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Tony Adams warns players about his journey to hell and back, as part of PCA initiative

Around 600 metres separates the county ground at Chelmsford and HM Prison on Springfield Park Hill where, almost 30 years ago, the former England and Arsenal centre-back Tony Adams spent time for drink-driving.

But as he was telling the Essex players this week grim tales about the addiction to alcohol that led him to both places, it would soon have become clear that the true distance travelled in that time by the former England defender often considered by club and country to be one of their greatest was to hell and back.

How bad did things get?

According to Adams, who will celebrate 23 years without a drink in August, this bad… “We talk about the gift of desperation,” he explains, “when the pain gets too much.

“I didn’t know how to kill myself. There was no suicide in my family. That never entered my head.

“But I didn’t want to live. I couldn’t live with the pain any more. The knowledge was unbearable. I knew what I was doing, but I was still getting drunk.

“I was confused and bewildered and in terror.

“And I never want to go back there.”

Now, three decades on from the prison sentence he was handed down after crashing his Ford Sierra into a wall with four times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, and 20 years after founding the Sporting Chance Clinic, a charitable foundation aimed at providing treatment, counselling and support for sports men and women suffering from drink, drug or gambling addictions, including those suffering anxiety or depression, Adams has been opening up to cricketers as part of the PCA’s on-going programme committed to player well-being.

And while some might consider it trite and inappropriate to draw a link between his own problems with addiction and the drinking culture in English cricket that, while largely harmless for those who do not abuse it, nevertheless allowed Ben Stokes to end up swinging punches outside a Bristol nightclub the September before last and Andrew Flintoff once famously to fall of a pedalo, Adams, once also renowned for nightclub fights, does believe an understanding of how sportsmen and women can believe it is better, or easier, to “join the club” may help the vulnerable make a different choice.

PCA chairman Daryl Mitchell
Player well-being: PCA chairman and Worcestershire opener Daryl Mitchell. Photo: Getty Images

“Do I wish, in retrospect, someone had stepped in or said something?

“They did, but I didn’t want to hear it.” Adams admits.

“I was in lock down.

“Those who didn’t drink were weirdos, not in the groovy gang.

“I wanted everyone to be sick and sad and lonely and depressed like I was. I’m getting all my mates divorced. Come on, come along with me.

“A guy like Martin Keown (Arsenal and England teammate), who was educated and knew about this stuff  and wouldn’t go anywhere near it, I had issues with him, as in, ‘sort yourself out, what’s wrong with you?’

“Those players, they weren’t part of the clan.

“One very high-profile manager was notorious for it. You sit down. You have a drink.

“I was dragged down the pub and while I didn’t take much dragging, it’s hard to have enough about you to say No.”

In fact, even as a 17-year-old making his debut for the Gunners alongside hardened professional and seasoned drinkers, he found he didn’t want to.

“The statistics suggest that sportsmen are three times more predisposed to addiction and that there is on average, one sufferer per club.

“I think it’s to do with having low self esteem and self-worth but a huge ego; I’m no good but I’m good at that (sport) and I can prove it. I have the drive and the determination.

“And that suppresses other thoughts and feelings.

“It’s a fantastic release from pain. You get out there and you are in the zone.

“Off the pitch I felt worthless, a scared little boy, but when I took that first pint of beer it gave me the same effect as running around and kicking a ball. It took me away from me and what I couldn’t do.”

No wonder that when, years later, after having hit the heights as a player, Adams eventually did seek help, the first thing he told his counsellor was: “I know how to play football and I know how to get drunk. But I don’t know who I am.”

Adams turned out to be one of the lucky ones.

Tricked by his mother-in-law into seeking help from a therapist for his wife, also a recovering addict, he soon realised the therapist was also talking about him, and over time found a way, a reason and the strength to break free of the potentially deadly grip of what he calls “a disease of the mind and the emotions”.

“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.

“At Alcoholics Anonymous you sit next to actors, musicians, high-powered businessmen, all driven people, one of whom said to me, ‘well, I got to this position so I must have been doing something right’.

“My psychotherapist said to me from the start that there are certain tools, certain mental strengths, certain behaviours in you that got you on the training pitch every day and got you to the England captaincy.

“So put those into other areas of your life and see what can happen.”

Thirty years and 600 metres on from hell, Adams is passing on that message to the professional cricketers of England.

If it touches a single one of them who may be as vulnerable as he once was, you sense it will mean more to him than all the glory, all the trophies and all the adulation combined.

 “It’s about giving someone their life back,” he says.

PETER HAYTER / Photo: Getty Images

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