West Bromwich Albion 0-1 Arsenal – Saturday August 16, 1980.
If I could change anything about Kenny Sansom’s career at Highbury, it would be the period of our history it coincided with falling, as it did, between two great periods for modern Arsenal.
He arrived at the Gunners just as the heart was being ripped out of Terry Neill’s great cup team, the young guns of verve and brio of the late seventies; and he left, ultimately seen as one of the remaining embodiments of the bloated regime George Graham had inherited.
It had been a crazy summer in North London, one which perfectly followed on from the madness of 48 days in spring 1980 when it felt like the Arsenal took on the world but ended up empty handed: history men who proved once and for all that even in defeat there is glory and honour.
A frenzied close-season at Highbury had begun with the heart-wrenching loss of Liam Brady to Italian football, which after the heartbreak of double defeat, at Wembley and Heysel, was, truly, a blow upon a bruise. Neill tried to lift the club with an audacious, bold, but ultimately ill-conceived singing of QPR’s teenage scoring sensation Clive Allen for £1,250,000. Allen’s signing was not going to address the loss of Brady and could only make the team look lopsided.
Neill attempted to plug the gap left by Brady with Bolton’s Peter Reid, who’s £5 million move to Highbury ultimately died upon the alter of the player’s terms. So, after missing out on the Bolton man Arsenal turned their attention to Everton’s free scoring midfielder Andy King, but that likewise came to nothing.
Then after struggling in pre-season, poor Allen became the centre of a news whirlwind: Neill and Howe had realised that there was no way that Allen could be accommodated, certainly not alongside Stapleton and Sunderland who were the clear first choice pair. What transpired, back in the long-lost days of 1980, was nothing short of sensational! Allen was ruthlessly shipped out to Crystal Palace in return for their coveted left-back, young England international, Kenny Sansom. The sale of Paul Barron to Palace, and the signing of Everton’s George Wood completed the business just in time for the big kick-off.
With the acquisition of Sansom, Arsenal were starting to attract some attention from pundits and punters alike. The markets had them at 9-1 third favourites for the title behind Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
The Liverpool Echo however, with typical impartiality, summarily dismissed Arsenal from the title race suggesting that Brady wasn’t that big a loss; Willie Young was a liability; and the forwards patchy. Perhaps not quite the description of a team who had held, and ultimately beaten, Liverpool over four cup games barely three and a half months earlier.
Elsewhere, a preview of the season had picked out young gun Paul Vaessen as one of three young players to watch in 1980/81 – perhaps the emerging Vaessen was another reason Neill felt Allen was dispensable?
Though sad to see the swift departure of our new teenage million-pound man, I was delighted to welcome Sansom, a class act, and he became part of an immediate overhaul of the defence. Out went two longstanding Northern Ireland internationals, both stalwarts of recent years and held in overwhelmingly high esteem by the Highbury crowd – Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson.
Sansom slipped seamlessly into his left-back berth, while another youngster, Republic of Ireland international John Devine, did likewise at right-back. Sansom barely had time to shake hands with his new teammates, completing his transfer only two days before the season began, but when the day came, he hit the ground running, turning in an immaculate performance.
He was singled out, along with Graham Rix who was trying his best to replace Brady, as Arsenal’s best two players as we completed a reassuringly Arsenal-like away performance in winning 1-0. England boss, Ron Greenwood, had been in attendance to run the rule over Sansom and compare him to Albion’s young left-back Derek Statham: Sansom’s assured showing, after only a couple of training sessions, would have demonstrated just what a fine defender he was.
To top off his display, he was also instrumental in the winning goal, playing an incisive through ball for Rix to set up Frank Stapleton, who buried a trademark powerful header.
Afterwards, boss Terry Neill confirmed how pleased he was for, and with, Sansom. Neill must have been quite pleased for himself too, he had converted Arsenal’s £1m investment from a misfit into a player of the highest quality, a long-term addition: the press described Sansom as “another layer of cladding to Arsenal’s already near impregnable defence”.
Sansom spoke glowingly of his teammates saying how easy it was to play in the side, and how much they had helped him out. It was a promising start, though sadly one which began to unravel, and ultimately one can’t help but feel his ability was lost amidst the many false dawns of the next few seasons. Although Sansom captained George Graham’s fledgling Arsenal side, indeed lifting the Littlewoods’ League Cup in 1987, he was soon out of favour and was ushered out of Highbury in perhaps a slightly unseemly manner in the end.
I remember him as a cracking defender who would not have been out of place in the contemporary game, perhaps even as a defensive midfielder, or left wing-back: easy on the ball and dogged he would have added lustre to any team.
Kenny, as we know has fallen on harder times since hanging up his boots, and has suffered from ill health too.
I still hold him in the highest regard, but there is a twinge of regret that like some his playing contemporaries, Charlie Nicholas, Vladimir Petrovi?, and Tony Woodcock to mention merely three he played in teams where the individuals it contained always seemed much greater than the sum of its parts.
Still the sun shone that day at The Hawthorns in August 1980, and for a glorious, brief moment, I stopped missing Liam Brady.