The Centre-back and the Kitchen Knife
Claus Lundekvam opens up on his battle against the addiction that overwhelmed him after retirement
On the face of it, the former Southampton captain Claus Lundekvam is a typical ex-footballer. Having been forced to retire because of injury in 2008, he lives in a house near the sea in his native Norway with his wife Nina, their two children and a dog named Lucky. He works as a regular pundit for TV2, the largest commercial broadcaster in Norway. All is well with Lundekvam. Except the story is slightly more complicated than that. A few years ago, shortly after his retirement, things went very badly wrong. “I would drink two litres of hard liquor and do between five and ten grams of cocaine every day,” he recalls. “At that point I’d given up. I accepted that as a human being I was finished.” Lundekvam, known to English football fans as a solid if unspectacular defender, became an alcoholic and a drug addict. And now he hopes to serve as a cautionary tale to others.
During the 1990s, Scandinavian players became increasingly popular with English clubs. They had a reputation for being dependable on the pitch and unfussy off it. They adapted well, both to English football and to English culture. Few players personify this stereotype more thoroughly than Lundekvam. Having moved to England in the autumn of 1996 as an unknown, slightly gangly 23-year-old centre-back, he quickly established himself as a regular in Southampton’s defence. Matt Le Tissier described him as being “like Alan Hansen: very comfortable in front of his own goal, less comfortable in front of the opposition’s.” Gordon Strachan, who managed Lundekvam between 2001 and 2004, went even further in deriding the Norwegian’s attacking prowess, suggesting at one point that referees should book Lundekvam for time-wasting when he goes up for corners and that if a corpse were to lie in the penalty area it would get its head to more crosses than Lundekvam did. A career total of three goals at club level would seem to indicate that the Scot had a point. Still, while he was unlikely ever to do anything particularly productive in the opposing box, he was equally unlikely to let you down at the back. And because of that, he ended up making more than 400 appearances for Southampton over the course of 12 seasons, captaining the club for several years and earning himself a testimonial at the end of it all.
“I was extremely determined to perform well,” he explains. Leaning back on a sofa at TV2’s studio complex in Bergen, Lundekvam speaks with a calmness that constantly threatens to slide into detachment. Listening to him, you instantly understand what Strachan meant when he said, “He was carried off at Leicester and someone asked me if he was unconscious. I didn’t have a clue. That’s what he’s always like.” And although his face doesn’t give away much, it’s impossible not to spot the nostalgia tinged with pride when he talks about his career at Southampton. “The thing I’m most proud of is when I signed a new contract,” he says. “Not becoming a professional footballer in the first place, but having proved to myself that I could hold my own in one of the best leagues in Europe, that was the most important thing.” And after settling down on the south coast, signing for anyone other than Southampton was never on the cards. “I loved it there,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about Southampton before I went there, but I grew up by the coast and I loved the sea, so for me it was perfect.”
Playing for Southampton between 1996 and 2008, Lundekvam experienced first-hand the revolution English football went through, both on and off the pitch. “There was an enormous change in every way: the way we trained, how everything was set up, the facilities, how everything was sorted out for us,” he says. Today there are sports scientists, Prozone analysts, nutritionists and experts of every conceivable kind. In 1996, there weren’t. “It was chaotic,” he remembers. “I was brought over by Graeme Souness and he used to join in during training. He thought he still had it as a player and he would join in for five-a-sides and it always ended in a punch-up. Every bloody week.” And after five-a-sides and a punch-up with Souness, it’s perhaps understandable that Lundekvam and his teammates needed a drink. “It was pretty much every day, after training we would meet up at the local pub,” he says. “It was part of the culture, part of being social. I think I benefited from being out with the guys; I was accepted in the group very quickly, quicker than other foreigners. I was part of the gang.” Harry Redknapp once bemoaned the difficulties of integrating foreign players into a squad because “they don’t even drink.” There were no such problems with Lundekvam. “In terms of alcohol, there was a free flow of it,” he says. “But I never felt that the alcohol affected my performances. I knew what I had to do to perform.” The suggestion that he might have played drunk, as Tony Adams famously did, is instantly brushed off. “I don’t really understand how he managed to do that. It shouldn’t be possible. I can admit that I came to training with a hangover some times; maybe I still had alcohol in my blood and I was always dreadful.”
In spite of the odd hangover in training, Lundekvam was enjoying his football. “The first four seasons we didn’t have the best of squads, but we had Le Tissier and we had a fantastic spirit, and that kept us up. There were two or three seasons when we had great escapes. I remember one season we had nine points at Christmas, we were second from bottom and we managed to stay up. It was a fantastic feeling. We then managed to establish ourselves in mid-table for a few seasons and that was a big accomplishment for Southampton as a club. One highlight has to be the FA Cup final against Arsenal; that was a big day. It was incredible. When you’ve been in England for a while and you really get the English footballing culture under your skin, when you see how much it matters to the fans, then you understand what the FA Cup really means. So to get to be a part of that, it was huge.” As a person, Lundekvam seems every bit as steady and unassuming as he was as a player.
As time went by and English football hurtled into the new millennium, there were notable changes — not just on the training ground and in how everything was set up, but in the culture. “Players increasingly became prima donnas,” Lundekvam says. “Especially with the foreigners, less so with the British players as far as I could tell. At least not with the ones who came from the old school, the ones who had been taught that they had to work hard and clean their own boots. I think there’s something to that, but it all started to change. I was basically an adopted Englishman towards the end and I would spend a lot of time with James Beattie and Wayne Bridge and guys like that. We went to London to hang out with the Chelsea players and the Arsenal players and that sort of thing. And you could tell with the foreigners, especially the French guys, that they thought they were bigger and better than everyone else. When you’re a Premier League player now, you live in a kind of bubble where everything is taken care of for you. You hang out with all kinds of celebrities, movie stars and pop stars and whatever, that’s the kind of circles you socialise in as a Premier League player — at least these days it is.”
According to Lundekvam, there is a potential problem with the fact that top footballers have now become almost fully integrated into the celebrity and showbiz-scene. “The drinking culture in football has always been there and will always be there,” he explains. “You have parties when you can, after games and especially after wins, but that’s completely normal and it’ll always be like that — I have no problem with it. But in society today there are so many other drugs that are out there, drugs that are very easily available in that circle of people I was talking about. There is an almost free flow of other drugs, especially cocaine. It’s available to a much greater extent than before.”
For Lundekvam, the problems only really started after he retired. “I was injured for almost a year. I had three operations on my ankle before I realised that it was the end. But I was 35, so I wasn’t bitter about it, really. I’d experienced a lot and I even got a testimonial at the end of it.” But adapting to life outside of football and, more importantly, outside of the spotlight, proved difficult. “I think I was looking for something to replace the adrenaline rush, the buzz you get, that feeling of really being alive. You get used to performing in front of thousands every week and when that’s gone then suddenly there’s a huge mental void which becomes almost impossible to fill. At least for me. I just sat at home or did what I wanted to do, go on holiday, whatever. It became a vicious circle for me where there was more and more alcohol and I started trying this and that, and suddenly you’re in trouble.”
He remembers trying cocaine for the first time. “I was down in Marbella with some friends, that was the first time I tried it. It’s a typical place to go for a party and there’s even more of a drug culture down there. And when you’ve tried it once then you have an experience with it that sticks in your head. You can’t just try it once and think that you can stop it there, because it sticks with you. A lot of people can handle it, but some of us can’t and we develop an addiction.”
Things then went very badly wrong very quickly for Lundekvam but he managed to keep up appearances for a while. He was still living in Southampton with his wife and two children and for a period of time he combined life as a family man with his newly developed addiction to drugs. “I would drink a lot of alcohol and do a lot of cocaine and then I’d take 10-15 sleeping pills in the morning to get right again. I kept doing that for a while. I was smart enough to hide myself, I never showed myself outside when I knew I was on a lot of drugs, but both my family and those closest to me could obviously tell.” This went on for about six months before his wife took the children and moved back to Norway. “I lived by myself for four months; my partner decided our kids couldn’t live with a father who was doing the kind of things I was doing. And at that point I had given up. I accepted that as a human being I was finished. I accepted and acknowledged that I was going to drink and do drugs until it killed me.”
His family, his determination not to let his two young daughters see him on drugs, had been the only thing holding him back. With them gone, things really got out of hand. “I just sat at home, because I had contacts and I had the finances to get whatever I wanted, I just had everything delivered to me.” Constantly high, drunk or both, Lundekvam took to roaming around in his garden with a huge knife, hunting paparazzi. “With the combination of alcohol and cocaine, you get an angst and a paranoia that’s like nothing else and you think the whole world is watching you. So I unscrewed all the light bulbs in my house and I climbed the trees in the garden and crawled around out there.” The light bulbs he unscrewed because he thought they were cameras. One night he spent several hours hiding in a cupboard. “I threatened everyone who came near me, the police, the ambulance people, I threatened them with a huge kitchen knife.” At one point Lundekvam was successfully hospitalised, almost had a heart attack at the hospital, slept for twelve hours and went straight back out to have a drink again. “I’ve always been like that, if I do something I do it 100%,” he explains. Unfortunately this also extended to substance abuse. He was arrested twice, first on 26 March 2010 (“on suspicion of being in possession of a controlled drug” according to a spokesman for Hampshire Police) and then on 16 April (“charged with section 39 common assault”), and he was hospitalised twice. Lundekvam eventually decided to end it all. He bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro.
“I still have the ticket, just to remind me,” he says. “That was the plan and it was going to be the end. I contacted the guy I used to organise my travels, told him I wanted a one-way ticket to Rio. I paid for it and everything, but I never made it to the airport. I guess they wouldn’t have let me on board anyway, but that was the plan. Because I knew that in Rio I would find the things I wanted, a free flow of cocaine and lots of gorgeous women. That would have been fine by me. It wouldn’t have taken long.” He had booked his flight during a drug-induced fit of despair in the middle of the night. By morning he was unconscious, which probably saved his life.
Lundekvam isn’t entirely sure how and why things turned. “It just happened one night, I think, when my head and soul gave in completely,” he says. “Something told me that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was just so tired, I was so completely empty. I just couldn’t take any more of it. And that made me very humble and I became incredibly sad. So I held my hands up and I asked for help. Thankfully I ended up getting the help I needed, because a lot of people tried, I went to the best psychologists, but none of them could help me.”
On 17 May 2010 — incidentally Norway’s national day— Lundekvam checked into the Sporting Chance Clinic. “I needed help from people who had been in the same situation themselves,” he says. “They know what it’s like. It’s like they speak the same language as you. That’s the difference. And of course they’re very good therapists, in terms of knowing what’s going on inside your head as an addict. So through them I got my life back.” While still at the clinic, Lundekvam admitted to his problems in an interview on Norwegian television. He emphasised that the thing that haunted him the most was what he’d put his family through. When he left the clinic they were there waiting for him. His wife briefly moved back to England with the children but Lundekvam didn’t want to stay there. “At that point I had so many terrible memories from the last two years in Southampton that I felt I needed a fresh start. So it was either moving to Spain or moving back to Norway. And there were people here in Norway who wanted me to come here, they told TV2 and suggested I could use my experience from playing in England as a pundit and that sounded interesting to me.” Now, two years later, Lundekvam is a highly regarded pundit on TV2’s Premier League broadcasts.
When Lundekvam retired from football, he had nothing in particular to do with his time, he had a huge adrenaline rush to replace, he had a lot of money, he was part of a social scene where drugs were rife and for years he had been part of a culture where you pretty much had a drink whenever you could. It’s really not all that hard to understand why things turned out the way they did. What is more ominous is the fact that this is the case for a large number of newly retired footballers, every year. “I’m totally convinced that there is a large number of unrecorded cases of this problem — in fact, I know there is,” Lundekvam warns. “When you retire, it’s a trap that’s easy to fall into, because you still want to live up to your reputation as a professional footballer, with the image that goes with it, and that means a lot of drinking and a lot of other things. Retired footballers are a group of people who are especially at risk, I’m convinced of that. Because there’s a transition there that’s mentally incredibly tough, it’s very hard to handle. From being a star and living that kind of lifestyle and then suddenly it’s gone.”
The issue isn’t helped by the hype that surrounds modern football. “It’s gone completely beyond the pale, both the financial aspect and in terms of your status — you get everything handed to you on a plate and that does something to you. But when those days are over, there’s nothing that’s more quickly forgotten than an ex-footballer. So then you’re faced with an extremely tough battle. The only advice I can give is that you should get involved with something right away, something that gets you out of bed in the morning.”
Following the deaths of Robert Enke and Gary Speed, it should be obvious that footballers are far from the invulnerable demigods they are often treated as and expected to be. “It’s incredibly sad, but it’s part of reality. And I can see that very clearly because I’ve been there myself,” Lundekvam says. Still, depression and substance abuse remain issues that footballers, past or present, are reluctant to admit to or seek help for. “Especially here in Norway it’s a taboo subject and we’re very naive in thinking those problems don’t exist here. So hopefully I can contribute to changing that by going public with my problems. It’s such a big part of society, not just for footballers but for people in every walk of life, that if we have problems with alcohol and other things then we hide it. But of course that makes it very difficult to help anyone.”
Lundekvam got the help he needed in time and is now living a more or less normal life. “It’s a normal family life now. I feel very privileged, but at the same time life is challenging. Everyday life isn’t always easy. You have to learn things all over again, as a sober person. It’s an illness that you’ll carry for the rest of your life, so you always have to be careful. But as long as I stay sober, I think things will fall into place.”
“Isn’t it terrible to know that you can’t ever go for a pint again?” a co-worker recently asked Lundekvam. He thought for a minute before answering. “Yes, but thinking about what will happen if I do is worse.”
This article appeared on Episode Seventy of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.