From Arsenal to Armley, Sheffield United footballing legend Tony Kenworthy’s fall from grace was harsh. Richard Hercock reports.
When Terry Kenworthy drove his son Tony to play for Leeds City Boys every Saturday morning they would pass Armley prison on their way to Oldfield Lane.
‘That’s where you go if you do something REALLY bad,’ he told his son. Many years later, including a decade of being a pin-up with Sheffield United, those words would come back to haunt Kenworthy as he was driven back to Leeds to begin a nine-month prison sentence.
Kenworthy had been out for a night at Owlerton dog track with a friend in 1988 but on his way home had crashed after going through a red light on Penistone Road in Sheffield. To compound his error, he drove away and later claimed his vehicle had been stolen. He was found guilty at Sheffield Crown Court of perverting the course of justice and not stopping after an accident.
Now, 25 years later, 54-year-old Kenworthy has revealed in his own words for the first time about his life behind bars in his autobiography, Blade Heart.
After clocking up over 450 appearances for the Blades, then moving to Mansfield Town where he scored the winning penalty in a Wembley final, Kenworthy gives an honest, if sometimes bleak, insight to prison life.
“I thought I’d gone through everything on the football field,” he recalls in the book. “I fell in love with Sheffield United as a teenager and discovered all the unpredictability and gut-wrenching dramas and disappointments of the sport as we went from the First Division to the Fourth – and almost all the way back again.
“One newspaper story apart, which I was virtually blackmailed into, I’ve never spoken of the four and a half long prison months that shaped the rest of my life. You hear people talk a lot today about prison life being a doddle. But they’re probably thinking more of folk so ingrained in the criminal system they are more ‘at home’ behind bars than in normal society. For me, it was a huge, huge blow.
“My identity as a professional footballer and a well-known member of the community was taken away as soon as I got my first order. I was told to strip off, with my suit, shirt and shoes put in a big heavy box. Just to ensure I got the message, the prison officer added: ‘You will not be seeing these for a while’.
“I was marched into my cell which was about 12ft by 6ft with a stone floor. Inside was a bunk bed, single bed, table, chair and bucket. Already in the cell was a guy, probably in his mid-20s, on the single bed and an older guy, I’d guess in his 50s, on the bunk.
“Neither said a word.
“Nervously, I unravelled my bedding which turned out to be seven pillow cases and nothing else. In panic, I went to the cell door and pressed the button for help. After about 10 minutes, someone finally came to answer. I hadn’t got any bedding but was bluntly told: ‘You’re wasting your time. See you in the morning!’
After a month at Armley, Kenworthy was switched to Rudgate open prison, at Wetherby, where he soon found himself playing the game he loved.
“We played football in a league and, although the standard wasn’t what I’d been used to, it was quite enjoyable. It was amusing to listen to opponents talking. They were often surprised we weren’t such bad lads but didn’t know the half of it. We looked like a normal football team on the outside, but were hiding a fair few secrets.
“Our goalkeeper had split up from his girlfriend, found and attacked the new boyfriend, and killed him. We had a full back who had been inside for 20 years for murder, our main midfielder was an armed robber doing 11 years, and our chief centre forward and goalscorer was also inside for murder. Altogether we sported quite a few lifers towards the end of their sentence.”
Kenworthy’s mind had always been fixed on his release date and one morning at 7am it was time. Reliable as ever, his father was there an hour before to pick him up.
“There weren’t a lot of words said between me and dad on the journey back to Leeds but it was nice to go out to a pub together that evening. His words then are still imprinted on my mind: ‘You can’t get any lower, son, the only way now is up’, That summed up the support of both my parents.
“From the very start, their attitude was not to concentrate on prison life but look forward to when I could get my life back on track. It was thanks to them as much as anyone that I was able to do just that.”
Blade Heart: The Tony Kenworthy Autobiography, is available now, printed by Vertical Editions, priced £16.99.