This week’s trip down memory lane takes us back to 1980, when one of the most gifted left backs ever to grace the game arrived at Highbury in the oddest of circumstances. One of South London’s finest Kenny Sansom.
Kenny was a class act, although he was only 5 foot 8 inches tall, he had a great spring and was another that had a low centre of gravity, which enabled him to turn and twist direction quickly. He was stocky and powerful so hard to knock off the ball. He also possessed perfect balance as well.
He had a lovely left foot, his right was for standing on. Great control and exceptionally quick with superb acceleration. In his entire career he was only sent off once and rarely booked, which was unusual for a defender, but Kenny did not have to make lunging tackles as he read the game so well. He had marvellous anticipation and would know exactly when to nick the ball away from his opponents. When he left the pitch he looked immaculate, his shorts were as clean as when the game started. He never came off covered in mud with grass stains all over his arse!
This is what Terry Venables said about Kenny when he first clapped eyes on him. “My first impression of young Kenny Sansom was, you might not be very tall son, but you’ve got the body of a middleweight boxer with determination and guts to match. He was sixteen years old, short and stocky with tremendous upper-body power. But it was his lightning pace that made him one of the best left backs of all time”.
He was highly thought of by his teammates. Very popular in the dressing room and was the life and soul of the party. Always ready with a joke or one of his impressions. Peter Taylor the Crystal Palace winger taught him how to do Norman Wisdom and Kenny has added to his repertoire since. Watch the video below where he entertains his England colleagues on the coach.
Kenny entertains his England teammates
He was born on the 26th September 1958 in Camberwell South London. He grew up in Tulse Hill before moving to near the Elephant and Castle. His mother brought up Kenny, his two brothers and three sisters alone as their father was a bit of a ducker and diver and had left them when Kenny was still very young. However, Kenny’s mum worked hard and ensured they all got a good upbringing and made sure there was always food on their plates and they never wanted for anything.
When Kenny won his first England Schoolboys cap. John Hollins, later to be a teammate of Kenny’s at The Arsenal came along to Kenny’s school to present it to him. John made a speech to the kids saying that football was great, but that schoolwork must come first. Later though when they were alone he whispered to Kenny. “If it’s football that’s in your blood, then go for it”. Kenny didn’t hesitate to take his advice.
He was training at Ruislip with QPR when one of the coaches left to go to Crystal Palace he asked Kenny to come with him. He joined the Eagles when they were flying high with the flamboyant and charismatic Malcolm Allison. Terry Venables was also there, later taking over from Big Mal as manager and became a big influence on Kenny’s career.
Kenny made his Crystal Palace debut at sixteen and went on to become an integral part of the Palace side that was to be dubbed by the media as “The team of the eighties”. Kenny quickly established himself in the side and won the Palace player of the year award in 1977. He won this award again in 1979 and that season 1978-79 Palace beat Burnley 2-0 in front of 52,000 to win the Second Division Championship and gain promotion to the top flight of English football.
Kenny had played just one season in the First Division with Palace when he was voted into the PFA team of the year for 1979-80. He was to go on be voted by his peers for the PFA team of the year at left back for eight consecutive seasons
Therefore, we come to the story of one of the most bizarre transfers in the history of Arsenal Football Club. On the 13th June 1980, Arsenal splashed out around £1,250,000 for Clive Allen from QPR, which made him the first £1 million teenager, as well as being the clubs most expensive signing. He had scored 32 goals in 49 games for QPR.
At this point, I will allow David O’Leary to take up the story. He said, “We travelled to Scotland for pre-season matches against Rangers and Aberdeen. Frank Stapleton, Clive and Alan Sunderland were all played up front and it was like a traffic jam. Our success had been built on a 4-4-2 system. Suddenly it was 4-3-3 to accommodate Clive. Frank and Clive would have been a good pairing – but how could you leave out Sundy? To all of us it was pretty obvious it wouldn’t work”.
“We went to Belgrade for a four-club tournament and again the formation of Frank, Clive and Sundy up front didn’t look right. On our return, we went to train at Colney. We were there when Clive said he had to go. He had an appointment. It was the last we saw of him. The next day Kenny Sansom turned up from Crystal Palace. He had been swopped for Clive. So we lost a good forward, but we gained a great fullback. It was still most odd”.
Kenny now takes up his part of the story. “It was a sunny summer’s day when Terry Venables called me to his office and offered me a five year contract to stay at Crystal Palace. I was delighted about this, as I was really happy there, but then he called me back into his office the following day and said he’d had Arsenal on the phone and did I want to go over there and have a word with them? I was curious, but didn’t think too much about going over to Highbury other than it would be good to have a look around the historical ground”.
“I was ushered quickly through the door leading into the East Stand before being taken to see Ken Friar over in the West Stand. It was all very impressive for a young impressionable lad like me and I was flattered when I was asked if I wanted to play for the Arsenal? Was he having a laugh? That would be terrific I gulped”.
“And that was that. Canny old Friar signed me up on the spot before any other deals could be struck up with other clubs”.
“I telephoned home to let my mum know I’d signed for the Arsenal and my brother Peter answered. ‘Don’t tell me you just went there and signed up just like that’. He was aghast. ‘But I’ve just had Bob Paisley on the phone and Liverpool want you – you’ll get a better deal and they’ll even give you accommodation’. But it was too late. I was going to the Arsenal. I was staying in London and that was what I wanted more than anything in the world”.
As for me I remember I was on holiday over on the Isle of Wight and I did a double take as I clocked the headlines about the deal on the back page of a newspaper. I was shocked they were getting shot of Clive Allen before we had even seen him play for us! He had been at the club just two months! But I’d seen Kenny Sansom play against us at Highbury for Palace a couple of seasons back in a pre-season friendly, he was outstanding that day and I was hoping we’d sign him one day so I was delighted we’d managed to capture him. The only regret I had was Liam Brady had just left to join Juventus, so we would not get to see Kenny linking up with Rixy and Liam Brady on the left, which would have been an awesome attacking combination.
Goalkeeper Paul Barron was also included as part of the deal. There are conspiracy theorists who say that there was bad blood between the QPR and Palace hierarchy and that QPR would never sell Allen to Palace. So Arsenal bought him on the understanding we’d swap Allen for Sansom. But as David O’Leary said I just think Terry Neill realised it wouldn’t work and decided to sign Sansom as we needed to replace loyal servant Sammy Nelson sooner rather than later.
Kenny was brilliant for us right from the off. He won the Arsenal supporters club player of the year in his first season as Arsenal finished third to qualify for the UEFA Cup. However, sadly that was as high a league position as Arsenal finished in all Kenny’s time at the club.
After Terry Neill was sacked and Don Howe took over our fortunes did not get any better. We had such an array of talented individuals Pat Jennings, Viv Anderson, Kenny, David O’Leary, Tony Adams, Paul Davis, Steve Williams, Paul Mariner, Charlie Nicholas and Tony Woodcock but they never seemed to gel together as a team.
Kenny though was remarkably consistent and ever present for his first two seasons. In fact, after six seasons Kenny missed just seven games in all competitions. Unfortunately, silverware eluded both Kenny and Arsenal.
In the summer of 1986 Arsenal appointed a new manager and things were about to change at Highbury. George Graham was about to waken a sleeping giant.
George was a hard taskmaster and instilled discipline into the club. Kenny who had played with Graham at Crystal Palace welcomed George with a grin saying “Hello George” a man he had known for years. “It’s gaffer from now on,” barked George.
George gave Kenny the captaincy and it was the start of a new era of success for the Arsenal. As supporters, we could see the difference in the players. The hunger and determination to win was there right from the start of George’s reign. We stormed to the top of league at Christmas and though we ended up finishing fourth, Arsenal and Kenny managed to win silverware after an eight-year drought.
Nobody who were at the games will ever forget the three-match trilogy with the old enemy Tottenham, when we finally got the better of them on a thrilling pulsating night at White Hart Lane, as Rocky scored the late winner to take us to Wembley. A moment Kenny described as the best of his career. At the final whistle the fans, officials and players of Arsenal erupted as one and Kenny sprinted 50 yards to jump on Rocky’s back.
Then we came from behind to win the Littlewoods Cup at Wembley against Liverpool, with two goals from Charlie Nicholas. Kenny with a red and white Arsenal cap on proudly held aloft the trophy to a massive roar of approval from the Arsenal hoards. Followed by “Arsenal are back, Arsenal are back” bellowed out from the terraces and Kenny finally tasted glory on a sun kissed day at Wembley.
Arsenal win the Littlewoods Cup
We were back at Wembley in a bid to retain the trophy in 1988, against Luton Town, Kenny was still our left back, but his eventual successor Nigel Winterburn was playing on the opposite flank in an unfamiliar role at right back. Arsenal should have won, but unbelievably lost it in the last five minutes. It still rankles with me today that we blew that final.
The writing was on the wall for Kenny. He had fallen out with George Graham. He lost the captaincy to Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn was already waiting in the wings to replace him. Kenny’s days were numbered. Everton away at Goodison Park on the 7th May 1988 was the last time Kenny pulled on the famous red and white shirt.
Kenny spent four months in the reserves before being sold to Newcastle United in December 1988. When he returned to his beloved Highbury with the Magpies his mother for the first time did not go to the game. She was worried the Arsenal fans may boo him. His mum need not have worried. As Kenny emerged from the tunnel, the Highbury crowd gave Kenny a fantastic reception and it meant the world to Kenny and his family that he was still loved by the Arsenal fans. Kenny played a blinder that day and even scored, but it was disallowed for offside. Had that stood maybe we would not have won the title on that famous night up at Anfield.
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Kenny then went on to play for QPR, Coventry City, Everton, Brentford and Watford, before retiring from top class football in 1994. Though he did play on for non-league clubs such as Croydon, Slough Town and Chertsey Town. It’s was sad to see a legend like Kenny reduced to playing at such a low level. Once in the dressing room at Chertsey a young team mate of Kenny’s took a liberty when Kenny took his boots out his bag and they were caked with mud. The kid said, “Kenny you’ve played for Crystal Palace, Arsenal and England in the World Cup. How can you let your boots get in that state” Kenny may have been past his best as a footballer but he had lost none of his wit and put the lad in his place saying “The trouble is it’s so hard to get this Wembley turf off your boots!”
Kenny Sansom also had a distinguished England career as well. Breaking into the side on the 23rd May 1979, when he was still at Palace. He was a permanent fixture in the England team for the best part of a decade, the best left back in England by a country mile. He made his final appearance in the 3-1 defeat against the USSR at the European Championships in 1988. He also played in the European Championships in 1980 and the World Cup in 1986, playing in the infamous Hand of God defeat against Maradona and Argentina. Kenny won 86 caps in all.
Kenny played for the Gunners for eight seasons making 394 appearances and scoring six goals. He was unfortunate to play for The Arsenal at a time when we were in the doldrums and was only there at the start of the George Graham era. One Littlewoods Cup Winners medal was scant reward for a player of his talent.
Terry Venables a shrewd judge of a player said “For almost a decade nobody could go by him. Passing Kenny Sansom was impossible” He rated Kenny as one of the top three England left backs of all time. The other two were Ray Wilson and Stuart Pearce. You now have to add Ashley Cole to that elite list and in over 50 years of watching The Arsenal Ashley Cole is arguably the only Arsenal left back you may say was a tad better than Kenny.
I do not want to dwell on Kenny’s problems they are well publicised enough in the media. All I’ll say is there are thousands upon thousands of Arsenal, Palace and England fans the length and breadth of the country that would love Kenny to conquer his demons, but only Kenny can do it. I know there are good people out there giving him their full support and the message I have for Kenny is the one he puts every time he signs his autograph “Be Lucky”.
A brief compilation of Kenny in action for England
As always thanks for reading and there will be another Highbury Hero along shortly.