“I used to think, ‘How can you do that to your family? How can you leave them?’ After what I have gone through, I can see how it leads to that road and it is scary.”
Chris Kirkland realised the ambitions of thousands of youngsters by playing in the Premier League and representing his country.
But, after leaving Wigan Athletic in 2012, the former Coventry City and Liverpool goalkeeper started to struggle with crippling anxiety.
Five years after his battle with depression began, Kirkland, now 36, tells BBC Sport how it affected him and his family.
‘They lost their husband and dad’
Kirkland spent 17 seasons playing professional football, before announcing he was taking time away from the game in August 2016, shortly after joining Bury.
The 6ft 6in goalkeeper is a husband to wife Leeona and father to daughter Lucy.
It had gone too far. The four years, looking back now, I can’t really remember a lot about it. It was just… I wasn’t there for Lucy or Leeona.
They lost their husband and their dad for four years, which hurts now, really hurts now. That’s why I knew I had to do something because I didn’t want my daughter growing up without a dad.
Me and Leeona have been together for 18 years, she is a wonderful wife and mother. She is the perfect role model and luckily our daughter has taken after her mum. She is great. I knew I had to do something. The way I was going, I was worried where it was going to lead to.
My wife was a rock. Until a couple of years ago, she didn’t really know the extent of it. I was ashamed, not so much ashamed, but your mind takes over yourself. You are not thinking rationally. You are not really thinking. You are just in a dark cloud. Everything just goes by you. You are dismissive of everything. You don’t want to go out. You try to stay in.
I even stopped walking the dog, which I have always done. I just felt as though everyone was looking at me when I was out. I just wanted to stay in the house, lock the door, shut the gate and not let anyone in.
I put my phone on silent. I didn’t call people back. I didn’t reply to texts. Normal life just wasn’t there anymore for me. I was in this different place and it is not a nice place to be.
‘A vicious circle’
Kirkland, who won his sole England cap in 2006, started his career at Coventry City, before earning a move to Liverpool and then Wigan Athletic, where he played more than 100 times for the Latics.
In 2012, however, the goalkeeper signed for Championship side Sheffield Wednesday. It was after that move Kirkland says his anxiety began to take hold.
I never wanted to leave Wigan. I loved it there, loved the club. It is local to me as well. I started to struggle with anxiety when I was travelling over to Sheffield Wednesday. I have always been a home person. My family lived in Leicester, Leeona’s family lived in Scotland. We have always been together.
When I was away from the house I started to panic and started to struggle. Andy Rhodes, the goalkeeping coach at Sheffield Wednesday, if it wasn’t for him I would have walked a long time ago. I was playing, which made it a little bit easier because for 90 minutes I managed to put it to one side.
Looking back now, it was hard to do it, but you just do. You get through it. I really started struggling during those three years. In the end, I had to leave. I was going to sign again. I was going to sign for another year. They wanted me to stay. I was in my training kit. I was in the gym. I was ready to go upstairs and start the first day of pre-season and just thought ‘I can’t do it any more’.
I didn’t tell them. I just told them I needed to be closer to home. I think Andy Rhodes knew, but the club were just a little bit unsure. They told me to take my time and to give it a couple of weeks. I just knew it was the right thing to do. I just wanted to get home at that point. I just wanted to be in the house and shut the door.
That is unfortunately the way it went. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to shut myself off. My head was just… I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t wait to get to sleep at night to have a little bit of clear mind. But when I woke up in the morning, it all started again. It was just a vicious circle.
‘It all escalated – you are not thinking rationally’
The night before I started thinking ‘I have to be up at this time, I have to travel over, what if there is traffic, what if this and that, what if something comes up after training and we all have to go somewhere and I can’t get home. If I leave after a certain time I will hit the traffic and it could take me how long to get home’.
Then obviously staying over before matches, which I tried to limit as much as I could. But getting home on Fridays, everyone knows the traffic on Fridays is a nightmare. It all escalated. But you are not thinking straight. You are not being rational. Everything is blown up. It sounds silly but everything is blown up out of proportion because you are not thinking rationally.
You just start overthinking everything. Worrying about everything – ‘when am I going to get a day off so I can get home’. Sheffield Wednesday were unbelievable. They came up with a routine. Without Andy Rhodes I would have walked – I did initially.
I signed at the back end of the 2012 season, so I had all June before pre-season. I went back pre-season and I was going to walk. I rang Andy and said I had to sort one or two things out at home. I told them I had a family issue. But then I went back and they bent over backwards for me. I am glad they did because I had a fantastic three years there, playing wise, apart from what was going on off the pitch.
‘How far was I from where Gary Speed was?’
In November 2011, shortly before Kirkland started his own battle with depression, former Wales midfielder Gary Speed was found dead at his home at the age of 42.
The way I was, I was in a bad, bad place. I started thinking how far was I from where Gary Speed was? How was he feeling?
I never attempted anything, it never got to that. The most I can say is it probably got to the point where I couldn’t wait to get to sleep and I didn’t want to wake up in the morning because it all started again.
But I don’t think that means I wanted to do anything. It just means when I was asleep that was the only time… Getting to sleep was a problem but when I got to sleep you are dozing away. But waking up was not good.
So when did Kirkland begin to realise he had to do something about his anxiety?
It was when we lost a dear friend of the family, Callum. We had been on holiday with them before. We went to America. It was about 2012. The families were close knit.
He had a blood clot on his leg and it all progressed from there. We lost him. I was driving up to York to say a final goodbye and he died when I was on the way up. I never got chance to say goodbye to him, which was hard.
I didn’t realise just how good a friend he was until he was gone. But it was too late. Seeing the way his family struggled with losing him made me wake up and realise that I didn’t want my daughter and my wife to have to go through that.
‘I rang one night crying my eyes out on the bed’
After a spell at Preston, Kirkland joined Bury in June 2016 on a one-year contract. Things came to a head when the club were away in Portugal for pre-season.
I just had to get home. My wife had a hospital appointment. It was nothing serious, I didn’t need to be there, but we used it as an excuse to get me home. I just rang one night crying my eyes out on the bed where we were staying saying ‘I need to get home’.
The manager Dave Flitcroft and Bury were brilliant. The club were fantastic. They gave me a couple of weeks. I wanted to give it a go so I went back. After the third day, I have said it, we were in a little five-a-side and I just wasn’t there. I wasn’t bothered.
I didn’t even try, I was that low. I went in and said I need a break, I need to get away. I need help.
‘I can see light now’
That is when I met Simon Barker at the PFA and he put me in touch with Micky Bennett, the PFA’s head of player welfare, and it all started from there. Now things are good. It is still an ongoing process but I can see light now.
You have got to speak, you have got to talk. Whether it is to the PFA or someone at your club. We are here to try and get more people into clubs to help players. But you have to talk. There are a lot of players, that is why we are doing it.
I am sure there is a lot we don’t know about as well. It is not just sportspeople, it is people in general. You have got to talk because we have seen what can happen unfortunately, with people taking their own lives. I have seen how it leads to that.
Before, 10 or 15 years ago, I used to think ‘how can you do that to your family? How can you leave them?’ After what I have gone through, I can see how it leads to that road and it is scary.
‘Once I started talking things seemed a lot clearer’
It’s ok to talk, don’t be ashamed, don’t be embarrassed. You’ll always get some people who mock you but those people are cowards and should be ashamed of themselves. Make sure you talk. Once I started talking things seemed a lot clearer and there are people there who will help you.
I think football realised they have a massive problem on their hands. Enough wasn’t being done before, no. The PFA have admitted that. But now they are putting measures in place to make sure the help is there for players. They know they have a big, big problem in the game and they’re doing their best now to sort it out.
Having seen the positive reaction Kirkland has had to his own story, does he wish he had spoken out sooner?
But you are not thinking straight, your mind is not your own. It needed that something to click in. But until it does click in, you are not functioning right at all. You are not living.