There have been a number of articles about Billy Kenny, the ‘wasted’ talent, over the years. An Everton midfielder of the early 1990s, he was predicted to go on to great things. He was named man of the match in his first derby and was a shining light in a mainly dark decade for his club. Despite his promise, he played only 17 Premier League and 6 cup games for the Blues. I’m trying to put a different perspective on Kenny’s demise, comparing with others and wondering if it would happen to a player 25 years on?
Kenny was the son of an Everton player, also named Billy, who made just 14 appearances in Everton’s midfield in the early 1970s. Billy Sr made more appearances for his next club, Tranmere, before moving to the USA to play for Cleveland Cobras. His career ended with Ashton United before he retired at the early age of 27. Great things were expected of his son.
All clubs have a list of players who flattered to deceive, not reaching anywhere near their potential. Everton’s list seems a long one. From Martin Murray and Gary Jones in the 1970s to Stuart Rimmer, Rob Wakenshaw and Paul Wilkinson in the 1980’s. Then we have Stuart Barlow, Michael Branch (more about him later), Tony Grant, Danny Cadamarteri, Michael Ball, Francis Jeffers, Nick Chadwick, Jose Baxter. The list goes on. I may have missed some names but all of these have one thing in common: high expectations from fans following their outstanding performances at a lower level. In some cases, as with Jeffers, those performances were at first-team level for a short period. Kenny is one of those players.
Many other players went on to make a name for themselves, such as Wayne Rooney. Some players enjoy hype, apparently above their current capabilities. Joe Royle for example famously said that Duncan Ferguson “became a legend before he became a player at Everton”. Billy Kenny’s short time in the limelight is well remembered by Evertonians. Whether he deserved the hype is a matter of opinion.
Enter Billy Kenny
Only five years after Everton’s last championship win in 1987, you would have reasonably expected any talented youngster to be nurtured and eventually break into the first team in order to win their place. The demise of the team over those five years meant that Billy Kenny made his debut at the age of 18. Not so unusual, admittedly, but to make such an impact so early on is relatively rare.
Kenny was an immediate hit with the fans. Sitting in the heart of midfield he made the midfield tick. His robust style enabled him to break up opponents’ attacks, while his creativity then launched attacks of his own. He did so with a creative style in a largely uncreative Everton midfield.
Was this description of Kenny over the top? Maybe. Would he have made such an impact had he been in a better performing team? Maybe not. I like to think that his teammate Peter Beardsley knew a decent player when he saw one. Beardsley famously described Kenny as the ‘Goodison Gazza’. Different types of players maybe, but Beardsley inadvertently made his on-field comparison scarily close to both players’ future off-field nature.
Unafraid of reputations, the story goes that Kenny was clattered by Vinny Jones early on in a game against Wimbledon. Unperturbed, he dusted himself down and exacted similar treatment on Mr Jones as retribution. Not only skilful, he could look after himself as well. His man-of-the-match performance in his first derby match in December 1992 has become a story of legend. For a player to gain such a reputation after just eight first team appearances seems crazy but there was a buzz around the club that this was the real deal.
He commanded the midfield facing opposition made up of McManaman, Redknapp, Hutchison and Barnes like a veteran and inspired a 2-1 win. Expectations soared and Kenny became a regular in the side, scoring what was to be his only goal for the Blues in a 1-2 away defeat at Chelsea. His performances earned him his solitary England under-21 appearance against Turkey.
Kenny did not start the 1993/94 season due to shin splints and this is where his story took a serious turn for the worse. Facing a six-month spell out of football and not able to train, he got bored. People he considered his friends took him into town but he got used. Earning good money, despite his age, he was a target. He hadn’t led what we would call a normal life until this point. As a promising footballer, his life had revolved around daily training and matches with going clubbing not even on his list of priorities. Drink and drugs took over his life and by the time he got back to training, he was well along a slippery slope to addiction.
Continuing his destructive lifestyle he would regularly stay out all night. Drinking up to 10 pints and after a line of coke, he would get an hour’s sleep before getting a taxi to training. It showed, and despite assistant manager Colin Harvey’s efforts collecting him and driving him into training, it was to no avail.
Both Harvey and manager Howard Kendall knew the talent that lay within Kenny and because of this, appeared to give him so many opportunities to sort himself out. Despite rehab and fines for misconduct, the behaviour continued. Sadly, given the times, the help, despite well-meaning, wasn’t effective. Mike Walker took over as Everton manager in January 1994 and Billy Kenny, after a final ultimatum, was sacked for gross misconduct. Walker hadn’t witnessed Kenny’s capabilities so his zero-tolerance approach was understandable.
Last chance saloon
An apparent saviour in ex Everton legend Graeme Sharp appeared. Sharp, who was the manager of recently relegated Oldham at the time, knew of his potential. Sadly, the behaviour continued as Kenny either turned up to training worse for wear or not turning up at all. He made just four appearances for Oldham, scoring one own goal. Less than a year after arriving, he was sacked once again for gross misconduct. He retired at the age of 21.
Football’s relationship with drink and drugs
Given the physical attributes needed to become a top-class footballer, the relationship with inherently unhealthy alcohol in particular is a paradox. Head back to the 1930s and the most successful national team of the era. Italy’s most famous player was Inter Milan’s Guiseppe Meazza, star of their World Cup-winning teams of 1934 and 1938. Meazza was a heavy drinker, fond of wine and apparently prone to sleeping in brothels before matches. Further on, Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas loved a beer and Brazil’s World Cup winner Garrincha is reported to have drunk a bottle of Cachaca every day of his adult life before he died of alcoholic cirrhosis in 1983 aged 49.
Closer to home, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters starred with their wives in pub adverts, while George Best’s battle with alcohol is well known. Stories of the drinking exploits of the likes of Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and Peter Osgood are well documented in the 1970s, and Rangers star Jim Baxter had two liver transplants following liver cirrhosis.
In the 1990s Kenny Sansom, Tony Adams and Paul Merson were three of the more prominent names afflicted. Footballers’ wealth had climbed significantly and cocaine added to the problem, particularly in London. Sansom ended up homeless and both Adams and Merson’s issues became very public knowledge.
Tony Adams eventually wrote about his problems in a book and the proceeds went towards his ‘Sporting Chance Clinic’. Launched in 2000, it enables current and former footballers and sports stars to confront destructive behaviour, specifically relating to alcohol, drugs, gambling and depression. Adams’ website has the following quote on its front page, inspired by his own recovery from alcoholism:
“I was sick and tired of getting drunk. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired”
One of the more startling statistics in recent years has been the amount of ex-professional footballers in prison in the UK. In 2015 there were 147 ex-pro footballers inside. 128 of them for drug offences, mainly supplying class A drugs. One of the more prominent of them, because of what he has achieved since, is ex-Liverpool youth player Michael Kinsella.
Having been released by the Reds after being sacked by Steve Heighway, he went to Tranmere where he was also fired. He effectively retired at the age of 20. He began selling cocaine on the streets of Liverpool. He was raided in 2007 when £300,000 of cocaine and £2,000 in cash was found. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. It was later found he was part of a major drug smuggling ring and sentenced to 10 years. He had apparently acquired an estimated fortune of £1.6 million. Four stints in jail followed, including spells in the Netherlands and Spain.
Why did he do it? Like other, he was attracted by the easy money. Working your way up from street level, you can earn huge sums of money with comparatively little effort. In an interview with the Independent, he explains reaching a point of clarity. He studied sports psychology and did an Open University introduction to sport, fitness and management course. When Kinsella was released in 2012, he started up ‘Onside’, a programme helping others similar to himself to avoid the same mistakes when released from their contracts.
Michael Branch is an ex-Everton player who also fell into a life of dealing drugs. Branch made his debut aged 17 in 1996 and so much was expected of him following his prolific scoring record for the reserves. Eventually released by Everton, he played for a number of clubs before retiring at the early age of 27. He struggled to adapt to life without football and succumbed to drug dealing. In a raid on his Otterspool home, police found a kilo of 82% pure cocaine. He was jailed for seven years in 2012.
XPRO, an organisational helping with ex-professional footballers’ health and welfare, made contact with Michael Branch. In an interview with Vice.com, Chief Executive and ex-Stoke City player Geoff Scott explained how some footballers can be earning around £1 million per year, then they are ditched by their clubs with no means of earning that kind of money. They struggle to adapt.
Geoff Scott met Branch, but he wouldn’t believe he was who he claimed to be, thinking Scott was the police. Apparently, he was the first person from football who had ever contacted him since he left. It appears Branch was short of money and intended to do just one deal to get him out of trouble. It was so easy, he carried on. He has since been released from prison and is a qualified accountant.
Times are clearly different. The link between drink and football has probably always been there. This is not about a player being bored in between bouts of training and going drinking, as has been the case for many throughout football history. It’s about young men earning increasing amounts of money, particularly since the formation of the Premier League, and having difficulty replacing or spending it when things go wrong. It’s about effective support rather than support that means well. It’s about those young men being able to adapt to circumstances when things go wrong.
Back to Billy Kenny
Sporting Chance, Onside or XPRO were not available to Billy Kenny. Whether they would have been helpful at the time he was playing, we will never know. Whether he would even have made it big without the injury, we will never know either. The Guardians’ Rob Smyth rated Kenny number one in his lost talent article and many others have rated Kenny similarly. Apparently it took him until his late 20s to get clean, but by then it was far too late.
He will always be remembered by Evertonians of that period, maybe for the wrong reasons. He did what every fan would give their right arm to do: pull on their teams’ shirt and play, even for just one game. He was the man of the match in a derby, had the world at his feet, then threw it all way.
He had it all football wise and shows that you need talent but ability on its own is not enough.