Former Premier League star on his road to recovery: 'I've tried to kill myself twice. Cocaine and alcohol controlled every second'
The cafeteria of a remote psychiatric unit in Norway might seem as far removed as you could get from the glamour of the English Premier League but it is not long before a direct connection is very starkly made.
“Every week I played in front of 50,000 people but when my career was over, everyday life became empty,” Claus Lundekvam tells 20 of the centre’s users.
“Nothing could replace the adrenalin kick. The drug and alcohol abuse went very far. I ruined myself and messed up for everyone around me – my wife, daughters, parents.
“I had a heart attack. Took overdoses. Eventually it went so far that I simply gave up. I could not live any more. I thought it was better for my family that I was dead. There has been a journey to hell for me to become drug-free but I am grateful that I’m standing here today. Alive.”
Lundekvam was voted only last month by Southampton fans into their all-time starting XI and, ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, was in the club’s last team to reach the FA Cup final, against Arsenal in 2003.
According to Lasse Hjelle, with whom he now travels around Norway to encourage people with drug and mental health problems to exercise regularly as part of the ground-breaking Psychiatric Alliance project, he also retains “pop star” fame in his homeland. You could certainly hear a pin drop on Tuesday as Lundekvam spoke and, when we later sat down over coffee near the Bergen flat that he shares with his 18-year-old daughter Tia and a border collie called ‘Lucky’, his candour remained startling.
“I’ve been very close – I’ve tried to kill myself twice,” says Lundekvam. “That was the pain I went through. I couldn’t handle the guilt and shame of letting others down. The addiction controlled every waking second. All I could think about was alcohol, cocaine and having enough pills to get through the day.”
After retiring with a testimonial in 2008 following more than a decade and 413 games at the heart of Southampton’s defence, it took less than a year for Lundekvam’s life to disintegrate. “It’s ironic because I had everything – fantastic family, money, cars, boats – but I wasn’t happy,” he says. “I’d lost the dressing-room and had a feeling nobody needed me.
“I said something very stupid. ‘Guys, I am just going to enjoy myself now.’ It was the dumbest thing because what I found on the other side was a big, black hole of emptiness, of sorrow for what used to be.
“I lost control. I woke up in the morning shaking, full of sweat, depressed. I needed a big glass of straight vodka to get me going. I was drinking between one and two bottles a day.
“I discovered cocaine and, for a short while, I thought I had found something that could give me the excitement of performing in front of 50,000 people.
“How wrong I was. With the cocaine, it is very difficult to sleep. To counter that, I needed a lot of sleeping pills and I also took a lot of sedative prescription drugs.”
Lundekvam was living in Southampton with his wife Nina and their two young daughters, Tia and Kaja, but he soon entered a “very dark” place.
“After three or four days awake, your body collapses into a state of psychosis. I became lost in a completely different world. The paranoia and anxiety were killing me. Nothing around you is real any more. You see things, hear things, get scared.
“I ended up in the smallest room in my house crying my eyes out. It was the first time that I had cried in front of my girls. I was a footballer and supposed to be strong. When I eventually broke down, I could not stop. I cried for days.”
Lundekvam was in and out of The Priory and his family returned to Norway. “As crazy as it sounds, I was happy, and agreed because I didn’t want anyone else to suffer. I thought everybody else would do better without me but it gave me the freedom to do whatever I liked. I was a danger to myself and my surroundings.
“I bought a one-way ticket to Rio one night thinking that would be the perfect end. Alcohol, cocaine, women. What better place to end it? This was my destiny. It wouldn’t have taken long.”
He thankfully missed the flight after passing out during another binge.
Following a drink-drive conviction in 2009, he was arrested twice in the space of a month in 2010 before meeting the late Peter Kay and being admitted to the Sporting Chance clinic, of which Kay was co-founder. It had been a relatively short, if chilling, two-year period of his life and this was a turning point.
“I was sick and tired of all these psychiatrists and doctors,” he says. “Peter Kay, rest in peace, saved me. I had never met Peter before but we sat down and cried. Both of us. I could relate that he could feel my pain. That gave me hope and started a road back. I didn’t want to die.
Lundekvam’s detox needed to be carefully phased and, while he might be unusual in speaking so openly about his experiences – “you either tell the whole story or not at all” – part of the motivation is the knowledge that other former players are struggling.
“And I think it will get more common,” he said. “A normal guy who has been in work for a lifetime can feel a loss, maybe depression, when they retire. Footballers live in a privileged bubble and lose that overnight at a young age. You have enough money that you don’t need to work but that’s your downfall. You need to find something that is meaningful, somebody who needs you every day.
“It’s crucial. You can’t go on holiday every week even if you have got the money. I did it. You will get bored s---less. You need to learn life again on a completely different scale of happiness and achievement, with a different sort of perspective, and that takes time.”
Lundekvam had already made a considerable adjustment after growing up in the small Norwegian fishing island of Austevoll before moving to Southampton under Graeme Souness at the age of only 23.
“It was a childhood dream – but tough,” he says. “Souness would join in the five-a-sides as well. We had fights in training every week.”
And would Souness join the fights as well? “He was competitive - put it that way - and still a very good player,” says Lundekvam, smiling.
Given the problems ahead, it is fascinating to hear how team bonding helped underpin Southampton’s on-field Premier League survival. “It’s a crucial balance,” says Lundekvam. “You don’t want to go to the pub four times a week but you can build relationships that make you better. We were loyal and social to each other off the pitch. There was a tendency in my drinking to always be the last one home but it would never interrupt my football.
“I wouldn’t go out in town if we didn’t have a positive result but taking three points after working bloody hard for 90 minutes with your team-mates was a feeling that you can’t describe. I felt belonging. I could never have done individual sports. I was willing to die for Southampton.”
Lundekvam is adamant that he means this absolutely sincerely. He had 18 operations in his career and, having been knocked unconscious several times, has a metal plate in his cheek. He seldom played injury-free.
“I was using quite a lot of painkillers and cortisone in some parts of the body to numb the pain. A normal week was being exposed to opioids and pain-killers. It was to perform in training and to be ready for the game. I didn’t think much of it. I was young, quite naive. For me it turned out badly. I built a tolerance and acceptance for opioids and painkillers.”
And how did his body feel once the cortisone wore off? “Really bad. I can’t feel some of my toes still but I am incredibly lucky. So many of my generation can hardly walk. The physical side is brutal but the mental side can be tougher.
“Performing every week comes with immense pressure. I would often throw up before games and at half-time. It was a combination of nerves and also pushing your body to the limit. There were many away games, sat on the coach, where I was s--- scared.”
There is immense pride, though, at his career, and especially its longevity. The highlight was naturally the 2003 FA Cup final under Gordon Strachan.
“It was something I will never forget for the rest of my life,” says Lundekvam. “For the players, staff and fans it was Christmas and New Year rolled into one. When Gordon came in we hated him. He had us running Monday and Tuesday, every bloody week. He was fair, hard and got us incredibly fit. If you ask most of those players, they would say they were the best years of their career. I am so immensely proud of my time at Southampton.”
Strachan, says Lundekvam, banned alcohol in the players’ lounge and would sometimes suddenly turn up unannounced at Southampton nightspots to ensure their drinking was not out of hand.
Now 45, Lundekvam’s work with the Psychiatric Alliance – the first of its kind in Norway – is helping to provide various sports and physical activity for more than 300 local people with mental health or drug problems. He manages the football team and even turns out as an occasional substitute. He has also been working with the Norwegian equivalent of the PFA to share his experiences and runs a football academy in Bergen where, three times a week, he coaches leading 13 to 17-year-olds.
“I think young players today get it too good too early and can lose their hunger,” he says. “People like Gareth Bale and Adam Lallana were humble. They were always the lads doing a bit extra."
So what is required to follow in the illustrious path of Norway’s leading Premier League appearance-maker?
“Bloody hard work, every fricking day,” he says.
For Lundekvam now, the personal challenge is also constant. His wife and children were waiting for him when he left the Sporting Chance clinic in 2010 and he did return with them to Bergen. He has since relapsed twice “badly”, although not for four years, and he looks physically as fit again now as when he was playing.
“I needed confirmation but there’s nothing special with me when it comes to addiction – it was nothing or everything,” he says. Although separated from Nina, they remain friends and he clearly dotes on his two daughters.
“I have pulled myself away from the limelight to find my true values, not chasing and feeling nothing is good enough. I needed to find the joy of the day to day – helping my girls with homework, driving them to training and find enjoyment through that instead of being controlled by everybody else’s expectations. I have never had a better relationship with my daughters.”
Lundekvam remains acutely aware of his “triggers” and says that the key is to never become over-confident, especially in the face of well-meaning praise for having travelled so far along the path to recovery. “To think I am OK now is dangerous,” he says. “I can never promise anyone that I will never use again but I can do everything in my power not to take that choice. I’m lucky that I have reached a place where I can look at my football career with balance and joy.”
As we left the psychiatric unit, Lundekvam was approached by one of the centre’s users. “Thank you for being so honest – you have given me strength today,” said the man. Lundekvam was visibly moved.
“What we do gives me so much satisfaction,” he says. “It’s obviously a different scale but, for me, having that togetherness, belonging and feeling of something extremely meaningful is actually similar to football. I feel privileged and also very proud of the work we are doing to give encouragement and belief to others. A lot of people have followed my career but I hope they can respect me more for the person I now am than what I have done on a football pitch.”