Player to Player with Chris Kirkland

The ‘Save’ of His Life: Kirkland’s Journey To The Edge – And Back.

Everyone knew he was a world-class goalkeeper, and most people knew he’d suffered a succession of career-hampering injuries; but for a long time, not even Chris Kirkland’s close friends and family knew of the severe depression he was battling on a daily basis. 

In this special episode of Player to Player, Stevie sits down with his former Wigan teammate to discover how events conspired to leave Kirkland contemplating suicide on a preseason rooftop, only for him to seek out help and bravely fight back from the brink. 

At only 20 years old, Kirkland had a £6 million contract with Liverpool, and the full support of  world-class manager, Gerard Houllier. But after overcoming a nasty hand injury that kept him out for 5 months, Kirkland was unable to overcome the challenge posed by new manager Rafa Benitez:

‘When Rafa Benitez became Liverpool manager he brought in a Spanish goalkeeping coach and it just wasn’t for me – it just wasn’t working. Rafa took me for a session once and said ‘right, stand five yards away from me’ and he started throwing the ball to me. I caught the first one and he said ‘no, no, no, I just want you to punch it back to me’ and he literally had me jabbing the ball back. I was thinking – what’s this about? Then he put some crosses in and I came and took the first one – I always prided myself on coming and taking crosses – so I came and took the first one about ten feet in the air – and Rafa went ‘no, no, no, I don’t want you catching the ball anymore, I want you to punch everything that comes your way’ and from that moment I just thought – this is not going to end well and I knew I had to leave ‘

A promising start on out loan at West Brom was again cut short by injury – this time a lacerated kidney – and after finding his feet at Wigan, Kirkland’s hopes were again dashed when he fell out of favour with Roberto Martinez:

‘The two years there were tough. If it wasn’t for the lads in the dressing room it would have been a lot harder, but that kept me going. Roberto said to me that I’d always be at Wigan – as long as I wanted to be – but in football it sometimes doesn’t work out that way. [Later] he told me that I could go and he didn’t want me, which was hard – really hard. And that’s when my problems started.’

Leaving Wigan, Kirklan signed for Sheffield Wednesday and the lengthy travel involved suddenly found him out of his routine and increasingly isolated:

‘I started shutting myself away a bit. I’d get home, shut the gate, shut the door, turn my phone off – I didn’t want to talk to anyone. And it just slowly crept in over the three years I was there.’

Hoping that being closer to home would help him ‘reverse the cycle’ Kirkland teamed up with nearby Bury FC – but he discovered it was already too late and that his mental health was quickly deteriorating:

‘I signed for Bury and I knew I shouldn’t have done it – I just had no interest in football anymore – my mental health was at rock bottom and I went away on preseason to Portugal. I didn’t want to go, I was petrified about leaving home. I was standing on the top roof of the apartment we were staying in – I was standing on the edge and I was going to jump.’

‘You’re in such a dark place. It’s like I was in a steel box – I could see what was happening, I could see what I was doing or not doing, but I couldn’t get out – I couldn’t get out to break the cycle.’ 

‘I was at that point where I’m going to jump off the roof or get help. I spoke to my wife and she said you have to come home right away – and the next day I went to get help from the PFA and that’s when, slowly, it started to get better.’

Having made it back from the brink Kirkland is now passionate about raising awareness and helping others who are suffering with their mental health:

‘They say 1 in 4 people suffer from depression but it’s not – it’s more like three in four. Particularly now as well – I think it’s only really in the last 18 months that people have started to open up and talk about it. You turn the TV or radio on most days now and they’re all promoting mental health which is amazing. And it’s what we need particularly during this time as well – it’s going to be a testing time for people that are going to be losing their jobs and all sorts with what’s going on – so the more that people can get out there and try and help people with their mental health the better.’

Edwin Tubb