To go to sleep at night. I didn’t morn­ing. It just starts again’

The Guardian - Sport - - Football -

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.”

Tom Jenk­ins for the Guardian; Back Page Im­ages/Rex/ Shutterstock

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

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