IT was supposed to be a routine meeting. When Grant Hall entered the manager’s office at QPR to discuss recovery plans with Steve McClaren and Les Ferdinand towards the end of 2018, he thought he would be taking part in an unremarkable chat about the knee issues that had been plaguing him for the previous 12 months. When he left, an hour or so later, he had taken the first step on a journey that would change his life.

Some context first. Hall, who became Middlesbrough’s first summer signing when he joined as a free agent at the end of last month, was your stereotypical high-flying young professional. He made his Conference debut for Lewes at the age of just 16. He had spells with Brighton and Tottenham, and while he was never quite able to force his way through to the first team at either club, he had always been earmarked for the top. A move to QPR in 2015 was the making of him, thrusting him into the Championship at a club with upwardly-mobile ambitions. For two years, his career was everything he had hoped it would be, and more.

Then, injury struck. It could be shrugged off at first, a run-of-the-mill knee problem that wouldn’t cause too many issues. But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, so the gravity of the injury became clear. Hall was suffering from chronic tendonitis, a complex problem that had ended the career of England international Owen Hargreaves a few years earlier.

Mindful of Hargreaves’ injury nightmare, Hall tried everything to avoid surgery. Nothing worked. One of the lowest points was an aborted comeback in a reserves game when, in his own words, “my body just couldn’t do the things that my mind could see was happening”. Eventually, he agreed to have an operation, but as he gradually began to build up his fitness, so the doubts began to swirl in his mind. What if the surgery wasn’t the answer? What if when he did eventually return to the first team, he was a laughing stock, incapable of doing the things that had come so naturally before? What if, in his mid-20s, his footballing career was already at an end?

That was the mindset he carried into his meeting with McClaren, then QPR manager, and Ferdinand, the director of football at Loftus Road. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for things to come flooding out. Breaking into tears as he tried to elucidate his emotions, Hall had reached the point where he could no longer keep things bottled up inside. Deep down, he knew he needed help. Finally, he had reached the stage where self-denial was no longer an option.

“That was breaking point really for me, but to be honest, it was what I needed,” said Hall, chatting candidly via Zoom at Middlesbrough’s Rockliffe Hall training ground. “I certainly wasn’t ashamed that it happened, and it probably happened in the best place that it could, to be honest.

“The fact those two were in the room allowed me to move forward. I’d come back from the injury and was fit, but I still wasn’t myself. In the back of my mind, it was still bothering me. So for me to get that release was what I needed.

“I’ve got a lot of gratitude for both of them – especially Les. I’ve known him for a long time, probably eight or nine years since I was at Spurs. He helped me through the period of time where I was struggling with the injury. He put me in contact with someone from the PFA to come out and talk about my problems and my issues and that was massive for me. Steve was the manager at the time, and he fully supported me as well. I’ve got a lot of gratitude for the pair of them – I’m very grateful for what they did for me.”

Ferdinand had contacts at the Professional Footballers’ Association and arranged for Hall to have a counselling session with a therapist experienced at dealing with footballers. It proved to be the release that the then 26-year-old badly required.

“It was important to have someone to talk to, and that was where the PFA helped,” he explained. “They put me in touch with someone, and we had a two or three-hour conversation.

“We were talking about the various issues I was going through, but also about life in general, it wasn’t just about football. It was day-to-day life really, and how to handle things. It sort of opened up my eyes to certain things, and it definitely helped me moving forward.”

Why it had taken so long for Hall to seek help? Pride, maybe? But also fear. Fear that by talking through his problems, he would reveal a sense of weakness. Fear that his team-mates or opponents would seize on his experiences as a position of vulnerability. Fear that admitting to mental problems was one of the last great taboos.

Tackling mental health issues is a problem for football, but it is also a much broader societal issue when it comes to dealing with young men. Clinging to an outdated sense of machismo, men in their 20s and 30s too often shy away from admitting to mental health problems, let alone actively seeking ways of treating them.

Two years on from his first experience of therapy, Hall is self-aware enough to concede that he showed all the hallmarks of masculine mental health denial. For far too long, he regarded mental problems as issues that affected other people.

“It’s about speaking about things, speaking about your problems,” he said. “I think within football, sometimes having that conversation is seen as a weakness. I don’t know why, although maybe in the past, I looked at it like that as well.

“Maybe people think you’re mentally weak if you’re speaking about stuff like that, but now I’ve come out and spoken about it, it doesn’t bother me. I’ll speak to anyone about the issues I had at the time. I see it as a strength now, to be honest.”

Gradually, football’s relationship with mental health is changing. As more and more former players have to speak openly about their experiences, so the players of today are being encouraged not to hide things away.

Just over a year ago, the Football Association launched the ‘Heads Up’ initiative, a campaign spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that aims to use football to tackle the stigmas surrounding mental health while also raising funds for a series of mental health services.

Earlier this year, the Duke of Cambridge fronted a BBC documentary investigating football’s complex links with mental health issues. Former Premier League player Marvin Sordell spoken openly about his struggles with depression, while a group of bereaved fathers explained how they used their local football team as a support network and safe space to talk. Slowly but surely, things are starting to change.

“I think football’s a very pressurised environment, and I think certain things are seen as a weakness at times,” said Hall. “But I feel like that’s changing now. I feel like there’s a lot more people to speak to than when I was starting out.

“For youngsters, it’s probably a better situation now. If they have a contact where they can go and speak to someone, if they’ve got problems outside of football, maybe at home, then that’s definitely an avenue that needs to be looked at. But there’s definitely a lot more being done now, which is great.”

Hall has moved on, both mentally in terms of his attitude and mindset, and physically in terms of his recent move to Middlesbrough. He is grateful for the support and understanding he received at QPR, but is ready for a new start, with Neil Warnock speaking optimistically of mounting a promotion push next season.

Having bemoaned a lack of leadership in his squad last season, Warnock has turned to Hall to redress the balance. As a centre-half, the 28-year-old has always been something of an organiser on the field. But he admits the events of the last few years have given him a new sense of perspective that aids him when it comes to performing on the pitch.

“I was given the captain’s armband at QPR last season, and that was a real honour,” he said. “It definitely brought me out of myself a bit more. There’s lots of responsibilities that come with being a captain, but you’ll only be successful if you have 11 leaders on the pitch. That’s how you’ll be successful, personally and as a team.”