chris kirkland doesn’t hesitate to point out the moment he knows things have to change. It was in February this year, when he was struggling with a secret addiction to painkillers that had previously led him to consider taking his own life, that he was lost in Liverpool, the city where he was football’s most expensive goalkeeper Once English. “I took them and,” he says, puffing his cheeks, “I thought I was going to die. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t remember where the town was. I only got home because I put ‘home’ into the sat-nav, and it was already preset, or I don’t know where I would have ended up. I got home … then I was violently ill. I slept for about 18 hours. I woke up, took the tablets out of the car and flushed them straight down the toilet.”
It has been a difficult path to this point but Kirkland, who is relaxed in his living room at home in Lancashire, feet resting on the pouffe, is no longer interested in hiding. He knew he was in trouble in 2013, a few months into a three-year contract at Sheffield Wednesday, when the tablets took hold after his mental health had taken a toll and depression kicked in. Over an hour of raw conversation Kirkland tells stories of lies and deception, how developing sneaky habits – hiding supplies in his car or a sock drawer – helped hide his addiction. “I would call the doctors: ‘I’ve lost them, I need more,'” he says. “I’ll get them from the internet, any way I can. There were times when I was meant to be in places and I wouldn’t be in the right mood or take too many tablets and I would have to call him and say ‘I have a puncture’ or other excuses and not turn up. up, which is terrible.”
Kirkland remembers hearing eye-opening stories from other addicts – alcohol, cocaine and gambling – during a group session on his first visit to Parkland Place, a rehab clinic near Colwyn Bay, north Wales, three years ago and at think: “Not me to what am I doing here?” When things got worse earlier this year, Cheryl, the manager of the venue he speaks so fondly of, was his first stop and they continue to check in. together a few times a week. This time Kirkland recognized the importance of putting a more watertight structure around him at home. “That’s what they suggested when I went down there [to rehab] the first time and I was like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’, but I never did.”
His wife, Leeona, is a constant support and administers home drug tests during the week, which hampers his presence. In reality, though, it’s now nearly impossible for Kirkland to get his hands on pain killers. Leeona visited his GP with him and he told them never to take painkillers. “The postman knows not to give me any letters or packages,” says Kirkland, “because I’ve been buying them off the internet. Now he knows he won’t give me anything, so he always goes to Leeona. We have put things in place to prevent it from happening again.”
Kirkland works for charity in his local community and is still a regular at Anfield, the ground he first visited as a seven-year-old on the Kop before signing for the club in 2001 on the same day as Jerzy Dudek under Gérard Houllier. . He is wearing a Walk and Talk Charity Hikes T-shirt, a mental health group started by former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Mark Crossley to support related charities, with whom he has completed the Three Peaks and Coast to Coast challenges, climbing Kilimanjaro his first major another. target.
Kirkland is no stranger to testing times. His injury-riddled career began to engulf him in a swirl of emotions in the summer of 2012. Kirkland felt he was flying during pre-season on Wednesday after a difficult final two seasons at Wigan Athletic, where he lost his place , but two. days before the opening game of the Championship campaign he suffered a back injury. “I thought: ‘Fuck, if I don’t play on Saturday I’ll be tortured.’ Everyone will say: ‘He told you so.’ There was a clause in the contract that if I missed three games with a back injury, they could settle the deal. At the beginning of the season it’s Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, so within a week I could be gone. That was playing on my mind, so I grabbed some painkillers, tramadol, [which] it took the pain away and also helped me with the anxiety of traveling away from home, to and from Sheffield.”
He saw out his contract on Wednesday before joining Preston to settle back into a more family-friendly routine where he could spend more time with his daughter, Lucy, now 15. When Preston released him in 2016 he was sure of that. but the following month he signed for Bury. “I should never have signed,” he says. “We stayed in these blocks of flats [in pre-season in Portugal] and I was in a bad way. I didn’t want to be there and I just wanted to get home.” Kirkland then seriously considered killing himself. “I felt withdrawn – and Leeona and Lúsí weren’t there, of course – but I knew they were the ones who said: ‘Look, come home, we can help.’ I called Leeona, I broke down and said: ‘I’m addicted to pain killers, I need help.’”
He quit them – “if you go cold turkey, there are risks” – with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association, but broke down again in 2019. Public sentiment ran high when the lockout entered the following year. He hopes his transparency will prevent others from making similar choices. Kirkland says he has spoken to current players struggling with drug addiction and believes the volatile nature of the game, especially lower down the pyramid where contracts are often associated with looks and short-term deals are common, results in players in tight spots.
Kirkland shakes his head at how skewed his decision-making is. “You’re not supposed to take more than 400mg of tramadols a day and I was on 2,500 mg a day,” he says, almost in disbelief. “In the end they don’t work, they just mess you up, mentally. You kid yourself are thinking: ‘I’ll stop next week, I’ll stop next week.’ I had a couple of really bad episodes where I took 10 or 12 of them, so over 2,000 mg, and I was lying in the house. I had heart palpitations, was in and out of consciousness. That stopped me for a few days because I thought: ‘I’m going to kill myself here.’ But then the addiction kicks in, your body craves it, you have the aches and pains and you know if you take them, they will go away. I didn’t want to talk to people and it made it very difficult for Leeona and Lucy in the house. Without them I wouldn’t be here, simple as that.”
Is his back worse because he has gone off pain medication? “You know what,” he says, “it’s probably better. The painkillers will say: ‘You’re very sore, very sore, take me and you’ll be fine’ and, upstairs, that’s what it does to you. I would love to play golf every day but I can’t, because it would be torture. I can’t do road runs because of the puncture, but I can walk. I can go out on the bike. I can’t lift weights. I know exactly what I can and cannot do.”
It’s still a daily battle but the traffic has eased. Nick Hegley, who was in the youth team at Coventry, and Hegley’s wife, Jess, were very supportive throughout. “When you feel the pain and you’re sweating, you’re cramping and every second you’re thinking ‘a pill would stop this’, knowing you can’t make it even worse. I just had to get through it because I knew I couldn’t take a tablet.
“[Previously] I would be Googling ‘painkillers available’… [they are] all illegal sites, isn’t it? Get it and they would be here within two or three days. They say don’t take tablets off the internet because you don’t know what’s on them and I found out exactly that. God knows what I took but it certainly wasn’t meant to be and we almost killed each other.”
His black labrador, Sam, and Maltese, Ted Kirkland, once described by Sven-Göran Eriksson as England’s future goalkeeper, keep him on his toes. He has little interest in returning to coaching but enjoys watching his team – as a fan. Kirkland makes fun of a working man, a supporter of Manchester United from Wigan, pretending to give him a cup of coffee in a Liverpool mug and after this interview he looks at his phone and tells how Jadon Sancho opened the scoring against a side Jürgen Klopp in Bangkok. Soon after he is taking Lucy to the netball, and after that they will be walking the dogs on Formby beach. “We spoke to Lucy and said: ‘Listen, if you don’t want me to do this [speak out] …and she was saying: ‘No, you have to do this,’ and pushing me even more. She can see that she has her father back now and she wants him to stay that way.”
So how does it feel? “Now? Brilliant. It was very tough … the withdrawals were terrible. For a week I could hardly move; I was sweating, shaking, Leeona had to check I was still breathing properly. It was a terrible time. I still feel like a little fraud at the moment because people don’t know the truth. I don’t think I can stay in recovery – because I will always be an addict, simple as that – unless everything is out there. Now people know.”
He has been breaking the news to friends and colleagues over the past few weeks. How does everyone feel with unfiltered reality? “Relief,” replied the 41-year-old. Leeona, whom he refers to as a saint and an angel, drug tests him every few days. “I’m actually owed one,” he says. “If you’re struggling with any kind of addiction, you can’t do it alone; it is impossible. You will be kidding yourself. Be brave, ask for help and the sooner you get it, the better off you will be.”