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He’s the former football hardman who’s battled alcoholism and mental health issues, and come through life-saving heart surgery. But Tony Adams admits he’s still in pain after taking part in the BBC series Strictly Come Dancing in 2022.
“My hamstring actually still hurts now,” he tells Saga Exceptional. “You know, I never pulled a hamstring in my 22-year football career, then eight weeks on Strictly and I pulled it – and it’s still not healed.
“When I signed up, I didn’t think it was so tough, I didn’t realise it was going to be that mentally and physically draining. But it really was.”
Adams captained Arsenal to 10 trophies during his professional career and won 66 caps for England. He was awarded the MBE in 1999.
His battle with alcoholism is well documented, including in his autobiographies Addicted and Sober. He went on to found Sporting Chance in 2000, a charity to help sportspeople with mental health and addiction problems.
Then, when Adams was 49, he had a mental breakdown and underwent life-saving heart surgery.
After going through all of that, with nothing left to prove, he signed up for Strictly last year. So I asked him why on earth he did it.
The 56-year-old explains that it was all down to his business SIXMHS, which is working to improve mental health within the workplace.
He says: “For instance, in the building construction industry, they are three times more likely to commit suicide. They get tired, they keep it all inside and they don’t talk about this stuff.”
A bronze statue of Adams still stands outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium
Adams was the seventh contestant to leave Strictly last year after pulling out due to his hamstring injury. He had been popular with the studio audience but struggled to impress the judges, regularly finishing bottom of the leaderboard.
However, despite the low scores, judge Shirley Ballas told him: “You have given us 100% of your heart… you are truly what this show is all about.”
With this year’s Strictly lineup featuring stars such as Angela Rippon, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Annabel Croft, our conversation turns to what challenges might lie ahead for the novices.
Adams shakes his head as he recalls his eight-week experience. “To start with, I’ve got a metal knee,” he laughs. “Then I’m trying to learn the dance – I’ve never danced before in my life – and that routine would be repeat, repeat and repeat.
“You know, seven o’clock in the morning, seven o’clock at night, five days a week and then you do the show on the Saturday.
“I mean, I loved it, but to do a dance I’ve never done before in my life to an audience of 11 million is absolutely frightening. It’s mad.
“So why did I put myself through that? You do grow through it, I’ve learned. I’ve grown emotionally. Even I can get through that and embrace your weaknesses, you know, because that actually makes you stronger.”
Don’t tell anyone but I am starting to enjoy this👍 Thanks to everyone who voted to watch @Mrs_katjones and I dance again❤️@bbcstrictly #properdancer#mentalhealth #comfortzone #addiction #savinglives #strictlycomedancing pic.twitter.com/xvOIfK3SkN— Tony Adams (@TonyAdams) October 31, 2022
Adams didn’t always get the best response from everyone on social media and in the press. How did he cope with that?
“It seemed like my family all enjoyed it,” he smiles. “Which was good. I think the response was very positive, to be completely honest.
“But there are always a few idiots out there. And if you can’t find the idiots then you’re the idiot.”
Adams is still passionate about his former team and his statue stands outside the North Bank at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.
In May he was inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame, which honours and celebrates the very best who have played in the competition.
“I did everything I wanted to do in that 22 years of playing,” the former defender tells me after I congratulate him on his latest accolade.
“I lifted a lot of trophies, played a lot of games, made a lot of friends. I made a few enemies too, drank a lot of booze, then stopped drinking and lived a fantastic life.
“I am really proud of what I did and how I conducted myself. I was more successful in those last six years when I was clean and sober.”
“I’ve got a therapist and I try to look after my emotional state, and mental and physical health.”
Adams has a business and several charitable projects on the go, but is careful to look after his own physical and mental health. He lives in the Cotswolds with his second wife, Poppy. He is a father of five and close to all his children.
He says: “I’ve got a personal trainer, I love tennis, I do wild swimming, meditate, pray. I have a daily routine. I still go to AA meetings. I’ve got a therapist and I try to look after my emotional state, and mental and physical health.”
As a wild swimmer myself, I had to find out more, and it turns out that I’ve swum in the same lake as Adams, near Cirencester. We both laugh about how cold the water was well into the summer this year and he admits to wearing a wetsuit so he could swim for longer.
“I like a Sunday morning dip now and again,” he says. “The wife does it with me, she’s got the gloves and the shoes too, which really make a difference to how long you can stay in the water.”
But he admits to having an obsessive character, so is careful not to throw himself into one sport.
“I try to keep things balanced,” he says. “So if I got to the stage where I was doing wild swimming every day then I know I’ve got an issue. I try to remain balanced, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
“I play a lot of golf as well, which is really good for people in recovery.”
Adams is here to talk about Nuffield Health’s Joint Pain Programme.
The charity’s 12-week-long, free-to-access scheme is designed to help people self-manage their chronic joint pain and lead a more independent life. The programme includes exercise programmes and lifestyle advice to equip participants with the tools to manage their pain more effectively. And pain is something Adams knows a lot about.
“The temptation for people is to just carry on. It’s not always easy getting treatment for joint pain – any pain has an effect on your mental health.
“But to actually have a programme like the Nuffield Health one, that says this is the way you can go, this is what you can do. It makes it very simple and I’m a big, big advocate for that.”
He says attitudes to joint pain have changed a lot during his life. In the past, football players rarely took a game off – even when they were nursing injuries.
“We played through the pain,” he told me. “But then when Arsene [Wenger] came in, he changed the game. I had a bit of a back issue and he said take three weeks off. It was unheard of. I said no, but he said I had to. He said take a week in the South of France, do nothing, then have a week rehabilitating and then a week training.
“That season when I came back, we won 18 games and lifted the title.”
Adams tells me his new mantra is to try new things – even if he doesn’t expect to enjoy them.
“People used to say to me, ‘Why don’t we go to the opera tonight?’ and I’d stand at the bar drinking and say, ‘Opera is rubbish.’ They said I had contempt prior to investigation,” he tells me. Now he’s working hard to try the things he would have dismissed before.
“So finally, I went to the opera – and I didn’t like it,” he laughs. “But that’s all right. I love the theatre. I love seeing theatre, you know, go to concerts. Do anything you want to do. The world is your oyster.”
And with that, our time is up and our video call is due to end. But in the final seconds, I rush in one last question for Adams. Despite his injury, is he still dancing?
“Are you asking?” Adams replies with a grin.
“Then I’m dancing.”
We both laugh and then he’s gone.
Adams may still have a hard-man reputation, but he’s also someone who has learned to share his feelings and vulnerabilities. If we ever meet in real life, then I’d love a whirl round the dancefloor with him.
The charity’s programme is free to anyone over 18 who has experienced chronic joint pain for at least a year or lives with conditions including osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, fibromyalgia, spondylitis and lupus.
The 12-week programme includes joint pain health checks, an exercise and a lifestyle group session every week for 12 weeks, then a gym programme under the guidance of a rehabilitation specialist.
Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her
Phillipa Cherryson is Saga Exceptional’s Fitness Channel Editor. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV.
Her passion is outdoor fitness. She’s a trainee mountain leader; an Ordnance Survey Champion; she organises walks and instructional events for South Wales members of online community the Adventure Queens and she’s vice chair of the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Local Access Forum.
She hated sports at school and only started getting the fitness bug as she reached her 50s. Now she loves mountain walking, trail runs, e-biking, paddleboarding and climbing. She also loves cake.