At the age of 19, Billy Kenny had broken into the Everton first team, played for England U21’s and been named man of the match in the first Premier League Merseyside derby. His father, Billy Kenny Snr, also played for Everton, struggling to ever establish himself at the club before carving out a career for himself in the lower leagues and America. Kenny Jnr though, looked as certain for a great career as any youth player can. After dominating a Liverpool midfield featuring John Barnes, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp, Everton were already looking at Kenny as the man to one day build their team around.
As a youth player, Kenny’s reputation on Merseyside had been rising from a young age, and it was no surprise when Howard Kendall handed him his debut at just 18. A fresh-faced Kenny took to England’s top flight comfortably, often looking the most dangerous player of a markedly average Everton midfield at the time. However, it was in the first Merseyside derby of the Premier League era that the young Evertonian would grow from mere local youth starlet, to national acclaim. Against a star-studded Liverpool midfield, Kenny was not fazed; in fact, he controlled the game. In Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp, Liverpool had two of the nation’s brightest prospects, but when the 90 minutes were up, Kenny had well-and-truly eclipsed the duo, and the country recognised that England had a new star on their hands.
In an Everton team distinctly lacking in creativity, with the obvious exception of Peter Beardsley, Kenny was the creative spark that they had been calling out for. Beardsley himself had nicknamed the youngster the ‘Goodison Gazza’, such was his balance, skill and vision. In truth, Kenny was more similar to someone like Roy Keane. Whilst he did possess the technical attributes mentioned above, he was also tough, dynamic and robust, even as a teenager; in many ways the complete midfielder. Furthermore, Kenny did not play just off the front man like Gascoigne did. He took up a deeper role than that, in the heart of the midfield, contributing to multiple phases of play, capable of breaking up opposition attacks before launching the team into their own.
In the final third, he displayed not only skill, but intelligence, and an understanding of the game usually only possessed by a player much later in their career. As aggressive as he was artistic, Kenny famously refused to be intimidated by the presence of football hardman Vinnie Jones. After a thumping tackle by the Wimbledon man, Kenny dusted himself down and made sure his opposite number knew he wasn’t fazed, settling the scores with a similarly tough tackle later in the game.
After his man of the match performance in Everton’s derby win, Kenny featured semi-regularly as Kendall tried to ease the youngster into the physical demands of Premier League football. He continued to impress, scoring his first goal for the club at Stamford Bridge as Everton ended the season in 13th place. Ahead of the 1993/94 campaign, Kenny’s influence and importance was expected to rise further in the season in which he would celebrate his 20th birthday. It was not to be; shin splints restricted him to the sidelines for 6 months. Unable to train, the youngster grew bored and slipped into depression. An unhealthy alcohol habit soon became a far more serious addiction to cocaine.
When he finally overcame the injury, his reliance on the drug had spiralled to uncontrollable levels. Regularly turning up to training without having been to bed the previous night and still off his head on cocaine, he was unsurprisingly unable to regain the fitness or form he had prior to his injury. Kenny’s substance abuse was clear to all those around him, and it came as no surprise when he failed a drugs test. Frustrated, manager Howard Kendall fined him two-weeks wages and he was sent to rehab. Kendall’s successor, Mike Walker, having seen less of what Kenny was capable of when fit, was less lenient with the youngster. Having failed to take heed of Walker’s final ultimatum, Kenny was dismissed by the club for gross misconduct. In less than a year, he had gone from the nation’s hottest prospect to a free agent plagued by cocaine addiction.
The 20-year-old was handed a second chance by a man who was aware of his true ability, former Everton striker Graeme Sharp. Managing recently-relegated Oldham Athletic, Sharp’s faith in Kenny was not repaid. He failed to overcome his addiction and, as such, failed to get back in shape or play to anywhere near his full potential. In his only season at Boundary Park, Kenny played just four games, scoring an own goal and repeatedly either failing to turn up for training or arriving a wreck and in no shape to play professional football. After less than a year at the club, having had a torrid time, Kenny’s contract was terminated, once again for gross misconduct. The Oldham fans never saw his genius in action.
At just 21, Kenny retired. In all the tragic tales of stardom to obscurity, few have done so in such spectacular fashion and at such a speed. Billy Kenny should have been a future England international, instead, he only played 17 games for Everton and only 21 in the Football League in total. He later made sporadic appearances for Barrow and Royal Seaforth in the lower leagues, never amounting to much. It was not until he reached his late twenties than Kenny became clean. By that stage, the ability which set him apart from his peers had deserted him. Billy Kenny has become an embodiment of wasted talent and remains the greatest evidence there is that ability on its own is never enough.