Kenny Sansom’s fight against his demons and dementia

Kenny Sansom was one of my first football heroes. He made his debut as a 16-year-old and was described by club historian Reverend Nigel Sands as “the first tangible product of the youth policy instituted by Malcolm Allison…and was unquestionably Palace’s best ever left-back.” He was an integral member of that enticing, exciting “Team of the Eighties” — a Palace side which hinted at possible future glory and ever so briefly reached the top of the summit in 1979. But just as they topped Division One they went tumbling back down the league and Sansom soon departed to Arsenal, forging a successful career and gaining almost 90 England caps.

In a sad parallel with the Palace team that he was such a key part of, after reaching the heights as a professional footballer, Sansom’s life has been on a downward spiral over the last few years. His desperate struggle with both alcoholism and a gambling addiction accelerated his decline; a decline which was often exposed by lurid headlines and sordid pictures in the tabloid press. Palace as a club have quite rightly always tried to support Sansom as much as they could, including offering him a role on match days as a club ambassador back in 2017. 

In an interview with the Croydon Advertiser at the time Sansom said -“I travel up [from Exeter] to Selhurst Park to come here which is great. I’ve had a few hiccups along the way but the club has always stuck by me which is fantastic. I just enjoy spending time with the fans and having a laugh. When I walk along the street people keep saying ‘keep it going Ken, I hear you’re doing well’. The encouragement from this football club keeps me going. I always feel this club is behind me.”

Unfortunately, despite this encouragement, his role was curtailed after he lapsed back into drinking. Not only did he lose that role at the club but at the same time he had broken up with his fiancée, Denise Mullins and the relationship with his ex-wife and children became strained. So when the club announced this week that Sansom is suffering from a form of dementia that is linked to drinking too much alcohol, it was poignant but it did not come as a surprise.   

“The family of Kenny Sansom wish to update Crystal Palace supporters on Kenny’s health, following reports earlier this year that he was hospitalised,” the club statement said.  “Kenny is out of hospital and settled in new accommodation, but has been diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a type of brain disorder and form of dementia. He is in the early stages of the illness, which is reversible and treatable. With the support of his family and carers, he is on the first steps of his road to recovery. Those closest to him are encouraged by his progress and the positive attitude he is showing in difficult circumstances.”

Sansom’s plight exposes two fundamental issues that many former footballers are forced to face after their playing careers are over. Alongside those suffering from problems with addiction, there has been a sharp rise in those being diagnosed with dementia. The broader issue of dementia in football was highlighted by the recent deaths of World Cup winners Nobby Stiles and Jack Charlton. This destructive disease has been proved to be more rife amongst footballers, most probably exacerbated by continuous heading of the ball, as was the case with former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle who was the first British professional footballer to be confirmed as having died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

Jeff Astle, West Bromwich Albion

The Jeff Astle Foundation, which was set up by his daughter Dawn in 2015, has played a crucial role in drawing attention to the far higher incidences of degenerative brain disease in sportsmen and particularly footballers. The Foundation have now identified over 500 players who have suffered in this way. Their campaign has been backed up by the findings of neuropathologist Dr. Willie Stewart whose research revealed that footballers are 3 1/2 times more likely to have a neurodegenerative disease than the general public and five times more likely to die of Parkinson’s. 

Chris Sutton, whose own father Mike is an ex-pro who has been suffering from dementia, has been a vocal spokesman in the campaign to force the Professional Footballers Association into action in doing more to protect its members. Anyone who has watched a loved one suffering from dementia knows how Sutton feels when he speaks of the despair in watching his father suffering. They are just a husk of their former selves and almost unrecognisable from the person you knew. “There’s nothing left of him,” Sutton said in a recent interview. “He was a strong man, a strong character, an intelligent man.”

In response to the heartache suffered by Sutton, he has helped set up a charter in conjunction with the Daily Mail entitled “Enough is Enough” which sets out seven points that should be addressed by the football authorities. These points include the PFA appointing a dedicated ‘Dementia team’ as well as providing respite for families and carers of former players with dementia. Having been frustrated by the lack of action taken despite several high profile cases, Sutton is determined that the risk for future generations is reduced by implementing the charter.

Dementia comes in many forms and for the vast majority of dementia sufferers the deterioration in health is irreversible. The redeeming features of Sansom’s diagnosis are firstly that it was detected relatively early, he is 62-years-old, and secondly that this form of dementia is treatable. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1) nearly always brought about by an excessive intake of alcohol, so treatment revolves around stopping drinking alcohol followed by being injected with high doses of thiamine. A quarter of those affected who receive treatment in time make a good recovery whilst about half make a partial recovery. 

It can only be hoped that Sansom does beat this ruinous disease, defeats his demons and reminds us of that prodigiously talented teenager who burst on to the scene almost fifty years ago. It is hard to accept when somebody whom you have previously idolised is no longer the invincible character you originally imagined and that not only do they have weaknesses but they are actually extremely vulnerable. 

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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