"I thought my career was over" - The truth behind Paddy Kenny's 2009 drugs ban at Sheffield United

Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny in action as he makes his return after a nine month suspension against Swansea City: Anna Gowthorpe/PA WireSheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny in action as he makes his return after a nine month suspension against Swansea City: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny in action as he makes his return after a nine month suspension against Swansea City: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
Paddy Kenny, the former Sheffield United and Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, released his autobiography ‘The Gloves Are Off' last week.

Ghostwritten by Star sports writer Danny Hall, the book charts Kenny’s life and career – including an eventful spell at Bramall Lane.

In this exclusive serialisation, Kenny discusses his drugs ban in 2009 after traces of banned stimulant ephedrine were discovered in his system while he was at the Blades.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad


“You’ve failed the drugs test.”

The unmistakably broad Lancastrian accent on the other end of the line belonged to Terry Robinson, then the chief executive of Sheffield United. My reaction was to laugh down the phone. I said to him: “Are you winding me up? I’ve never touched drugs in my life.” He repeated himself: “You’ve failed the drugs test, Paddy. We don’t know what it is yet. We need to find out. And we’ll need to speak to you when you get back.” I was in complete shock. There had to be a mistake somewhere. Someone had messed up. Surely.

It all traced back to the previous season before the play-off semi-final against Preston. In the week leading up to the game I had suffered quite badly with chest infections and I was struggling to sleep at night, having trouble breathing and coughing all sorts of crap up. Louise, my missus at the time, used to work in a chemist and suggested taking some ChestEze tablets to see if they helped. I took six tablets in total over three nights and to be fair, they did the job. They helped me to sleep before the game. We drew 1-1 at their place and won the return leg at Bramall Lane, so were through to the play-off final at Wembley.

At full time the stadium was absolutely buzzing. Fans were everywhere and the lads were bouncing around like mad men. We were 90 minutes away from getting back into the Premier League, which was life-changing for everyone at the club. I couldn’t wait to join in the celebrations. And then I got the tap on my shoulder. “You’ve got to come with us.” The random drug test! Typical. It takes forever to p*** in the cup and give a sample because of the dehydration from the game. We had got through to the play-off final, my teammates were celebrating and I was sat in a room filling out a form.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I understand that the drug-testers have a job to do, though, and are a valuable part of making sure that sport is clean. I was only young when Ben Johnson was done for doping after taking steroids to beat his big rival Carl Lewis in at the 1988 Olympics and, although we didn’t have anything like the coverage of sport that exists now, I remember the fall-out after he was stripped of his gold medal in disgrace. Drug cheats bring shame upon any sport. I don’t know how they think they can get away with it and in my book, if they feel they need to cheat, then they shouldn’t even be involved in the first place.

I got back from holiday after Terry’s phone call and the club suspended me more or less straightaway. I think the reasoning was that, if I was eventually banned, the club hoped it would be backdated to the day I was suspended. Then the process began; meetings with the club, the FA, the PFA, my QC from London. We had conference calls every other day, trying to get to the bottom of what exactly had happened. At this point I still didn’t know how I had failed the test. Eventually the FA came to interview me at Bramall Lane and that’s when I found out that ChestEze contains a small amount of ephedrine. Ephedrine, it turned out, is a stimulant on the list of banned substances and the people from the FA could not get their heads around why I hadn’t disclosed taking the tablets.

It wasn’t just ChestEze I hadn’t told them about; there was also the paracetamol, sleeping tablets and Voltarol I had taken, for a niggling injury I had. If I was somehow trying to cheat, I would surely have just left ChestEze off the list? The truth is that I was simply not thinking that logically. I was on a high – not literally, I should say – and was thinking about nothing else apart from what we had achieved less than half an hour earlier. My mates and the fans were out there celebrating and I wanted to be with them; the last thing on my mind was some over-the-counter chest medicine I had taken a week earlier.

Eventually a date was set for my hearing and before then me and my agent went down to see my QC in London. This bloke supposedly knew his stuff – which he should, considering that he ended up costing me nearly £30,000 in the end – and told us that, as far as he was concerned, I would get done for negligence at worst and be banned for three months maximum, backdated to when I was suspended by the club. It all sounded so simple and obvious when he said it. I might miss a month or so of the season and, although I obviously didn’t want to be banned at all, I would have snatched his hand off for that just to get the cloud from over my head. As far as the expert was concerned, I had nothing to worry about.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The evidence in my defence was overwhelming. Put simply, my levels weren’t high enough to get done for cheating. My QC got a scientist to work out the mixture of everything I’d put into my system before the Preston game. His findings said it all. To gain any enhancement in performance whatsoever, I would have had to have taken 50 to 60 ChestEze tablets 20 minutes before the game. Even then that would contain only enough ephedrine to give me a 20-minute buzz and considering I had taken six tablets across three days, I was hardly sprinting around like Ben Johnson. Armed with that scientific evidence, I went into the hearing in confident mood.

Athletes don’t take ChestEze the week before a game to try and enhance their performance and in my mind, I could only hear what my QC had told me at our first meeting. Done for negligence… three months’ ban, maximum… backdated to when you were suspended. It can’t be that bad, I thought. This will all be over by the end of the day and I can get back to focusing on football. I couldn’t wait.

The hearing itself was held in one of those Club Wembley boxes with big glass panels overlooking the huge stadium with its bright red seats and lush green turf. I looked out and allowed my mind to wander back to the Burnley play-off final, when I had walked out onto that pitch for the first time. It was one of the biggest games of my career and yet here I was a few weeks later, back at Wembley and preparing to go into a room where I may have to battle to save it. Sure, I was confident – but the nagging doubt at the back of my head wouldn’t quite go away just yet.

Paddy Kenny (Richard Markham Photography)Paddy Kenny (Richard Markham Photography)
Paddy Kenny (Richard Markham Photography)

I sat, suited and booted, in front of a three-man panel on the other side of a U-shaped table and gave my side of the story. My manager, Kevin Blackwell, was also interviewed, as was Robinson and Louise, to explain her role in me taking the tablets. We were called back in after two hours that seemed more like two days. The panel had come to an agreement; I had not used the ChestEze tablets to enhance my performance and cheat. My heart raced. They were going to do me for negligence. My QC kicked me under the table and wrote down on a piece of paper: “No Ban.” And then the panel delivered their punishment. A nine-month ban.


Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I have since tried to sum up my feelings in those few seconds and minutes that followed the verdict, but I simply can’t. The best I can do is that I felt like someone had hit me over the head with a huge bat. At first all I had were questions. What? Why? How can this be happening? How can the panel be so far apart from my QC? I thought I would get a three-month ban. They agreed I had only been negligent and that I had no intention to cheat, yet I had been banned for nine months. Quick maths told me I would be out of action until April, but my worries extended far beyond the season in front of us. “This could be me done and dusted,” I thought. In that moment, as I stared straight ahead in complete shock, I thought my career was over.

Blackwell eventually broke the silence outside the room after about half an hour of dumbstruck silence from everyone present. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe what’s gone on. It’s wrong.” So many people offered their condolences and expressed anger or shock or whatever else. After a while I stopped taking it all in. Only one thought consumed me now – I was finished as a footballer.

Getting home from Wembley was a complete blur. I remember being taken out of a side door to avoid the media outside, but have no further recollection of driving home. It took nearly three hours, but I didn’t say a word for the entire journey. To this day I honestly couldn’t say if we stopped off, or if there was any traffic. All I could think about was my career, or what was left of it. When I did eventually make it home, I didn’t go outside again for days. I don’t mind admitting I felt a mixture of embarrassment and fear. But my QC was adamant there was still hope. United wanted to appeal against the decision, so the process began again. More conference calls, more meetings. No football.

I couldn’t go to matches and I couldn’t train with the boys. I wasn’t even allowed at the training ground, full stop. I was still an employee of the club, but could have nothing to do with them. So it was a case of forcing myself up in the mornings to attempt to stay fit. I hired a personal trainer, Matt Sanderson, and worked with him three times a week. A lad I know called Matt Roney, who has played about a thousand games in non-league for Sheffield FC, used to meet me twice a week to do some goalkeeping drills. Both Matts definitely helped me, both physically and mentally, but still there were times when I just couldn’t face getting out of bed.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Paddy Kenny of Sheffield United in action against Reading at Bramall Lane on February 14, 2006 (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)Paddy Kenny of Sheffield United in action against Reading at Bramall Lane on February 14, 2006 (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Paddy Kenny of Sheffield United in action against Reading at Bramall Lane on February 14, 2006 (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Weekends were the worst. During the week I could occupy myself at the gym or on the course at Bondhay Golf Club, but there was nothing that could replace that feeling of waking up on a Saturday and looking forward to the game. The buzz used to start as soon as I opened my eyes, but suddenly it was gone. Footballers can get a bad reputation – and at times a deserved one – but throughout my career I have never known one who was happy to pick up a wage and not play on the weekend. We have been conditioned since a young age to work towards the weekend, so spending them at the gym and watching the scores come in on Soccer Saturday was not an easy time.

I completely accept the negligence charge. It was so stupid and clumsy of me not to think to check what was contained in the tablets, but I never tried, and would never try, to cheat. The science backed that up as well. I had never even heard of ephedrine before I was accused of taking it. I didn’t have the faintest idea what it even was, although I know full well now. It’s connected to me, all over the internet. My name is there in a story in the Daily Telegraph from 2011, underneath the headline: “Football’s drug problem.” Most of the articles contained some kind of reference to DRUGS BAN.

Years ago those ‘papers would become fish-and-chip paper; gone, forgotten. Now my name is on the internet, forever associated with drugs. The articles themselves contain the full truth, that I was cleared of cheating and was done for negligence. But the papers screamed: “Drug ban” and all of a sudden, people thought I was taking all sorts. That I was some sort of Lance Armstrong-type doper or was off snorting coke in a toilet every weekend with my mates.

It could not be further from the truth.

The only positive thing I can really remember from the time is how brilliant United were with me. I spoke to the powers-that-be at the club early on in the process and they reassured me that they were going to stand by me. Of course I understand that they couldn’t continue to pay me what I was earning before the ban and my contract was winding down anyway. So they cut my wages in half, from 10 grand to five, and gave me another year. They expected me to keep myself fit and, if I did, they promised to go back to my original contract. It wasn’t a charity case – they said themselves a few times that I was an asset to the club they wanted to protect – but I was so thankful to be getting a deal – any deal – that I signed it without hesitating, although I did find it strange that they insisted on putting a buy-out clause in the new contract.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

To this day I still don’t know why, but I didn’t question it at the time. Maybe they thought I would push for a cheap transfer when I came back, I honestly don’t know. As far as I was concerned, they could have put whatever they wanted in there as long as they didn’t dump me on the scrapheap. The contract was more than just that: it was a show of faith. I might have been an asset to them before, but no-one, least of all me, knew for sure how I would return after the ban – both physically and mentally.

I was allowed to train again with my teammates six weeks before my ban was up, and I was back in the team for the last two games of the season. The first was against Swansea at Bramall Lane and the reception the Blades fans gave me as I ran towards the Kop was amazing. To be honest I wasn’t sure how it would go. I had always got on well with the Blades supporters before and I thought, and hoped, they would stand by me. But you never know for sure, do you? The reception they gave me was frightening and, thinking back to it all these years later, I actually get quite emotional even now.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.