Autobiographies, especially of those who are not first and foremost writers, are harder than biographies. That is a statement of opinion rather than fact, but it’s an opinion born of the experience of reading both and noting that autobiographies do not always come off with the sheen of something well written. In some case, particularly with footballers, you can see why ghost-writers have been needed.
As I’ve mentioned before, the standard for autobiographies – not just football ones, remains Addicted by Tony Adams (ably assisted by journalist Ian Ridley). What makes it stand out is the voice of Adams that you can detect – it’s not just tabloid-like clichés or prose set in such a way you could never believe the player wrote it. As well as that in this retelling of a life there are all the bits and pieces that makes any story gripping and enthralling – not just what it is, but how it’s delivered whether that requires grit and harsh realism, or light humour.
Reading Kenny Sansom’s autobiography To Cap It All in comparison to Addicted, funnily enough, is like comparing the football careers of Sansom and Adams. Both were England internationals, both played and captained Arsenal, both had drink problems, both are noted for the effort they put in and both attest to therapy and good people being around for how they escaped from the brink.
Yet for those similarities there are significant differences. Adams is arguably the most successful, important and influential captain and defender in Arsenal’s history. Sansom is remembered fondly for his contribution to a team that only started to pick up the trophy winning habit in the last days of his time there. It’s almost as though Adams is known for greatness and adversity, whereas Sansom is remembered for being plucky in mediocrity. That’s reflected in the quality of the autobiography.
Kenny talks a lot about being lucky in his upbringing, in falling into the football company as opposed to other more nefarious alternatives, in being signed by Arsenal and in playing for England. Yet all his luck doesn’t seem to compensate for the mediocre England teams he played in and for his notable lack of success at club level, despite Sansom’s earnest efforts to make it come across as though it was the best of times.
Away from the football itself, the portrayal is of a man wrapped in insecurities who was coping until a fateful England trip unleashed inner demons and addictive behaviours that threatened his family and livelihood. Sansom isn’t writing a sob story and is not looking for pity from the readers, regardless of the times he mentions his current financial situation. He writes with honesty and that level of human pride that most people can relate to. It’s that honesty more than anything else that keeps you reading the book.
It is not a kiss and tell book either that uses the opportunity to take people to task for being awkward or particularly unpleasant. The only person who gets a drubbing is Glenn Roeder during Sansom’s brief stint as his assistant manager at Newcastle United. Other than that Kenny only lays into himself for the personal failings and the impact it had on his family.
Sansom outlines well just what a cocoon a footballer can live in that makes him almost immune to responsibilities that other children growing into adulthood assume. That is a fascinating insight into how reality can suddenly affect things when the gravy train comes to an end and you are no longer the centre of attention. It is refreshing to come across such candour in the immaturity that besets someone in that position, who is married and has children even in how devoted he maybe to the children and his wife.
For all these positive qualities, however, there is something lacking in the way the book comes across that stops it being a memorable and great autobiography. First there are some glaring mistakes in the autobiography – little things of dates and personalities. Beyond that there are some definite lulls in the narratives where you get the feeling it’s almost as though Sansom is padding for time. It does have human appeal for those beyond football, but it’s appeal will be limited by the simplistic and mundane it’s put across at times. Lulls like that in the reading can make things bothersome.
I hope, however, the process of sharing has been therapeutic and cathartic for Sansom and his family and by the tone of the book I leave it with a desire that things will work out for him. It may not work in the same way as Addicted, but To Cap It All, will still have something worthwhile to contribute to those who struggle in life with addictions of any type – that is to Kenny Sansom’s eternal credit.