Omar Beckles is speaking about the importance of speaking out; about the dark hole at the end of the downward spiral, how he would quietly break down in tears hours after a game and how he would grind and then clench his teeth following the death of his father, Linton.
The passing at 59 of his father, a former singer with the jazz-funk band Central Line, when Beckles, after spells in Spain and on trial in Turkey, was playing for Aldershot Town in 2015, led to his problems. The Shrewsbury Town defender did not give himself time to grieve because he threw himself into “fight mode”, eager to help his family, particularly his widowed mother, Angela.
“Dealing with the loss of her soul mate was not something I wanted her to go through alone; I didn’t want her to force herself into work,” Beckles says. “I wanted to be like: ‘OK, I can help her.’ I wanted to be the financial support that allowed her not to. But the burden I put on myself was my own burden. I created something that wasn’t really a thing.”
At the two-bedroom family home in Walthamstow Beckles was at pains to be the “man of the house”, to look after his mother and younger brother Aaron, as well as his sister, Kamilah, who had moved back in. He shouldered the responsibility, which sharpened his focus, ultimately propelling his career forward. “But my mental capacity at the time was really bad. When I was at Accrington, there were times when I was playing, things were going well and I’d get back to my room and I’d be breaking down in tears. I kept putting pressure on myself.”
It was to that east London council flat that Beckles returned after a third-round FA Cup replay defeat by West Ham United in January. “I’d gone from playing under the lights at the Olympic Stadium, leaving there after having a really good game and seeing reports that I had got like the best rating, to going home, climbing into the top bunk of the bed. It’s not as glamorous as everyone makes it out to be.”
Talking during Mental Health Awareness Week, the 26-year-old candidly discusses his own struggles, the pressure he heaped on his shoulders but also how he hopes to make a difference through his Hub 365 foundation, recently set up to help those suffering in silence. “Each one of us goes through some kind of anxiety, depression or stress, and for me it is: ‘Can I help change this matter, this issue?’”
Beckles, a devout Christian, is determined to help others – as his dad did. “Depression doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich, poor, whatever colour you are or whatever ethnicity you are,” Beckles says. “We all need to be able to open and express those things, especially as men. I feel like men tend to internalise a lot more, which obviously links to the suicide rates between men and women; it is far higher with men than women. You don’t really realise a space someone is in from how they express themselves externally. It’s vital to open up.”
During his struggles his sleep was irregular. Beckles was grinding and then clenching his teeth to the point where Shrewsbury paid for an adequate mouthguard, the plastic one obtained at Accrington on medical advice no longer sufficient.
As he says, it was no way for anybody to be living. “I would get locked jaw and in the mornings I literally wouldn’t be able to open my mouth for five or 10 minutes. I would have to do little exercises to loosen it and the doctor said that’s the tension of stress and maybe depression. For me, it was kind of like: ‘I need to get off this burden that I am carrying.’ I started opening up, speaking to my family and I just felt that release.”
On Sunday week Beckles, who was released as a scholar by Millwall at 18, will play in the League One play-off final at Wembley. It will be his second visit there this season, after defeat by Lincoln City in the Checkatrade Trophy last month. He believes fate has afforded him the chance to play under that famous arch. His route there consists of 18 months alongside Sam Clucas and Jordan Hugill at Glenn Hoddle’s academy in Jerez, near Seville, as well as a trial at Kardemir Karabükspor in northern Turkey.
“It was not glamorous at all – Istanbul is very much the lifestyle and image. I had done a medical and everything but there was this new rule about ‘active foreigners’ and I was never going to play in the first team, more of a prospect for the future, so if I went out on loan I would have been an ‘active foreigner’, so that killed that for me.”
He returned to London and worked his way through non-league ranks after signing for Boreham Wood, obtaining his Uefa B coaching licence and futsal qualifications along the way.
“Every season, for the past four seasons, I’ve gone up a league. And to be on the brink of being able to do it again with the team, rather than getting a move, is just surreal. I didn’t dream or fathom being in this predicament playing at Billericay or Hornchurch. I might have said a few blasé comments about getting into the Football League but I never thought I’d be able to experience playing at Wembley. I feel so, so blessed.”
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
• Shrewsbury have become the first League club in England or Wales to introduce safe standing at their stadium. Work to install 555 rail-seats in the Salop Leisure South Stand began on Monday. “We are stepping up a level on the pitch but it also feels like we are noisy neighbours in terms of safe standing,” said Roger Groves, the joint-chairman of the club’s supporters’ parliament.
• After scoring the winning goal to stave off relegation on the final day of the season, Joe Thompson, who has twice recovered from cancer, has been offered a new contract to stay at Rochdale.
• Martin Allen is on the move again, this time at relegated Chesterfield. Last week the 52-year-old left Barnet, also relegated from League Two.