VSChris Kirkland does not hesitate in pinpointing the moment when he knew things had to change. He was in February this year when, struggling with a secret addiction to painkillers that had previously made him consider taking his own life, he found himself lost in Liverpool, the city where he once became English football’s most expensive goalkeeper. “I took them and,” he says, puffing his cheeks, “I thought I was going to die. I just didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t remember where home was. I only got home because I put ‘home’ into the sat-nav, and it was already preset, otherwise I don’t know where I would’ve ended up. I got home … then I was violently sick. I slept for about 18 hours. I woke up, got the tablets out of the car and flushed them straight down the toilet.”
It has been a difficult path to this point but Kirkland, at ease 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 tablets took hold after his mental health nosedived and depression kicked in. Over an hour of raw conversation Kirkland tells tales of lies and deceit, how developing sneaky clothes – hiding supplies in his car or sock drawer – helped conceal his addiction. “I’d ring the doctors: ‘I’ve lost them, I need some more,’” he says. “I’d get them off the internet, any way I could. There were times I was meant to be at places and I’d not be in the right frame of mind or taken too many tablets and I’d have to ring and say ‘I’ve had a puncture’ or other excuses and not turn 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 rehabilitation clinic near Colwyn Bay, north Wales, three years ago and thinking: “I’m not that bad, what am I doing here?” When things spiralled earlier this year, Cheryl, the centre’s manager of whom he talks so fondly, was his first port of call and they continue to check in with each other a couple of times a week. This time Kirkland recognized the importance of putting a more watertight structure around him at home. “That’s what they advised when I went down there [to rehab] the first time and I was like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’, but I never did.”
His wife, Leeona, has been a ceaseless support and administers home drug tests through the week, their very presence providing a deterrent. In reality, though, it is now almost impossible for Kirkland to get his hands on painkillers. Leeona visited his GP with him and told them never to prescribe painkillers. “The postman knows not to give me any letters or parcels,” Kirkland says, “because I was buying them off the internet. Now he knows never to give me anything, so it always goes to Leeona. We’ve put things in place to hopefully prevent it from happening again.”
Kirkland works for a charity in his local community and remains a visitor to Anfield, the ground he first went to 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 Walking and Talking Charity Hikes T-shirt, a mental health group started by the 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 their next major goal.
Kirkland is no stranger to testing times. His burgeoning career was stalked by injury and a swirl of emotions began to swallow him in the summer of 2012. Kirkland felt he was flying during pre-season at Wednesday after two difficult final seasons at Wigan Athletic, where he lost his place, but two days before the opening game of the Championship campaign he sustained a back injury. “I thought: ‘Fuck, if I don’t play on Saturday I’m going to get crucified.’ Everyone’s going to say: ‘Told you so.’ In the contract there was a clause that if I missed three games with a back injury, they could rip the deal up. At the start of the season there is that Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, so within a week I could be gone. That was playing on my mind, so I got hold of some painkillers, tramadol, [which] 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 at Wednesday before joining Preston to get back into a more family-friendly routine whereby he could spend more time with his daughter, Lucy, who is now 15. When he was released by Preston in 2016 he was adamant that was it but the following month he signed for Bury. “I should never have signed,” he says. “We stayed in these apartment blocks [in pre-season in Portugal] and I was in a bad way. I didn’t want to be there and I just wanted to come home.” Kirkland gave serious thought there to killing himself. “I felt a pull back – and Leeona and Lucy were not there, obviously – but I knew it was them saying: ‘Look, get home, we can help.’ I rang Leeona, broke down and said: ‘I’m addicted to painkillers, I need help.’”
He weaned himself off them – “if you go cold turkey, there are risks” – with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association, but broke down again in 2019. Familiar feelings festered when lockdown hit 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 appearance-related and short-term deals commonplace, leads players into tight spots.
Kirkland shakes his head at how his decision-making became skewed. “You’re not meant to take any more than 400mg a day of tramadols and I was on 2,500mg a day,” he says, almost in disbelief. “In the end they don’t work, they just mess you up, mentally. You kid yourself thinking: ‘I’ll stop next week, I’ll stop next week.’ I had a couple of really bad incidents where I took 10 or 12 of them, so over 2,000mg, and I was hallucinating in the house. I had heart palpitations, was in and out of consciousness. That made me stop 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 get the aches and pains and you know that if you take them, they’ll go away. I didn’t want to speak 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 steered clear of medication to ease the pain? “Do you know what,” he says, “it’s probably better. The painkillers will say: ‘You’re really sore, really sore, take me and you’ll be fine’ and, upstairs, that is what it does to you. I would love to play golf every day but I can’t, because it would be agony. I can’t do road runs because of the pounding, but I can walk. I can go out on the bike. I can’t lift weights. I know exactly what I can and can’t do.”
It is still a daily battle but the traffic in his head has eased. Nick Hegley, who was in his youth team at Coventry, and Hegley’s wife, Jess, have been an immense support 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 have that makes it even worse. I just had to get through it because I knew I couldn’t take a tablet.
“[Previously] I’d be Googling ‘painkillers available’… [they are] all illegal sites, aren’t they? Getting them and they’d be here within two or three days. They say don’t get tablets off the internet because you never know what’s in them and I found that out first-hand. God knows what was in the ones that I took but it certainly wasn’t what it was meant to be and it nearly flipping killed us.”
His black labrador, Sam, and Maltese, Ted keep Kirkland, once described by Sven-Göran Eriksson as the future of English goalkeeping, on his toes. He has little interest in returning to coaching but enjoys watching his team – as a fan. Kirkland jokes with a workman, a Manchester United supporter from Wigan, pretending to hand him a cup of coffee in a Liverpool mug and after this interview he glances at his phone and tells how Jadon Sancho has opened the scoring against Jürgen Klopp’s side in Bangkok. Soon after he is taking Lucy to netball, after which they will walk 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 need to do this,’ and pushing me even more. She can see she’s got her dad back now and wants it to stay like that.”
So, how does he feel? “Now? Brilliant. It was really tough … the withdrawals were horrendous. For a week I could hardly move; I was sweating, shaking, Leeona was having to check I was still breathing properly. It was a terrible time. I still feel as though I’m a little bit of a fraud at the minute because people don’t know the real truth. I don’t think I can stay in recovery – because I’ll always be an addict, simple as that – unless everything is out there. Now people know.”
He has drip-fed the news to friends and colleagues over the past few weeks. How does everyone know the unfiltered reality make him feel? “Relieved,” the 41-year-old replies. Leeona, who he refers to as a saint and an angel, drug tests him every couple of days. “I’m due one, actually,” he says. “If you are struggling with any kind of addiction, you can’t do it yourself; it’s impossible. You’ll be kidding yourself. Be brave, ask for help and the quicker you get it, the better you’ll be.”