To go to sleep at night. I didn’t morning. It just starts again’
When people say Chris Kirkland, they say: ‘Always injured.’ It’s not: ‘He won the Champions League’
other people and other players to know that you’ve just got to talk. I never saw a way out of it until I started to talk about it. There was a fear. But as soon as you talk, that’s when you’re helping yourself and your family.”
Kirkland sits in the lounge of his home in Aughton, to the north of Liverpool. Leeona is there, too, and so is the family dog, Sam. The veneer of comfort is inscrutable. Footballers have got it all, haven’t they? But depression is no respecter of reputation and it spreads furiously beneath the surface.
Kirkland remembers “crying my eyes out” when he said his goodbyes at Wigan after six years – he had fallen from favour under Roberto Martínez – and, although he would be the No1 at Sheffield Wednesday for the next two seasons, he could feel “things starting to slip”.
“As strange as it sounds, I managed to block it out during matches,” Kirkland adds. “I don’t know how. But the anxiousness was getting the better of me – with the travelling, for example. If I had to stay over in Sheffield, I was panicking.” Kirkland lost his place in the Wednesday team to Keiren Westwood in 2014-15 and he describes that season as “when it started to show; when I just wanted to shut down completely”.
Wednesday would still offer him a new contract for the following season but he did not sign it. “I was going to,” Kirkland says. “It was the first day of pre-season, I was in the gym and I was going to go up and sign my contract in the next 10 minutes. But something just said: ‘I can’t stay.’
“I went in and said that I’d got problems. I didn’t tell them what they were. I just said I needed to be nearer to home because of the anxiety of the travelling over there and being away. Would I get stuck in traffic? Would I have to stay over? They were all gobsmacked, even if they knew that something was not quite right.”
Kirkland signed a one-year deal at Preston North End but the downward spiral continued. He lost a dear friend to cancer at the beginning of 2016 while his dog, Max, died in the same week. Each was a shattering blow to his increasingly fragile psyche.
Kirkland has never been a big socialiser and was always uncomfortable with his position in the public eye. As the depression tightened its grip, he became reclusive. “It’s a big knock-on thing and, eventually, you don’t want to go out,” Kirkland says. “You don’t want to talk to people. You put your phone on silent and you don’t reply to anyone. I couldn’t wait to come home. It’s a vicious circle and you just can’t get yourself out of it.
“I couldn’t think properly. I couldn’t see a way of functioning. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to do the stuff that I’d always done. I just didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to shut myself off.”
Leeona says that it was like losing her husband for four years. Kirkland nods. “I wasn’t the person she married,” he says. “Leeona’s family are in Scotland, mine are in Leicester, we’re tight-knit and I’ve always taken it upon myself to be the man of the house. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t look after the family properly.
“I didn’t know what was happening. Obviously, you read stuff and I had a feeling it was depression but I wasn’t diagnosed, at the time, because I never said anything to anyone.”
Kirkland felt he had coped with what came his way at the start of his career, when his uncommon mixture of height, agility and bravery marked him out for stardom. He became the most expensive goalkeeper in English football when Liverpool paid Coventry City £8m for him in 2001 – he was 20 years of age – while hyperbole tracked him.
David Platt, the England Under-21 manager, called him the “best young goalkeeper in the world” while SvenGöran Eriksson, the England manager, described him as the “future of English goalkeeping”. Kirkland would win his one and only senior cap as a second-half substitute against Greece in August 2006.
However, Kirkland has since learned that it might have been impossible for him to compartmentalise the various demands and stresses. As Leeona puts it, they “pile up on top of each other before you get to a point where it all just explodes”.
Kirkland’s injuries are a key part of his story and the perception of him. He suffered terribly at Liverpool and during a season-long loan at West Bromwich Albion in 2005-06, when one of his lay-offs was caused by a laceration to the kidney that left him urinating blood.
The injuries themselves, to quote Kirkland, “knocked the stuffing out of me” but so, too, did the view of him as a serial crock. Post-2006 he had an excellent fitness record. “That’s one of the things that has griped at me – that people say I was always injured, when I wasn’t,” Kirkland says.
Kirkland’s other regret is linked to the injuries that held him back at Liverpool. “I always wonder, and I can’t help it, where I would have got to if I had been injury-free,” he says. “My career could have been a lot better. When people say Chris Kirkland, they say: ‘Always injured.’ It’s not like: ‘Chris Kirkland; he won the Champions League.’ Like the top players. That’s just another factor that has piled up.”
Kirkland might have won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2004-05 but, having started in four of their group phase ties, including the decisive 3-1 home win over Olympiakos, he was ruled out by injury for the remainder of the campaign. He was in the stands, together with Leeona, for the penalty shoot-out victory over Milan in the final and, to add to the insult, the team flight headed back from Istanbul without them.
“They didn’t wait for us,” Kirkland says. “We got left and we missed the parade. Apparently, my medal was given to somebody else. We watched the parade on TV but only for a bit. We had to turn it off. So, that was a bit of a kick.”
Kirkland reflects, too, on how he was only ever one error from being “crucified in the papers” – a goalkeeper’s lot is thankless – while he came to be more aware of the excruciating pressure in matches once he got to Wigan and relegation was a part of the equation. Then, there was the incident in October 2012 when, playing for Wednesday, he was blindsided by a pitch-invading Leeds United fan and punched in the face.
Kirkland carries plenty of scars but they are beginning to heal. These days he will get out of the house and do something if he does not feel great instead of locking the doors. He has set up the Chris Kirkland Goalkeeper Academy for young hopefuls while he also coaches his daughter’s under-11s team. She is a goalkeeper too.
Kirkland says that he would like to get into counselling to help those affected by mental health problems and there is no doubt that his own sessions with a woman in Manchester – facilitated by Bennett and the PFA – have changed his life.
“She has worked wonders,” Kirkland says. “I saw her at least once a week at first and now, I’m at once every two or three weeks. She’s given me coping mechanisms, such as breathing techniques, because I struggle a lot with anxiety; I still do. It’s an ongoing process but I now know that I can and will get through it.”
Left: Chris Kirkland at his home in Aughton, Lancashire and, above, in action for West Bromwich against Bolton in 2005 during a loan spell that was truncated by injury