"I'm literally fighting to fight for my life" - Leon McKenzie on life after football

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"I'm literally fighting to fight for my life" - Leon McKenzie on life after football


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Former Premier League star Leon McKenzie was a guest earlier on OTB and gave Nathan a riveting insight into his life as a man plying his trade in England's top tier of football, suffering from depression and later, boxing at a professional level.

McKenzie, now 39, has spoken candidly on his own personal issues in recent times, with a Guardian 'Copa90' series released earlier this year documenting his previous struggles with depression.

On Off The Ball this evening, McKenzie cast an eye back on a time where he was in dreamland, playing for Norwich in the top tier of English football. The 2004/05 season, alongside Dean Ashton up front, represented happier times for McKenzie as the duo shared 14 league goals between them but were ultimately relegated on the last day of the season, losing 6-0 to Fulham.

Injuries began to then plague McKenzies' career, piling up season after season. As the former Canaries front-man said earlier, they began to take their toll mentally.

“The problem I had was that it was one bad injury after another and after a while, yes it’s going to start affecting your mind.

“So it wasn’t just this one bad injury... this is years and years and years of being in the treatment room, coming back, why are you breaking down again, coming back, ruptured Achilles, broken ankle, snapped cartilage in my knee... the list goes on.

“It becomes draining. To answer your question, when you have a job that you love, that you’ve done pretty much all your life, that you depend on, like you say, obsessed with, when you have that taken away from you without your control it will affect your mind no matter who you are.”

Charlton Athletic's Leon McKenzie scores his sides first goal of the game. Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport

He tells Nathan that it was towards the end of his three-year stint at Coventry that he started not to enjoy his time on the field, which was constantly beset by problem on and off the field.

It was a brief period in 2009 however that McKenzie considers one of the darkest in his life. Following yet another injury set-back, this time with Charlton, McKenzie sought to take his own life.

“In my mind I was like I’m actually finished, so I didn’t cope with that.

“So I guess my mind gave up along with my body at a time where I didn’t know what to do, who to turn to.

“The only person I called on that particular day when I tried to take my life was my mum and I burst into tears and still couldn’t even tell my mum what I was going to do.

“This is something I was planning for a number of months because I was just psychologically breaking down and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now to urge anyone really, not just in sport, but just try to speak to someone as soon as you can.

“As soon as you start feeling vulnerable and you’re not feeling great, speak to someone. There will always be a solution to try and work out.”

Once McKenzie recovered and re-entered the Charlton training ground the manager at the time, Phil Parkinson, approached him following a hamstring injury suffered in training.

"The reaction at Charlton [to his failed suicide attempt] was the last time I'd pulled my hamstring.

"I remember the day so vividly because I'd pulled my hamstring, I was absolutely on fire that training session as well and from nowhere I pulled my hamstring.

"My manager couldn't even really look at me so I walked off the pitch in tears, walked into the treatment room again in tears, walked into the treatment room alone, had some time by myself, sat on the treatment bed, cried my eyes out for probably the best part of half-an-hour and a lot of people passed and didn't come in, didn't say nothing. 

"The manager came in and the manager's words were I think you should maybe retire. I don't take any negative from Phil Parkinson at the time because it's not his fault, he probably didn't have the understanding of where I was at that particular time.

"It wasn't the right thing to say to me at the time but I can't blame him, he didn't have the understanding and the knowledge to really deal with that situation."

What followed after McKenzie's football career drew to a close was a short stint in prison for perversion of justice. McKenzie told Nathan he had a productive time during his short span behind bars but life afterwards didn't immediately improve. In fact, it was worse.

“I was productive inside, I wrote my first autobiography and came out of there OK, new start, a little bit lost, went through my second divorce so if anything, things actually got worse after prison.

“At the age of 35 I literally had to start again, all over again. I lost everything.

“I had to make a choice in the end. I had to make a choice to fight back literally. I had to literally start again in life and as a person playing Premiership football few years prior.

“I went and delivered 70 parcels a day for the best part of a year, it was while I was fighting. So I had to make all these choices and adaption and people say oh yeah, serves you right, yeah fair enough but at the same time I still had to go and do what I had to do.

“That year, in 2014, I won my first professional belt in another career and then things picked up and I fought for an English title.

“I had to reinvent myself again. It’s the choices you make - you make some bad choices in life and some choices are taken out of your hands where you’ve got to adapt.

“It’s all about adapting.

“Not only could I fight, but I’m literally fighting to fight for my life.

“You’ve got to understand I’ve been divorced twice, I’ve been to prison, football career’s finished, literally starting again as a man, [starting] my life again.

“When I had my 11th professional fight, I retired the next day I lost my last fight because i knew that not only was I coming up to 40 years old, In knew that I had given it my all, like I had nothing left to give from a competing point of view.

“In my head I’m like maybe I won’t have that choice that I want to do so therefore I try to train my mind with little jobs.

“I’ve done working delivery stuff; I’ve done working security work, all these little things that come with reality, within life.

“You know, I can’t be a sportsman all my life.

“So my mind was already trained and I don’t have no regrets.”


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