When Claus Lundekvam arrived in the city of Southampton at the age of 23 he couldn’t have imagined that 12 years later the St Mary’s faithful would gather as one to celebrate his achievements as Saints captain and cult hero.

Lundekvam also wouldn’t have imagined that just months after that memorable testimonial, he would be planning his own death as addiction to drugs and alcohol took complete control of his life.

“From my testimonial game, standing there that night it was a really emotional game and a really emotional evening,” Lundekvam explains to the Daily Echo from his home in Gran Canaria. 

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“To come back for the last time and say thank you to all the fans for the support they’d given me for so many years…it was really important for me to do that. Standing there that night being extremely proud of what I’d achieved, my whole family and thousands of Norwegians were there, great support. 

“But looking back today, it took less than a year after that game to find myself in a situation of waking up every morning shivering like a leaf, sweating, and needing half a pint of straight vodka just to function. 

“That’s where I found myself inside a year. The addiction is so extremely powerful, it took everything away from me. It controlled my life completely, 100%. It happened really really quickly. I made some bad decisions, I took some bad turns after the ending of my career. To come out of it I needed to learn so much about myself and the addiction side of things. It was a long process, it’s taken years to find myself again.”

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To really understand Lundekvam and the immeasurable pain and strength that has brought him to where - and who - he is today, his life needs to be split into two distinct journeys: the one that encompassed the entirety of his upbringing, leading him to professional football and Saints. And the other - which saw everything collapse around him before being rebuilt.

The first starts with a catalogue of very real and very concrete achievements. Lundekvam has no trouble reeling them off one after the other.

“Reflecting on my football career, there’s a lot of proudness and extreme happy moments of my life. Being my able to live out my boyhood dream of being a professional football player and play in the best league in the world, as I regard the Premier League, for so many years, is quite an achievement. 

“I was captain of the club, being Norwegian, a foreigner in English football, that’s something I’m very proud of. I’m one of two Norwegians that was given a testimonial game - only me and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian with the most Premier League games and most games in English football - ever. So there’s so many fantastic memories of my football career that I’m very very proud of the legacy of what I managed to achieve as a footballer.”

Fiercely devoted, there’s a reason Lundekvam achieved so much in such a competitive field. For more than a decade, he was ever-present in the Southampton team, making more than 30 appearances in nine separate seasons. The traits that led Lundekvam to England in the first place - belief, talent, and determination bordering on obsession - allowed for such a legacy to be forged.

“Being in the game as long as I managed, you need to be extremely determined and also have a bit of luck. I’ve had 16 operations and 15 of them were under the knife after footballing injuries. The toughness of being a professional footballer is something. But today I’m very lucky that I have a body I can live with day to day and still play a bit of football and enjoy life.”

The other side of Lundekvam’s life, the one that very nearly took his life, is a much longer story and far more complex web to deconstruct - but those central tenants of obsession remained. At one point, Lundekvam describes his transition from professional footballer to professional addict, the mentality staying scarily similar, just the purpose and meaning leaving.

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“What hit me after I retired, I could never have seen coming. I would describe it as going into a black hole of existence, not being able to recognise myself. 

“Losing this day to day coming in to meet your friends and perform together…One thing is the adrenaline kick of performing in front of so many people every week, that’s something you can’t replace with anything. I thought I found it for a while with drugs but that nearly killed me. 

“I had to retire due to a bad ankle injury and I thought I was pretty well prepared for hanging up the boots and going into a life without football. But I wasn’t. It was very very difficult to adapt to another life without football. I was involved with the club for quite a while after I retired because I was club captain, I loved the club, and I was involved with a lot of charities and stuff with the club. 

“But then I let myself go when it comes to drinking, when it comes to partying, I lost control. All this was because I was really depressed. I was incredibly depressed of where I found myself after losing the meaning in life, the day-to-day meaningness and purpose of life, what I had, was lost and I felt like nobody needed me anymore.”

A life of football - and one grounded by Southampton Football Club - was all Lundekvam really knew. For as long as he can remember, that was the dream. As a teenager he joined local Norwegian side Brann before moving to the South Coast in 1996.

By his enforced retirement in 2008 at the age of 35, those dreams had been achieved in a remarkable fashion. But despite all that success, a gaping hole was left inside the fearsome central defender.

“It’s quite ironic because I had everything really,” Lundekvam says of his addiction. 

“I had a lot of money, I had three cars, I had a sailboat in Norway, a racing boat in Miami, I had everything. A wonderful family, two wonderful little girls. But I was just sad. I was really depressed and I couldn’t get out of it. 

“I made some really bad choices at the time, telling myself that I could just enjoy life now. But I then realised I was all alone. That sort of depression, it creeped in and just got worse and worse. I drank more, partied more, and started experimenting with a lot of prescription drugs. And then I found cocaine. I thought wow, this is something that gives me a great boost and a great sense of euphoria. But how bloody wrong I was. I quickly found it that this would kill me and it nearly did. 

“I had a heart attack, my heart stopped with an overdose of prescription drugs, alcohol, and the whole combination of the shit I was taking. I was getting more and more paranoid. I found myself after quite a short time after I retired in quite a hopeless situation. And for me, because I was the person I have always been - extremely determined - I took my professional attitude into professional addiction. And quite quickly it was a matter of life and death.”

Football isn’t life or death but the importance of the thing Lundekvam devoted his life to isn’t lost on him. While playing the game was important, it was not playing it that really destroyed Lundekvam. For so many - players and fans - the routine of weekly football is what takes us from one week to the next.

Without it, darkness can seep in and the darkness quickly took over Lundekvam’s life until he was left expecting the end.

“One of the last things I did was book myself a one-way ticket to Rio. Because it was my destiny at the time, I wanted to drink myself to death. My family left me, flew back to Norway, they never thought they would see me again. 

“All these things was for me at the time, okay, because I had so much pain. I just wanted it to go away, I couldn’t deal with it. 

“But when I found the ability to cry and be humble and in the desperation I was in I found some sort of strength, some sort of light. I couldn’t justify my girls growing up without a dad, I couldn’t justify leaving my family with all the questions. And luckily I found people who were willing to help. I started a long long recovery road to come back to a life without drugs, without drinking, and to find meaning in life, something to wake up to that gives you purpose. 

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“That’s taken many many years and now I’ve been sober and clean for many many years, it’s not in day-to-day life that I think about it or feel vulnerable but I can’t promise anything even though I’ve been clean for many years. It’s something that will always going to sit on my shoulders and I need to be conscious about it all the time. 

“But like I said, I’m extremely proud and pleased about where I am today, what I’ve achieved, and when you come through such a low point in your life and such a desperate mess of where you are, it gives you a healthier or better perspective in life of what’s important. 

“It comes down to the small things in life, the small day to day things you do, helping the girls with homework, driving them to training, it’s those things that need to come first and you need to learn to appreciate those things. If you can do that - obviously for me it took a long time to learn that - but it’s all that matters. And money in this world, it’s no prescription for happiness whatsoever. It’s not. It’s been one hell of a journey with ups and downs but like I said, looking back, that part of my life was very short. But it was extremely filled with a lot of hopelessness and pain.”

Lundekvam missed his flight to Brazil and is thankfully still here today to tell his story and show others that there really is a way out of the deepest and darkest holes. He’ll be the first to say that all recoveries are different but he’s seen the impact others can have on him, spurring him to do the same.

Shortly after Lundekvam’s planned suicide in Rio, he received a phone call from Peter Kay. Alongside Arsenal legend Tony Adams, Kay had founded the Sporting Chance clinic - set up to help sports people fighting addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling. It proved life-changing in a number of ways.

“I think everyone who suffers from addiction, small or big, needs to find their own path and their own way to beat addiction and find purpose. There’s no recipe. There are things that everyone can recognise you need to take on board and live by but for me it became quite personal. 

“Because the first time I went into rehab, there were many times I was in rehab, I didn’t do it for myself. I did it for my surroundings and I wanted to prove to everyone that I could beat it. But what happened is that when you don’t do it for yourself really deep down, you’re going to fail. And that’s what I did, time and time again. 

There wasn’t one thing that was the key for me to turn everything around, It was a combination of quite a few things. One of them was giving up. I had to let myself become vulnerable and humble enough to find the tears. And when I broke down in front of my girls…

“I was the powerful Norwegian, that big strong defender, through my whole career I couldn’t show any weakness, that was a part of me. So for me to break down like that and show humbleness and weakness, it took a lot of time. 

“That was one part of it but also I would like to mention one person at the time, a good friend of Tony Adams’, he’s passed away recently rest in peace, his name was Peter Kay. He was running a rehab clinic in Hampshire called the Sporting Chance clinic. And Peter phoned me one day, I didn’t know anything about him, I’d heard about him from friends like Tony, and he said he would like to drive down to Southampton to see me. I said ‘of course, come down.’ 

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“I hadn’t met him before or really knew anything about him. But he drove down one afternoon and I invited him in, we shook hands, he came into the living room, sat down in a chair across from me, we looked at each other and just both started crying. That was the first time in the hopeless situation I was in with all the pain I was in, it was the first time I could feel somebody else who understood what I was going through because Peter was a recovering addict as well, going through exactly what I was dealing with at the time. So to get the sense of not being alone gave me a lot of hope. 

“That was a big part of the turning process - finding hope in somebody else who had done it before you and managed to deal with it and live a good life. That’s probably the main reason I went into the psychiatry and mental health field, the addiction field. Having that story and being able to come through it, it’s a very powerful tool if you can find it in yourself to be honest and open about it, you can help a lot of people. That’s been my purpose all my life really, the nicest thing I’ve ever done is helping others. That’s why I went into the field of mental health and addiction.”

You can pick any one of many lessons from Lundekvam’s story. The dedication to achieve his dream, the speed and force of how addiction can take hold, the mammoth task to pull oneself out of such a state, the help from others that can open the door, and the joy and satisfaction of rebuilding and helping those around you.

Now many years sober, Lundekvam spends his days working for Kokoon Global, an organisation set up to provide clean water, clean energy, and mental health clinics to those in need.

It might have been a long journey - certainly much longer than the one that took him to rock-bottom - but it’s safe to say that the Saints legend has found purpose and meaning once more. His purpose is to help others and it’s something that makes him feel alive and excited to live.

Light can exist at the end of every tunnel and Lundekvam works hard to be a powerful and impactful representation of that.

“I’m extremely proud of who I am today and what I can give my surroundings. With the work I’m doing today it’s part of me and it’s always been part of me - being a giver. 

“But I’m very conscious of looking after myself first because if I don’t do that, I can’t help others. That’s a rule and that’s something I’m really conscious about and living by because I have experience of giving so much of myself and dealing with the openness that I’ve burnt myself out. And then I’ve found myself in a really vulnerable situation. So I need to be really focused on putting myself first but now it comes normally and it’s just a day to day life I’ve found really rewarding - to be able to help others and understand and build relations with others who find themselves in this difficult situation.

Lundekvam’s story will always be connected to Southampton and amongst the many achievements that fill him with pride, the association with Saints still sits high.

“I’m forever going to be extremely grateful for the people of Southampton and all the Southampton fans around the world. The years I had at the club were without a doubt the best years of my life and hopefully they will also recognise me as loyal, hard-working, Norwegian, who did his best for the club for many years. 

“To be connected to the fans of Southampton still, is just fantastic. It brings back so many fantastic memories. I’ll never forget the years I had at Southampton, I’m always going to love the club, the supporters are the club. I love being connected to the supporters and everybody at the club.”

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