5th October 1991 – my first Arsenal game. It was a home tie against Chelsea, and I wasn’t the only one making my debut – it was Ian Wright’s first game at Highbury in an Arsenal shirt. Of course, he’d already announced his arrival as an Arsenal player with a hat trick at the Dell, but he was not the player I really wanted to see. That was TA – the Colossus himself.
Unfortunately for Tone and myself, he was injured and didn’t play that day, Colin Pates taking his place. We came from 2 down to win 3-2 (Vinnie Jones conceded a penalty that wasn’t, and Wrighty scored his debut goal at THOF), and I went home elated but feeling a tinge of disappointment that I hadn’t got to see my hero.
Several years later, I was left with a very similar feeling at the World of Sport shop at Finsbury Park. TA’s book had just been published and he was doing a signing. I bought my copy and managed to get in the queue in time to ensure I could lay it down in front of the man himself. Eventually I reached the top of the queue, and there he was looking somewhat fed up. Clearly, he’d had a long afternoon. Nevertheless, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand as I reached the table. As he began to write, he turned to the PR chap beside him and asked how long was left. When he looked down at my book he paused and murmured ‘Oh’ – instead of writing ‘Be happy’ in the dedication, he’d managed to write ‘Be hippy’. A quick correction with the marker was made, the book was returned and off I went. I didn’t have the opportunity to offer my carefully-rehearsed thanks for all the years of effort, graft and dedication he’d shown the team and the club.
At the time I felt rather deflated by this experience – ‘never meet your heroes’ they say, and sometimes they are right. I came to realise that it was Adams the player that I venerated, and not necessarily the person. It was Adams’ qualities on the pitch that made him a legend. He was a talismanic symbol of the club that I love, and every time I saw him take the field I had a feeling of reassurance; that the natural order of things was secure and in balance, particularly as the club seemed to be in some kind of transition of a very fundamental kind. And yet once we came to understand his personal faults and problems (which, as we were to discover, were considerable) he became the object of even greater respect. He had the strength to face up to his problems, and to take responsibility for them. That was what he was all about – responsibility. He demanded it both of himself and of his teammates. How many times since 2002 have you wished we had an Adams on the pitch?
And what memories did he bring us! A Cup Semi-Final winner against S**rs, the tackle on Shevchenko at Wembley and of course that fourth goal against Everton in ’98 – my greatest Highbury moment of them all. But my abiding memory is Tony turning slowly to face us in the North Bank, just before each game kicked off, and raising both thumbs high in the air in acknowledgment.
I bought the new Home shirt at the Grove in September. The young sales assistant asked me if I’d like to have a name and number printed on it. ‘Not since Adams retired’ was my response, but as she appeared to be about 16, I’m not even sure if she knew what I meant. No matter – we shall never forget.