortions as he plays the unwilling pundit, as when he was a player; as ill at ease in victory as in defeat, always wanting more, the past dead with the whistle, the next game now the only thing. Will he do a Cloughie? Use management as an extension of his will beyond his playing years? If so, just how will Adams' play out those demons? What will he do with his 'part two'?

Maybe that's why he's so nervous? Not drunk again, as we uncharitably infer from his tortured awkwardness on screen. Apprehension, perhaps, brought on by the conflicting loyalties thrown up by this return to the club he served so faithfully and so well? Or maybe just impatience? A Hal who knows that one day he must become another Henry - the IV, not the 14 - and come back to us transformed. No longer Tone, but Anthony, the prince-in-waiting no longer, now our returning King. For surely, if such things as character and destiny count for anything, there's only one man big enough - one man Arsenal enough - to fill Arsene Wenger's shoes when the time eventually comes for him to leave. As a player, Tony Adams had no time for transitions, or excuses, was always chomping at the bit. Perhaps the apprenticeship at Portsmouth is only so much dead time before the proper work begins? If so, his restlessness makes sense. Some, you feel, are born to rage.

Arsenal take seven minutes to kill off the tie. Walcott's cleverly angled cut back is swept in by the Czech Rosicky against his former club. Eduardo (The Striker Formerly Known as Prince) feeds Fabregas in identical fashion for the second on 68 before scoring a third himself just before the end. Hleb exchanges a joke with Le Boss as they embrace after the game. I can't lip read, but I'm sure he said something along the lines of, "this time I'll win it for you, I promise". We'll see.

Another serendipity: in the group stage we draw Slavia Prague, so another walk on part returns - you couldn't script it better, could you? But then, there's only so much luck. I'm sure I'll use all mine up well before next May.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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1 comment:

  1. Tony Adams - for some reason I have always found him quite attractive - especially when he is wearing a suit. Probably *would*