Former Luton Town defender Leon Barnett has spoken about his shock at being forced to retire from football because of a heart condition earlier this week.
The 32-year-old, who is currently with League Two side Northampton Town, came through the ranks at Kenilworth Road in 2002, making 70 appearances and scoring three goals, but has been diagnosed with the condition that, according to professional medical opinion, would make it unsafe for him to continue training and playing.
It was very fortunate that they found it. It has come as a shock, but it could have been a lot worse.Leon Barnett
Speaking about just how it came to light, Barnett, who was sold to West Bromwich Albion in July 2007 for a fee of £2.5 million, admitted there were two warning signs against Wycombe Wanderers in mid-August and Bury in early October.
He said: “The first time was Wycombe away in the Carabao Cup, and just before we went to penalties I mentioned to the physio that I had started to feel a bit tired.
“I felt like my heart was beating faster than the activity I was doing. My heart felt like I was doing 10 box-to-box runs, but I was literally just jogging, so I said to the referee ‘can I have a bit of a breather’.
“I mentioned it to the physio just before the penalties, and Northampton handled it well.
“They said they would put me in touch with a cardiologist and go down that route.
“At that time I didn’t think it was anything too serious, and I had a device inserted into my chest and that monitored my heart-rate.
“It then happened a second time in the game against Bury, and after that game I told the physio I was feeling it again.
“We went to the cardiologist and they downloaded the data, and found out that my heart was going at just under 300 beats per minute, which is unbelievable.
“They told me that if that was a normal person in a regular job they probably would have collapsed and fainted, but they said because I was a footballer and quite fit, I managed to stay on my feet.
“So it was very fortunate that they found it. It has come as a shock, but it could have been a lot worse.”
Barnett has not trained or played since leaving the field following the draw with Bury.
He has been to see three different specialists, and undergone numerous tests, and at first he struggled to accept or acknowledge the seriousness of what was happening to him.
But as time went on, the reality dawned on Barnett, who last week finally got the confirmation he was dreading - that his playing days are over.
He added: “It has been tough over the past few weeks as I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know what the next step was going to be.
“Even my missus thought ‘come on, you’re having me on a bit’, because I had been going into training every day and didn’t feel anything then.
“I had felt it in two games and I just though this might be a period I was going through, and didn’t think much of it.
“But once it happened again after the Bury game, I have had a few weeks to think about it, some time off, and then got the news last week that they recommend I don’t play any more.
“It was a bit of a heartache, but I would say it didn’t really set in until Saturday when I mentioned it to the lads.
“I then got texts through from them, and that was sort of the first time it hit home and I felt quite sad.
“It’s not the end of the dream as such, but it is something you enjoy doing every day and I have to now say goodbye to it.”
It is obviously a testing and traumatic time for Barnett, who has been a professional footballer since he was 16.
But he is not fearful of what lies ahead, and says he is going to attack the next stage of his life with positivity, knowing that he has been blessed to have enjoyed such a lengthy career, and that he has a great support network to see him through.
Looking back on a career that saw Barnett play in all four top divisions of the English game, he said: “I have enjoyed every single day that I have gone into work as a footballer.
“There is not one day I can think of where I have moaned about whether to go in or not.
“I have met some great people, played with great players, worked under great managers and won a few trophies along the way which has been great.
“As a kid, this is what you dream of doing and I have managed to have the opportunity to do it, and to try to be the best player I can and the best person I can be.
“I have learned a lot of things, I have been disciplined and enjoyed every day I have had.”
When asked what the future has in store for the defender, who has started up the Leon Barnett Academy, he added: “If you start dwelling on the past and the present, then you will end up struggling quite badly mentally.
“For me, I have healthy kids, my wife and friends around me to give me positive vibes and I will now crack on to do whatever I can to keep me busy, and we will see what happens.
“I think I have a lot of things planned, there are still a lot of things that I want to do.
“Ideally now, I want to kick on and give something back and pass on my knowledge, and if it is to someone that is younger and more hungry than me and they get a chance to have a good go of it, then I will do all I can to help them.
“The playing buzz has obviously now gone, but I am sure there are plenty of other buzzes.
“I have hobbies in that I play golf, I have my coaching, and just being around people in general is an enjoyment for me.
“So I will keep going on, I have my friends and family around me, so I should be alright.”