Depression: Leyton Orient's Martin Ling talks about his mental health problems

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Former Leyton Orient and Swindon manager Martin Ling
Ling became manager of Swindon Town in November 2015 but resigned a month later for health reasons

At the end of May this year, all was good in Martin Ling's world.

A happy marriage, great kids, grandkids and his beloved Leyton Orient were promoted back into the Football League.

"I was in the best place I have ever been in," he recalls.

Then, in the space of three days, Ling's father-in-law died and Orient manager and former Southend team-mate Justin Edinburgh passed away suddenly at the of 49 after suffering a cardiac arrest.

Ling, who agreed to speak to BBC Sport about his past mental health issues, said: "I would wake up thinking 'is this going to grab me again?'

"If it had happened six or seven years ago, it would have taken me down. I would have had to cope using other methods, including alcohol if I am totally honest.

"Now I take care of myself. I have a process I work through. If I am no good, would I be a support for my wife in losing her dad; and for my children in losing their grandad? No.

"Am I any use to [Edinburgh's wife] Kerri [and kids] Charlie and Cydnie if I am not well? No.

"How I look at it is I have some wires loose in my head and some mornings I have to put them back together a little bit."

Agreeing to go through with the interview says a lot about Ling's willingness to confront his mental health issues, despite the shattering losses he has suffered in his personal life.

"Sometimes I think I am only being given these types of problems because I am strong," Ling said.

"When I used to say I was strong it would be to deflect people away from really getting into me. Surpress, surpress, surpress. Then I had a mental breakdown. Now I am happy for people to talk about me or to me.

"I know I can cope. I know I can be there for the people who matter to me."

Sacked and then resigned - but what was going on under the surface?

Former Leyton Orient manager Martin Ling
Ling led Orient to promotion from League Two in 2006

Born in east London, 52-year-old Ling was a solid, reliable professional. He made more than 500 appearances in a 17-year career, including more than 100 at four clubs - Exeter, Southend, Swindon and Leyton Orient. He managed Orient for six years and Cambridge United for two before joining Torquay in 2011.

In April 2013, after taking three months off work for a stress-related illness, Ling was sacked. He returned to management at Swindon in November 2015. Just 56 days later he resigned because of health reasons.

"I wrote myself off," said Ling. "I thought I was finished in the professional game."

Half-truths, home truths and whole truths - walking away from hero status

Former Leyton Orient manager Martin Ling (left) with Chairman Barry Hearn (right)
Ling (left) managed Orient for six years between 2003-2009

The brief official statements which accompanied Ling's departures from Torquay and Swindon, the club he loved and played for when they got promoted to the Premier League in 1993, do not even scratch the surface of what was actually happening.

"The first bout of depression, at Torquay, was a low point because I had been taken out by a mental breakdown. I was at The Priory but I don't remember much about my first weeks there because I was highly medicated. Everything was a blur.

"My family came to see me but my kids hated it. I do remember my close mate [current Aston Villa manager] Dean Smith visiting.

"I couldn't pick my head up. He asked me why I was sitting in the dark. He pulled the curtains open and told me we were going for a walk.

"Dean gave me a few home truths.

"He may have been thinking 'if I push him too hard, he might take his own life'. That might sound dramatic but it is what you are scared of with people who have mental health problems.

"But the lowest, lowest, lowest point was when I experienced depression for a second time at Swindon. I had gone into a job that I dreamed of having. I played there. I was a hero there. We had taken them out of the Championship and into the Premier League.

"When I had to walk away from that, it hurt so much. We were doing well but after three weeks I wasn't enjoying it. I was put back in The Priory.

"What I realise today is the first time, when I spoke to counsellors or people who were there to help me, I only gave them half-truths.

"I told them what I thought they wanted to hear. I wasn't dealing with the whole truth. The second time, I made sure the counsellors were told everything. I was asked to write my life story, a timeline of every five years from the age of five.

"The truth is a lot of my problems came from issues when I was between five and 10. It was nothing to do with my parents, just personal issues to me.

"I always believed I had to put a mask on to be the Martin that people wanted to see. I don't care about putting a mask on any more. What people see today is me. I don't have to act and pretend to be something I am not."

A new role that doesn't 'eat him up'

Ling's return to football came quite unexpectedly.

Former Orient chief executive Matt Porter called. He had found prospective buyers to get the club back from Francesco Becchetti, who had turned Orient into "a dead club walking" as it dropped out of the league for the first time in 112 years in 2017.

After that came an offer to be director of football.

Ling was wary and asked for 24 hours to discuss it with his wife. They decided it was far enough away from the coal face not to "take him under" unlike the risk of more orthodox football management, with its relentless, 24-hours-a-day pressure.

"I love the role. It has been an absolute pleasure to do and it doesn't eat me up," said Ling.

Footballers Danny Rose, Anthony Knockaert, Andrew Cole, Marvin Sordell, Aaron Lennon and Dave Kitson have all spoken recently about dealing with depression.

Ling wants to get rid of the macho "man's game" image and provide freedom to talk about how life really is, in football and wider society.

"Why did I agree do this interview? Firstly for me, it is freeing to talk about it," Ling said. "There is no denying that. The second part is to normalise it.

"Seeing people suffer and feel they are weak because of depression is so wrong. In 2009-2010, if someone had come to me with my illness, I would have listened to him, then I would have gone into the next room and said 'forget about him, he is not strong enough'.

"But our generation is starting to understand it. The generation after me will understand it even more. There is an awful lot more to be done but it helps so much that people with a profile are starting to talk.

"It is a scary thing to say but I had suicidal thoughts. I never came close to doing it but any time I see a suicide in football, I think 'if only I could have spoken to them'.

"If, by doing this interview, or by having a coffee, I help one person find it, I have done something worthwhile."

Information and advice

If you or someone you know is struggling with issues raised by this story, find support through BBC Action Line.