BIG INTERVIEW: Positive Barnett already looking forward as heart condition ends his playing career
Leon Barnett has been recalling the two seemingly insignificant moments that signalled all was not well with his health - and eventually led to Monday's announcement that he has been advised to retire from being a professional footballer due to a serious heart complaint.
The first came in the Cobblers’ Carabao Cup clash at Wycombe Wanderers in mid-August, when the 32-year-old complained of tiredness and an increased heart-rate during a game in which he would normally have been in cruise control.
The second came in the 0-0 draw with Bury at the PTS Academy Stadium in early October, when again the player’s heart-rate was high and he just didn’t feel right - which is of course a huge understatement.
Because as it turns out, Barnett was suffering from a heart condition that medical experts have ruled means he can no longer live the life of a professional footballer, as it would be too risky.
Following that initial complaint to Cobblers physio Nacho Herrando on the pitch at Adams Park, the wheels were set in motion behind the scenes to find out what exactly Barnett’s problem was.
He had a heart-rate monitor inserted into his chest, and it was alarming results from that tiny instrument following the Bury game that led to father of three Barnett ultimately having to accept that he has to retire.
And although the former Wigan Athletic, West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City man admits that giving up the career he loves is a ‘heartache’, he knows he simply has to quit for the good of his health, and the good of his family.
Asked about the sequence of events leading up to Monday’s announcement, Barnett 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 Nacho 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 Nacho that I was feeling it again.
“We went to the cardiologist and they dowloaded the data, and they 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, which was Keith Curle’s first game in charge of the club.
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 football playing days are over.
“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,” said Barnett, who signed for the Cobblers in the summer of 2017.
“Even my missus though ‘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.”
He does have to say goodbye to playing, but Barnett will still very much be part of the Cobblers family.
Chairman Kelvin Thomas has agreed to honour the player’s contract, and Barnett will be offered the chance to do some coaching with the club’s youngsters as well as be around the first team scene under the watchful eye of Curle.
Coaching is something that Barnett was already preparing for, as he is currently doing his badges and already runs a training school for youngsters in and around his Luton base called the Leon Barnett Academy.
Barnett admits he has been taken back by the club’s support, particularly over the fact they are honouring his contract until next summer.
“I am so thankful,” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking about the contract to be fair, and it is a massive thing for the club to still give me what I signed up for, and I will do all I can to repay them.
“Obviously, I have not even done half the job this season (as a player) so I owe them a lot.
“The process they have gone through with me, booking the cardiologist and speaking to professors, I know that is not a cheap job and they have been there the whole way through.
“I am very thankful for everything they have done, and I need to repay them.
“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.”
It is obviously a testing and traumatic time for Barnett, who has been a professional footballer since he was 16, which was the age he made his debut for Luton Town.
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.”
And what of the future?
“If you start dwelling on the past and the present, then you will end up struggling quite badly mentally,” said Barnett.
“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.
“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.”