Lundekvam played for Southampton between 1996 and 2007
“I needed a lot of help. It was a process for me to adjust to another life, because all I knew was football, and performing, and being on that stage. The fall is quite high.”
Lundekvam was 35 and a model professional who had served Southampton with distinction throughout his long spell at the club. He made more than 400 appearances after arriving from SK Bergen in 1996 and was embraced by supporters as one of their own. Obsessed with English football from a young age, that was all he ever wanted.
“It was a childhood dream that came true. I never really thought I could survive in that league for as many years as I did,” says the Norwegian defender, who also won 40 caps for his country.
“Over 12 years professionally at that level for Southampton, and to round off my career with a testimonial, being a foreign player and club captain for many years, was something very special.”
More than 18,000 supporters were at St Mary’s to watch that testimonial, as Southampton took on Celtic in July 2008. Still struggling with injury, Lundekvam was only able to play the last few minutes but he entered and left the pitch to rapturous applause.
It signalled the end of his Saints career, and the start of a more troubled time.
Within a year of that match, Lundekvam was totally lost in a haze of drink and drugs. The structure and routine of professional football had suddenly disappeared. The familiar cycle that he had known for so long – train, travel, play, recover – was left behind.
Days on the south coast stretched out in front of him with nothing to fill them. Suffering from a complete lack of purpose and motivation, he turned to alcohol and then cocaine in search of an answer that never arrived.
“I obviously took a few wrong turns and wrong decisions after my career,” he says. “I think, looking back, I would strongly advise players to find something meaningful to get you up in the morning. Find something, work-wise, that you enjoy.
“For me, at the time, I had everything. I had a lot of money, a wonderful family, a great house. I had a house in Norway. Boats, cars, everything. But I was depressed and I felt lonely. I felt that nobody needed me any more.
“That was the loss of the dressing room. The loss of performing every week with your team-mates. That was taken away from me and I found that very difficult.”
Many footballers are plagued by a similar loss of identity once they retire. Up until then, their lives have been centred around playing to the best of their ability, maximising their chances of success in such a fiercely competitive industry. For the best, fame and money follow. Who are they when all that stops?
For those who reach the top, like Lundekvam, the contrast is heightened. No longer playing in the Premier League – one of the biggest and most popular sporting competitions in the world, where even middling players are made to feel like stars – the return to normality feels especially stark.
“I think you are so dedicated to performing, being the best version of yourself every single day of the week, and running out to thousands of fans. You’re never going to replace that adrenaline kick with anything,” he says.
Lundekvam joined Southampton for £350,000 from SK Brann in his native Norway
Throughout his career, Lundekvam was a player and a person who could be relied upon. He was solid and consistent. His behaviour after retirement was anything but. He became paranoid and erratic as his grip on reality loosened. There were arrests and hospitalisations.
“I told myself that I would take a couple of years just to enjoy myself and that I could let my guard down,” he says. “I didn’t have to perform every day and every weekend any more. I was getting involved in a lot of charity work but every event I went to, and was supporting, there was a lot of drinking and partying involved.
“I lost control, basically. I also had quite a strong depression. I found myself quite hopeless after quite a while. Turning to drinking and drugs was sort of an escape at the time. But when I was hooked on the drink and cocaine and pills, and everything I was using, I was lost.”
The life that Lundekvam had built started falling apart. “I needed to drink and to use drugs every single day. My wife at the time, and my two girls, moved back to Norway,” he says.
“My then-wife expressed that she would never see me again because she thought I would drink myself to death. I bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro. Luckily, I never boarded that plane, but that would have been the end of me.
“I actually tried to take my own life twice. I was so far down that I had nothing to give any more. I was so lost, and I couldn’t see a way out of it, so I just wanted to drink myself to death and disappear, because it was so difficult. The guilt and the shame, and everything around it, was also a big factor in me digging a hole for myself.”
It took a long time for Lundekvam to acknowledge the extent of his problems and his need for help. He found it at the Sporting Chance clinic,external-link
set up by Peter Kay and former Arsenal captain Tony Adams.
“Being the Southampton captain and a player that was looked up to for so many years, I had to break down my ego a little bit to surrender, and hold my hands up, and tell everyone around me that I needed help,” admits Lundekvam.
That was the start of a long process of recovery, which was far from straightforward. There have been setbacks and relapses along the way, but Lundekvam has learned from them. He acknowledges the importance of remaining vigilant and not slipping back into the same damaging habits and thought patterns.
“It’s been up and down. It’s been a struggle. I’ve had a relapse twice. It’s quite a few years ago now, but obviously I think of them as something necessary to really accept that I am an addict. I will always be an addict, but I’ve had many, many years without using anything,” he says.
“I’ve got the experience of having a good life without any drugs and substances so that’s something I’m really proud of and I’m lucky to be in this situation I am today, even though those years were incredibly tough.”
Although Lundekvam and his wife divorced in 2014, they remain on good terms, while his relationship with his daughters has never been better. Working for the Psychiatry Alliance in Bergen has given him much-needed focus and a means to help others by sharing his experiences.
“We are quite unique in the way we are set up because we try to get people out of isolation and loneliness and give them an opportunity to come to us through training and physical activity,” he explains. “We also have a big focus on togetherness and having a feeling of meaning in their lives.
“It was a bit of a coincidence that I got into this. I was giving an after-dinner speech about mental health to this company, and I learned about how they were working, and I just fell in love with the concept. From that day I’ve been working full-time with the Psychiatry Alliance to grow it and develop it in the best way we can, so that’s something I’m very, very proud about.”
Lundekvam stayed with Southampton after they were relegated from the Premier League in 2005 and played two more seasons with the club in the Championship
During Lundekvam’s playing days, issues of mental illness and addiction were rarely spoken about. But attitudes are changing, and many people are now much more willing to discuss the difficulties they face and seek support in tackling them.
Statistics published last year showed the number of current and former players asking the Professional Footballers’ Association for help with mental health issues nearly trebled between 2016 and 2018.
Positive steps have been taken but Lundekvam believes more needs to be done. “There’s more openness around mental health issues and drug issues today than there was when I was playing. There are more players and more people coming forward with their stories. But I think we’ve got a long way to go,” says the 47-year-old.
“We’re working with the stigmatising part of mental health issues and drug issues every day, and if we can talk about it openly and honestly in day-to-day life it’s a lot easier to help. There’s so much stigma and taboo around addiction, drug issues and mental health issues, but more and more clubs are taking this seriously, which is really great to see.”
Lundekvam has been in contact with Southampton about his work. As a club legend, he’s keen to help out in whatever way he can and steer other players away from the pitfalls he succumbed to in retirement.
He says: “I’ve been in contact with some of my friends over there in the club and it would be a dream come true if I could one day maybe help them with that part of the game because we all have our mental health that we need to look after. Everyone will go through a difficult patch in life.”
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.
Lundekvam played for Southampton between 1996 and 2007