Adam Tanner has a place in Town history: at just 21 he became the first player to score a winning goal for Ipswich at Anfield. Five years later, off-field problems led to his release from the club, and by the age of 27 his professional career was over. Emma Corlett wanted to find out how the Ipswich youth system had prepared him for life inside and outside of football, and what help he’d had in dealing with his problems.
Adam warmly welcomes me into his smart, modern house on a development on the outskirts of Chelmsford, and I am surprised by how nervous he appears to be. He admits to being a little apprehensive about having agreed to the interview, but is hoping to be open and honest. We start off by talking about how he first got into football…
Adam Tanner (AT): I grew up in Witham and I was into football from a very early age. I was playing for a local team and a Tottenham scout approached my Mum and Dad, so I spent a year training with their schoolboys up at White Hart Lane two nights a week.
I left there to go to Arsenal. I was at Arsenal for two years, right up until I left school. They offered me an apprenticeship, but it would have meant me leaving home and going to live up in Islington, and I wasn’t too keen. The Youth Development officer at the time at Ipswich was Tony Dable. They came up with an offer that meant I could still live at home in Witham, and get the train in every day. At 16 it would have been a massive step to move away. I obviously don’t know how things would have worked out, but I think I made the right decision.
Turnstile Blues (TB): So things went OK for you at Ipswich: you were captain of the Youth Team. Who from your contemporaries made it through to the first team?
AT: Well, there were 2 years. From my year Lee Durant played a couple of games, Neil Gregory was a year above me, then coming through was Tony Vaughan, James Scowcroft the year behind me. From my actual year there was Leo Cottrell from Cambridge and Bam Bam. We certainly weren’t prolific. So nothing like the peak when we had Richard Wright, Kieron Dyer, Scowy, Tony Vaughan, that was quite a peak period.
TB: So then you made the step up to the first team yourself, making your debut in January 1995?
AT: Yes, that started all under John Lyall, he was brilliant. He was a real idol and father figure. I’d been travelling with the squad under John Lyall, helping to carry stuff. He wanted me involved. George Burley took over, and he threw me in at the deep end. He just said to me the day before “you’re starting tomorrow”. That was against Leicester, and I scored. The week after we played Wrexham away in the cup and I gave a penalty away in the last minute, and we went out, then the following week it was the Liverpool game when I scored. That was my first three games!
TB: You mentioned about John Lyall being a fatherly figure. How much do football clubs take an interest in supporting and educating young players through the tricky things, like having more money than your peers, managing relationships, unwanted attention, alcohol, drugs, that kind of thing?
AT: Everything, all that stuff, comes at you very fast. John Lyall was someone you could always go to. He treated everyone similar, from the first team to the youth team. His door was always open. There weren’t any great workshops as such, to give you advice, but if you had a problem you could go to him.
…. After talking about the drinking culture during his time at Town, Adam went on to describe the consequences of testing positive for cocaine. Talking about this is clearly still very difficult for Adam, and for the first time in the interview he is visibly emotional, as he talks about the impact on his parents.
TB: How did they react?
AT: They were devastated. Really absolutely devastated. But again, they showed me unconditional love. My biggest fear was that I was going to get the sack. This was different to when I was 17 because I’d been playing and in the team, so there was more press coverage. I had to make a statement outside the front of my parents’ house. The press had been banging on the windows and everything. My mum and dad live in a little cul de sac, and you had all these TV vans with satellite dishes all coming round, and I had to stand outside. It wasn’t good, but it was my own fault.
TB: I guess it’s the impact that it has on other people close to you, and dealing with the guilt?
AT: Yes, but again I got support. It was a Friday, and Sheepshanks rang me. He said “where are you?”, so I told him I was round my mum and dad’s. He advised me not to open the door because he’d heard that the press were on their way round. We compiled a statement between us, that I then read outside Mum and Dad’s front door at about half past five. He was first class, he said “it’s happened, we just need to get on and deal with it”.
TB: What was the local press coverage like?
AT: I remember the Evening Star had the billboards, blacked out with “Tanner Cocaine Shame”, but I decided not to read it all. The club gave me a suspension for two weeks so I was away from Ipswich for two weeks. That paid part of my ban too. The club needed to be seen to be doing something, they couldn’t say we’re backing him but not taking any action against him. It was tough. I hadn’t bought this place and was still living with my Mum and Dad. The thing you love has been taken away from you, and you’re hanging on by your fingertips to not lose it.
TB: What help or support did you get from the PFA?
AT: I think Neil Thompson was our rep. I spoke to the PFA at the time, but because it was an isolated incident rather than a problem and something I was doing all the time they didn’t do much. Gordon Taylor was there at my hearing with Brendan Batson. We went in to the room, and there was three older men. Reg Burr the old Millwall Chairman fell asleep during my hearing. I looked up and he was just asleep. I thought oh god, you’ve got my career at your fingertips here and you’re asleep. Someone gave him a nudge and woke him up. It was a horrendous day to be honest.
TB: Did you have any inkling what the likely outcome would be?
AT: None at all. I was one of the first to get to a hearing. I’ve heard so many rumours about other players, about it getting hushed up but that was definitely a route that Sheepshanks wasn’t going to go down and he made that quite clear. He said “I’ll back you, but we cannot brush this under the carpet”, and you have to respect that. I got a three month ban, and had already done a month so I think it was quite lenient really.
TB: Do you keep in touch with people at the club?
AT: I’ve still got contacts at the club, I speak to Milts, and I speak to Edwina who is the receptionist. … I gave the club some really bad press, but whenever I go back they welcome me with open arms, and I can’t fault them.
There’s always an ex-players dinner, but I never went. But I went two years ago. Burley and Sheepshanks were there, they shook my hand, I had a good laugh with them. There was no bitterness at all from them. I won’t have a bad word said against Ipswich as a club, or Sheepshanks or George Burley. The club is first-class.
You can read the full, exclusive interview with Adam Tanner in our printed or downloadable fanzine.