Chris Kirkland: 'My passion to be a firefighter has always been with me'

Most Premier League footballers can afford not to worry about what they will be doing when they hang up their boots, but for Wigan's Chris Kirkland that is not the point. He tells Ian Herbert why he is determined to join the fire service
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The Independent Football

Don't let it be said that Chris Kirkland has sought out a gilded life from top-flight football. He left Liverpool two years ago after Rafael Benitez arrived with Spanish coaches who ordered him to spend less time on the training ground and there are certainly no such constraints at Wigan, where his mountainous frame looms into view, drenched from a morning diving around in a quagmire which had twice been deemed unfit for training earlier in the week. He thinks the coast might be clear to stop for a few photographs when Steve Bruce bounds up with a grin on his face and a jocular dose of cold salts. "Kept a few clean sheets have we?" he booms, after spotting the camera. "You were shipping three a week before I got here." Not true – but it just goes to show that there's never been much time for airs and graces here in Orwell country.

It's when Kirkland starts talking about his passions outside of football, though, that you sense a connection with reality that is rare in the modern game. A career which took him to Anfield for £8m as England's most expensive goalkeeper hasn't left him with too many worries about the days when his playing is done, but it's safe to say that Kirkland is the only footballer in the land who has been preparing for what he calls "the other half of my life" with some visits to the surrounds of Hinkley fire station in his native Leicestershire.

It's a place Kirkland first visited with his father, Eddie, years ago, in the boyhood days when he wondered if he'd actually make it in football, and he knew from the start it was a place he would like to be. The fascination is still there so he's been back recently, observing firefighters hauling dummies out of flames and smoke in a training area they call "the smoke room". It all bears a remarkable resemblance to Wigan Athletic's penalty area in the closing stages of last season – "it's dark and frantic in there," relates Kirkland, whose side hope to continue their latest escape act when Everton visit the JJB tomorrow – and the experience has persuaded him that, if he can pass muster for the brigade, it will be the firefighter's life for him in 10 years' time.

Kirkland's interest in the profession meant that the death at a Warwickshire warehouse last year of four firefighters from Coventry – his footballing Alma Mater – touched him deeply. "They're not the only ones who've been lost," he says. "A lot of people don't actually realise what firefighters do." He has decided he wants to do something about that immediately, by accepting a request by the Fire Services National Benevolent Fund to help raise its profile. "This interest has always been with me. The passion to do it has always been there," he says. "As footballers we are idolised for kicking a ball around but firefighters actually make a sacrifice."

The "smoke room" is not a place for the faint-hearted, though that doesn't seem to have deterred Kirkland. "It's set out like a house with cages as 'bedrooms' and a 'bathroom'," he explains. "They fill it with smoke, put dummies inside, and will sometimes have flames as well. It's the way they train for the real thing, though nothing can prepare them for a genuine job. There's other training gear as well – a huge ladder they scale with a platform at the top and they abseil down. I didn't remember all that from when I went as kid and it was great to be able to watch. Brilliant. Really gave me a sense of it all. The Warwickshire case showed the risks but that doesn't put me off. The idea of coaching doesn't jump out at me at the minute – I'll probably do some for young kids – but this is something I'm genuinely serious. I'd like to be in and around a fire station."

If things go according to plan, Kirkland's next career will actually deliver him to Wembley before his current one. He's keen to take up a request to present the Spirit of Fire firefighter bravery awards there on 15 March – "the World Cup of firefighters" as he describes it. "We've got Bolton at home that day and the function starts at 7.30," he says. "Wigan to Wembley in an hour and a half's pushing it, but I'll do everything I can to make it."

Perhaps looking for a life outside of football comes more naturally to those, like Kirkland, who have had such struggles to contend with in the game. Few English goalkeepers have carried such a weight of expectation as he did when Gérard Houllier signed him from Coventry in 2000 and when Sven Goran Eriksson described him as "the future of English goalkeeping", and that has made his periods out of football more agonising than most. But football was never the easy option; not even when Kirkland was competing for a place in the village youth sides in the Barwell, Leicestershire, where he grew up.

From the start, he wanted to be a goalkeeper but found himself languishing on a subs' bench as an outfield player. "The gist of it was that I wasn't good enough and I had to go outfield," he recalls in his Midlands burr. It fell upon on Eddie Kirkland, from whom he remains inseparable, to return from 12-hour shifts as a crane driver and take him out on to the "Barwell rec" for training sessions. "There'd be shots, crosses and work with my feet," Kirkland recalls. "He never pushed me into it, but he wanted me to have the chance if I wanted it."

The persistence seemed worth it when Kirkland forced his way into the Blaby & Whetstone junior side as a goalkeeper, though the struggle to do so was a minor preoccupation compared with what fate had in store. Kirkland was 10 years old when his father was diagnosed with a cyst which it took doctors 18 months to discover was testicular cancer. "He'd lost all his hair, lost all his weight and the one thing that always sticks out was the one night I asked my mum, 'Is dad going to die?' I found out later that it was the night he was given 24 hours to live. He couldn't move for pain and was in agony for months."

Kirkland's mother, Marie, gave up work to hold the family together and went on to half-pay, while her husband lost his job. "The debts piled but they still bought me what kit I needed," Kirkland recalls. "Dad eventually started watching my games again but he could barely stand for a long time. He took an umbrella to lean on." But when the clouds lifted from all their lives, Kirkland flourished. He trained with Coventry City and Leicester City and would also travel with his father to Anfield, waiting at a roadside cafe in Hinckley, just off the M69, for the supporters' bus to come. A trial with Blackburn didn't work out but there were offers from both Midlands clubs and, though Eddie is a Leicester fan, Coventry seemed more positive.

You sense that Kirkland's heart has never left that club. He encountered individuals who remain the giants in his development: Steve Ogrizovic, now the club's reserve team coach, whom he came across in the Highfield Road physio's room; Jim Blyth, then goalkeeping coach, and Gordon Strachan, whose decision to blood him at 19 made a real statement about his talents. Kirkland knew what was coming the day that Strachan called him out of a fire safety briefing for the Coventry youth team and asked for a quick word. There had been reports of Houllier's interest and Liverpool's Gary McAllister, who had trained locally with Coventry during his wife's illness, had provided a tantalising hint by calling Kirkland from Merseyside to say: "You're doing really well. Just carry on." Strachan confirmed the inevitable.

There were some great nights for Liverpool, not least a 1-1 draw at Galatasaray, a regular place in the England squad and a second-half substitute's appearance against Greece in August 2006 which settled the now legendary bet – laid at William Hill by Eddie Kirkland and eight of his mates which put them all in line for £10,000 if he ever played in the side. But then Benitez arrived with the goalkeeping coach Jose Ochotorena, whose ideas baffled him. "I grew up on hard work with Jim [Blyth] and Oggie [Steve Ogrizovic]," Kirkland says. "I liked high repetitions and I really slogged myself and that, to this day, is what makes me tick. But the Spaniards didn't believe in pushing you that hard. I went to see Benitez loads of times and said, 'I want more work', and he said, 'Why do you want more work?' and I said, 'It's just the way I've always been, I need to feel right'. But it was always, 'No, no, no". Sometimes Kirkland would just stay out on the pitch in protest. "They'd just shouted: 'Come on, you've done enough'," he remembers. The player knew that his time at Anfield was up, after only 25 appearances.

With the injuries he has sustained – he had undergone a back operation and was out with a broken finger in the summer of 2006 – Kirkland knew Paul Jewell was taking a big risk when he brought him to the JJB and he still feels that debt of gratitude keenly. He is enjoying an unbroken run of games in Bruce's side and, with the England goalkeeper's jersey up for grabs following Paul Robinson's struggles and Scott Carson's agony against Croatia, Kirkland hasn't given up all hope that those big predictions from the late 1990s – when the Under-21 coach David Platt described him as the "best young keeper in the world" – might at last be realised with some more caps. "The most important thing is that I've got to repay Wigan because they took a chance on me," he says. "I do think about [England]. Everyone knows I've missed a lot of football and the most important thing for me this season is to keep Wigan up and to play as many games as I can. If I get back in the squad brilliant, but I'm not going to beat myself up about it."

Still only 26, Kirkland has plenty of time for unfulfilled hopes. But there are already indications from the fire service that he won't quite be allowed to hang the boots up if he does eventually don a firefighter's helmet. The watch manager at Hinkley is Paul Percer – the same family friend who introduced Kirkland to the place all those years ago and who often stays with him after travelling to see Wigan games. He was no mean full-back in his prime and, in a career which has taken him to the national firefighters' team via the Barwell village side, his claim to fame is that he has never missed a penalty. "They've got the two of us lined up for a charity shoot-out," Kirkland reveals. Perhaps it will be harder to leave football than he imagines.

God, pests or bling: the career choices of old pros

Once the occupation of choice, or more often necessity, for ex-footballers was publican. Others went into a trade which they may have maintained throughout their playing career, such as Tom Finney, the Preston plumber. Even a World Cup winner had to find employment after hanging up his boots. Ray Wilson, England's 1966 left-back, became the nation's most celebrated undertaker, writes Glenn Moore.

Now many Premier League players will never have to work again, except for topping up their savings with appearances as a television pundit. Some, however, will use their financial independence to pursue a childhood dream, as Chris Kirkland intends, or to make a complete break with the game.

Here are some of the more unusual pursuits of former players.

* GUDNI BERGSSON

The former Tottenham and Bolton defender returned to his native Iceland to become a lawyer. Spurs' dressing room circa 1990 must have been an interesting place. Of other team-mates Steve Sedgley ran a watersports business in Barbados and Paul Stewart owns a roofing company.

* KLAS INGESSON

The Swedish defender played in six countries with a couple of season in England with Sheffield Wednesday. But all the time, it seems, he harboured a desire to be a lumberjack and now is. Maybe he was a Monty Python fan.

* ALAN COMFORT

The ex-Cambridge United, Leyton Orient and Middlesbrough winger became a vicar in Essex. He is also Orient's club chaplain. John Moncur, the former West Ham midfielder, credits Comfort with turning his life around and in helping him become a devout Christian.

* DAVID MAY

In a variation on the old theme the former Blackburn and Manchester United defender imports wine from South Africa. He even has his own label, Mayson Ridge. Sir Alex Ferguson's daughter-in-law sells his wine in the South African-orientated foodstores she runs in London.

* VEGARD HEGGEM

The one-time Liverpool defender now operates a salmon-fishing lodge in his native Norway. He converted the family potato farm to do so: the old spud store is now a restaurant.

* CRAIG SHORT

The former Notts County, Derby County, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United defender runs a sailing school in the Lake District.

* NEIL WEBB

The ex-England and Manchester United midfielder is arguably the nation's best-known postman but he is not alone. He followed Seventies players Peter Bonetti (Chelsea), Kevin Hector (Derby) and David Harvey (Leeds United) into the trade as well as former Coventry midfielder Micky Gynn.

* GORDON DAVIES

Like many an ex-pro the Welshman is a matchday host, at Craven Cottage. But he also developed a sideline in pest control.

MIKE WALKER

The ex-Colchester goalkeeper initially followed the conventional route for an old pro, moving into coaching. He progressed to managing Norwich and Everton but when the offers dried up he diversified to run a skip hire company.

* RAMON VEGA

Christian Gross did not stay in England long but another Swiss who came to White Hart Lane in the Nineties is still here. Vega has a variety of interests outside the game including working as a partner in an asset management company and being part-owner of a Romford jewellery shop. A former team-mate, Espen Baardsen, also went into the financial services: the ex-goalkeeper retired at 25 and became an analyst for a London hedge fund.

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