Adams spent his entire playing career of 22 years as a defender at Arsenal. He is considered one of the greatest Arsenal players of all time by the club's own fans  and was included in the Football League 100 Legends. With Arsenal, he won four top flight division titles, uniquely captaining a title-winning team in three different decades, three FA Cups, two Football League Cups, a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, and three FA Community Shields. A statue honouring Adams was unveiled at Emirates stadium on 9 December 2011, along with statues of Thierry Henry and Herbert Chapman.
When his playing career finished Adams went into football management, spending periods in charge of Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth and Azerbaijan side Gabala.
When England manager Glenn Hoddle took the Captain's armband from Adams and gave it to Alan Shearer it was a bitter pill for Adams to swallow. Speaking at a fans' forum in 2008 Adams remarked "I have some resentment over the way Glenn Hoddle gave the captaincy to Alan Shearer instead of me but I can let that go. I reacted positively. I disagreed with him [Hoddle] and he thought Alan could get more penalties being a centre forward. People know my reaction to that".
Adams continued to play for the national side, however and he finally appeared in a World Cup finals in 1998. His international swansong was England's largely unsuccessful Euro 2000 campaign. With Shearer retiring from international football after the tournament, Adams regained the captaincy. However, within months, England lost a World Cup qualifier to Germany in October 2000, the match being the last to be staged at Wembley Stadium before the stadium was torn down for rebuilding. That match was Adams's 60th Wembley appearance, a record. With Sven-Göran Eriksson eventually taking the helm and under increasing pressure for his place from the emerging and improving Rio Ferdinand, Adams retired from international football before Eriksson picked his first squad. He was the last England player to score at the old Wembley Stadium when he scored England's second goal in a 2–0 friendly win over Ukraine on 31 May 2000. This was also his first goal since he scored in a friendly against Saudi Arabia in November 1988, thus making the record for the longest gap between goals for England.