Kenny Sansom speaks on rebuilding his life after a battle with booze
EXCLUSIVE: ‘Drink ruined my life. But now I feel like I’m a dad again’ – Football legend Kenny Sansom speaks on rebuilding his life after a battle with booze that left him in a coma and unable to walk, talk or eat
- Kenny Sansom is rebuilding his life after long battle with alcohol and gambling
- But the former England and Arsenal star is now also tackling a brain disorder
- However, the 64-year-old insists he ‘feels great’ and now appears in high spirits
Kenny Sansom reaches for his cup and takes a sip of tea. ‘It’s cold now,’ he chuckles. It’s still full, too.
Because, for around an hour, the former Arsenal, Crystal Palace and England defender has been busy, flicking through the archives of an extraordinary life that has jolted between darkness and limelight.
Now aged 64, there is plenty that remains etched into Sansom’s mind. ‘There are certain things I’ll never forget,’ he says.
There is plenty he might wish to erase. And plenty he can’t remember at all.
Lost among the fog of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder similar to dementia, are memories old and new. Sansom can’t recall much of yesterday. Or the miracle that led him here today.
Kenny Sansom has been rebuilding his life following a long battle with alcohol and gambling
It was in front of supporters every Saturday that Sansom rose to football’s greatest stage. Then, many skirmishes in his long battle with alcohol and gambling and homelessness and depression unfolded in the glare of public, too. What has never been told before, however, is his incredible story of recovery.
A moving tale of defiance that began in April 2020, when Sansom was attacked while in a ‘vulnerable’ state. And left fighting for his life.
He doesn’t remember the episode, which saw someone taken in for police questioning; precise details are sketchy.
All we know? Sansom was in a coma; he was later diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff. Doctors considered it highly likely he would never leave hospital. When he caught pneumonia, Sansom’s family were told: should his body fail, he wouldn’t be resuscitated.
And then, a couple of days later, he woke up. Over 18 weeks on the ward, Sansom had to learn to walk again, to talk again, to eat again. For a time, the retired left back could communicate only with his eyes. Most remarkable of all?
‘I didn’t know that,’ Sansom says upon hearing the story retold.
A blessing, perhaps. He didn’t make it easy for himself: doctors were forced to wrap Sansom’s hands in gloves to stop him ripping tubes out.
He had a habit of self-sabotage by then: addiction robbed Sansom of so much that he loved and worked for. He once claimed to have drunk nine bottles of wine a day. He slept rough. At times, he talked about ending it all.
After slipping into a coma, Doctors considered it highly likely he would never leave hospital before later being forced to wrap Sansom’s hands in gloves to stop him ripping tubes out
The 64-year-old though now ‘feels great’ and in April will have hit a major milestone of three years without drinking
There had been false dawns before but during those months in hospital, Sansom finally broke the chain of destruction.
‘I feel great, I think April will be three years without a drink – that takes some doing,’ the 64-year-old says. ‘Drink ruined my life – that’s one thing I can say for sure. And I know that now, I physically know it, I’ll never drink again.’
Some days are still easier than others – Wernicke-Korsakoff continues to cloud his mind. Ataxia means his balance betrays him at times. His raspy voice is a symptom of the lung condition COPD.
‘Sometimes I get the hump with myself, sometimes I feel happy,’ Sansom says.
Today, though, he is back where it all started. Back in good spirits. ‘Back to myself,’ he says in his first interview since the attack. The real Kenny. ‘A lot of people say he’s a joker, he loves telling a story,’ Sansom says. ‘I do a few impressions.’
He breaks briefly into his best Frank Spencer; he still does a decent Tommy Cooper, apparently.
In this new chapter, however, Sansom wants his own role: ‘I played 86 times for England… if I didn’t drink, I would have played a lot more,’ he says. ‘I’d love to be able to help people who drink: to tell them my story, tell them what it does to you.’
To inspire those struggling – including young footballers. ‘What do you say to someone who drinks? ‘It’s very difficult. But I’d like to help,’ Sansom explains. ‘It messes people up and it makes you a fool. I’m meant to be funny, I’d tell a good joke every now and then… I don’t think they’re funny anymore.’
In the pomp of his playing days in the 1980s, Sansom was a key player for England at full-back
He battles Wolfgang Dremmler of West Germany for possession at the 1982 World Cup
Sansom is heading down the left flank at Selhurst Park. Just as he did in 1975 when, aged 16, he embarked on a playing career that began with Crystal Palace and ended in non-league, via Arsenal, Newcastle, QPR, Brentford, Coventry, Everton, Watford two World Cups and one Hand of God.
He wanders along the pitch towards an executive box marked ‘Legends’. Sansom used to entertain supporters here on matchday; in a far corner his smiling face is painted on the wall. The mural includes a quotes from Terry Venables: ‘Kenny is one of the greatest left backs this country has ever produced.’
No wonder, then, that Palace staff and supporters, enjoying a tour of Selhurst Park, take a second glance and shake his hand. They appreciate everything Sansom gave to clubs like this. And everything he lost in the few decades since. ‘It’s lovely to see you looking so well,’ one tour-guide says. Hear, hear.
Sansom is out and about a lot these days. Coventry, Millwall, Bromley, Palace, England, Arsenal – he has been on a mini-tour of charity work and football events. Wherever he goes, lines of supporters tend to form nearby.
‘It really is incredible,’ Sansom says. ‘They remember my great days and my bad days.’
He is one of them now, returning to Palace and Arsenal when he can. One recent trip to the Emirates included a pit-stop – he has a mural there, too. ‘They’re doing really well,’ Sansom says of Mikel Arteta’s crop.
In January, he was among dozens of Arsenal heroes at the unveiling of new stadium artwork. ‘It was great to see the lads,’ Sansom says. The former captain, who led Arsenal to the 1987 League Cup, had a word with current skipper Martin Odegaard. He caught up with old friends.
‘It was great to see George Graham,’ a former team-mate who became his manager in north London. Lee Dixon made a lasting impression, too. ‘He said: “You were my hero, I was so pleased I joined Arsenal and played with you,”’ Sansom recalls. ‘That was nice.’
Sansom is fondly remembered at Crystal Palace (left) as well as another London side Arsenal
Sansom has praised the current crop of Arsenal stars who sit top of the Premier League
These past few years of peace and sobriety have also allowed Sansom to savour more private moments. ‘I can enjoy my kids and my grandkids,’ he says. ‘I can take them to football matches…I can take them wherever they want. When I want. It’s up to me. It’s all I want to do now.’
Now he has wrested back control. ‘I feel like I’m their dad.’ Whereas before? ‘I was a drunk.’
One particularly ‘special’ memory came here last February, when his daughter Natalie married her husband Tony. ‘Walking her down the aisle was just fantastic,’ Sansom says. ‘You never dream of it.’
Natalie and Tony are here today. Last year, in their glad rags, they headed up to that mural to take some wedding pictures. They had already travelled every day to visit Kenny in hospital. In Exeter and in Hampshire.
No matter that coronavirus meant Tony was often left outside; Natalie’s siblings joined her for one particularly poignant Father’s Day. Sansom’s struggles strained even his closest bonds. Now, though, he says: ‘The three kids, they’re brilliant – Natalie, Katie and Harry – They’re my life, really. They really are. I think about them every day.’
He relies on them to understand where he has been and how far he has come. Natalie still has the voicemail, when she was told her father would likely never leave hospital. Until then, visitors had been shut out. When doctors finally pulled back the curtain, they revealed a man who didn’t talk or open his eyes.
After Sansom did wake up, he was confused, distressed and had to learn to take his first steps into this new world. Natalie, Tony and Natalie’s daughter Maria would bring footballs and family pictures – anything that might jog Sansom’s memory. Some has returned; other aspects of life had changed forever. His diet, for one – beans on toast, an old favourite, are now off the menu. So is alcohol. That enforced detox proved a turning point in Sansom’s battle with addiction.
Sansom poses for a photo with his daughter Natalie in a Brazil jersey with a replica of the World Cup and some International shirts at their London home in July 1987
He is pictured with wife Elaine and son Harry in the nursery of their London home in July 1987
It still took around 10 weeks to get the former footballer to sit up, to get out of bed and back on his feet. But the results are incredible. ‘I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I didn’t know they were talking about me,’ Sansom admits after hearing the tale retold.
One of the staff who treated Sansom is here, too. Ann has been a vital support even since he moved into assisted-living. ‘She looks after me. She gets into my room and tidies it up for me,’ Sansom laughs. ‘That’s something I’m not good at!’
Care staff help Sansom with medication; Natalie and Tony FaceTime him two or three times a day. They take him shopping and ferry him around the country. During downtime, he enjoys watching quiz shows such as The Chase. ‘I enjoy the questions – I don’t know ‘em but…’ Sansom tails off with a laugh.
These days, he doesn’t live far from where this journey took its darkest turn, when Sansom was pictured drinking and sleeping in a park. Does he recognise that person now?
‘Yeah I do,’ Sansom says. ‘The silly bloke I was.’
Many details from those days are hazy now. But enough remain for regrets to linger. Sansom didn’t touch alcohol until one night in 1981 when, thanks to his father, he traded orange juice for buck’s fizz and began a long, painful spiral.
‘Once I started drinking, oh dear, it was a nightmare… drink drove me crazy,’ Sansom says. ‘The more I drunk, the more I liked it… if I was sitting in a bar, I’d drink six bottles of wine. It’s bloody crazy.’
Sansom played nearly 400 games for the Gunners in all competitions between 1980 and 1988
A popular character at Arsenal, Sansom (third right) jokes with team-mates and Brazil legend Pele (centre) on the Highbury pitch around the early 1980s
Sansom once claimed that his days began with rosé and ended with bottles of Night Nurse. Sometimes, he would sleep on any bench he could find.
His toxic relationship with gambling began with the odd punt on the dogs. Eventually, his drive home from training would include detours into his ‘twilight zone’ – the pub or the bookies. ‘I’d gamble in secret on a machine – play on it for hours,’ he says. ‘Stupid.’
Those problems snowballed during a playing career that started here. Sansom meets Sportsmail in the Malcolm Allison Lounge, where the former defender studies walls of memories.
‘I look at the pictures of Malcolm and Terry Venables and my old team-mates and I think it’s fantastic,’ he says. ‘Absolutely magnificent.’ His primary concern back then? The weekly weigh-in after yet more bacon rolls.
The foundations for Sansom’s success were laid by his mother, Louise. She convinced him not to give up football as a youngster. ‘She was a wonderful mum,’ Sansom says. ‘She really made me.’
Many special moments along the way are lost now. ‘It’s terrible,’ he says. ‘I took her to Wembley,’ he adds, gesturing to Natalie. ‘I can’t remember that.’
Fortunately, plenty more remain: his solitary England goal, for example. And? ‘I remember playing at Wembley and waving to where my mum sat,’ Sansom recalls. I thought about it last night… I’ll never forget that.’
Alas, the most painful memories involve her, too. ‘My mum seeing me drink,’ he explains. ‘That almost killed her I think.’
During his time at Highbury he won the 1987 League Cup after beating Liverpool at Wembley
He hopes this story might jolt other drinkers into giving up. He knows it’s not that simple: ‘I’ve had a lot of people wanting to help me and I’ve tried and I’ve let them down,’ says Sansom, who had several stints in rehab. ‘I think the most important person was myself. I was the one who had to give it up.’ And thankfully he has. Even if temptation never goes away.
‘Obviously I say to myself every now and then: “Shall I have a glass? No, no, no”. The word is no…I think I learned that from my mum,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t think I’d even go near a pub… I remember them all so every time my daughter or Ann are driving, I’ll say: “I went in that pub, in that pub, in that pub.”’
These days, Sansom’s loved ones are more concerned by his sweet tooth. They joke that he is now addicted to Squashies sweets.
He takes three sugars in his tea. He prefers it piping hot, too. Fortunately, this new chapter of an extraordinary life helps to warm the soul.
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