England Caps : 86
Goals : 1
Player : 1979-88
Kenny Sansom or ‘King Kenny’ to the Arsenal fans, was a long serving left full-back for both Arsenal and England. Not only was he fast and strong defensively, he was able to pass players and deliver excellent crosses. His career on the pitch was largely without drama, which is exactly what coaches and managers need in a full-back, and he was respected by his peers, winning eight consecutive PFA Player of the Year awards for that position.
Early DaysSansom’s skills were recognised right from the beginning of his career. Joining Crystal Palace as a schoolboy, he made his first team debut at the age of 16 and in 1977 was appointed captain of both the Palace and England youth teams. His full England debut came in a Home Championship game against Wales in 1979 and he obviously impressed Ron Greenwood as he played Sansom in as many games as possible to get him prepared for the European Championships in the summer of 1980.
Although the team had qualified easily they did not do themselves justice in Italy and they did not survive the group stage. However, Sansom, now with Arsenal after a million pound move in the summer, had effectively become England’s first choice left back without anyone really noticing, and was at the core of a young team with others such as Glen Hoddle, Bryan Robson, Viv Anderson joining Peter Shilton, Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking as they set their sights on the next tournament, the 1982 World Cup.
Spain 1982Qualification for 1982 wasn’t such an easy affair but once at the finals the team won every game in the first group stage to set up a second three-handed group stage with West Germany and Spain. Although the defence did their job, England couldn’t score any goals either, and the two 0-0 draws were not enough to go through.
In the aftermath of Spain, Ron Greenwood gave way to Bobby Robson as manager, and many experienced players such as Keegan and Brooking also fell away as Robson began building a new team for the 1984 European Championships and the 1986 World Cup. This meant that Sansom, at 23 years old and with no serious rival emerging for his spot, was now one of the senior, more experienced players.
Mexico 1986Unfortunately England failed to qualify for Euro 84 so the Mexican World Cup in 1986 was the next tournament where Sansom was able to shine. It was in the run up to Mexico that Sansom scored his only goal for England, against Finland in a 5-0 rout, and by this time he was in the middle of an unbroken 37 game run in the side.
The story of the 1986 World Cup is well known in England, the team starting in the traditional wobbly fashion, but pulling it together as Lineker and Beardsley began to combine and only falling at the quarter final to Argentina and Maradona’s two extraordinary goals, the Hand of God and the Goal of the Century. Sansom was unfortunate enough to be one of the players that Maradona waltzed past during his proper goal.
An Ignominious EndAs England went through qualification, unusually without major drama, for Euro 88 in West Germany, Stuart Pearce, eventually to inherit King Kenny’s crown, made his debut against Brazil in a friendly (part of the Rous Cup tournament which briefly replaced the Home Championship). Sansom kept his place into the finals of the European Championships partly because of injuries to Pearce but also because he was still the sublime, calm efficient defender that he always had been.
Unfortunately the team, who had not lost a match in qualifying, were woeful in the competition itself, losing all three matches to come bottom of the group. The matches included the first ever defeat in a competitive match by the Republic of Ireland, after a disastrous attempted clearance by Sansom went up in the air and caused panic in the English defence, leading to the only goal of the game by Ray Houghton. The subsequent practice game that Holland had with the English side (1-3) and embarrassing defeat by Russia by the same scoreline, were Sansom’s last games for England.
At the same time things were unravelling at Arsenal, where friction between Sansom and the manager, George Graham, lead to Tony Adams taking over the captaincy. His eventual replacement at club level, Nigel Winterburn, was already in place and it wasn’t long before he was unloaded to Newcastle United.
A Great ServantEven George Graham, with whom Sansom eventually fell out, acknowledged that Sansom was the best left-back in England for a decade. That his England career ended with the disastrous 1988 tournament unfairly overshadows a nine-year career that was largely faultless and consistent.
He remains England’s most capped full-back (though he is likely to be overhauled by Gary Neville, who gained his 85th against Spain in February 2007) and played all those matches without a single booking, let alone a sending off.