Paul Wilson (The Observer) reports on the performance of footballers Aaron Pierre and Omar Beckles, who play for Shrewsbury Town and the Grenada national team. He writes, “Grenada internationals, Aaron Pierre and Omar Beckles, look forward to Shrewsbury’s giantkilling Cup attempt at New Meadow.”
“I just went for it,” Aaron Pierre says modestly of the winning goal against Bristol City that earned Shrewsbury a fourth-round tie against the champions of the world. “The gaffer encourages the back three to go forward, it was the last minute of the game and anything could have happened, but luckily it worked out for me.”
And for everyone else at the League One club from Shropshire. Pierre has had his FA Cup moments before, notably when trying without much success to mark Son Heung-min while playing for Wycombe against Spurs three years ago, but Liverpool is the sort of draw that gets a club like Shrewsbury noticed, and by the time he hit his late winner in the third-round replay it had already been made.
“It didn’t strike me at the time,” Pierre says. “It took a while for what I had done to sink in. It was only after the game that I picked up on the energy around the club, the supporters running on to the pitch and the chairman asking me why I couldn’t do that every week.”
Pierre is in dreamland twice over at the moment, for along with his teammate Omar Beckles he has just helped Grenada qualify for the Concacaf Gold Cup for only the third time in the small nation’s history. International success and FA Cup progress have actually gone hand in hand, for when Shrewsbury beat Bradford in a first-round replay at a freezing Valley Parade, their pair of Grenadian defenders had just flown in from a game in a very different climate away to St Kitts & Nevis.
Beckles played in the Bradford match while Pierre was kept on the bench, so the former takes up the story. “The contrast was amazing,” Beckles says. “St Kitts was incredibly hot and Bradford was Baltic.
“We had a tough job getting back in time, too. We qualified on the Thursday and were supposed to fly back on Friday but the flight didn’t take off. It was carnage at the airport and we had to stay another night. That meant we got back on the Sunday, trained on the Monday and played the Cup game on the Tuesday.
“It wasn’t ideal but you get used to a little inconvenience when you play your international football in the Caribbean. Our manager is very understanding and always tries to look after us.” Originally on Millwall’s books, Beckles spent six years in non-league football after being released, moving around frequently until Accrington gave him his break in 2016 at the age of 25. “It was the school of hard knocks and, yes, there were times when I felt like giving up,” he says.
“You are playing part time, I was working in a school as a PE teacher and still chasing the footballing dream, and it’s not easy. When Kettering promised me full-time football I couldn’t wait to sign up but they were late paying our wages the first month, then the second month they couldn’t pay at all. I ended up going back to Boreham Wood and then on to Billericay.
“There’s quite a lot of stress in all that. Even at this level one-year contracts are quite common. There’s no stability like there is at the top. People don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes, how volatile the life can be. Players are uprooted, sent out on loan somewhere else, and I’ve seen people lose relationships because of that, but footballers are not perceived as humans with real feelings and real problems.” [. . .] “You have to wear a mask, even though it is uncomfortable, and you are not allowed to be yourself. People can’t really cope with footballers being just like everyone else. Look at all the fuss when that Sheffield United player [Oli McBurnie] went to watch a game in the crowd.”
If Beckles speaks with insight on this subject, it is because he has suffered from anxiety and depression in the past and now runs a foundation offering support to anyone affected by mental-health issues. “It started off as part of the grieving process when my father died,” he explains. “All I wanted was to step in and provide for my family but the pressure got the better of me. I became so tense I had to wear a device to prevent me grinding my teeth in my sleep. I don’t want to complain about my life because I am where I always wanted to be. I have a lot to be thankful for and I’m grateful but, if I can use this platform to help others, I will try.”
Returning to Sunday’s game, both Beckles and Pierre are realistic enough to accept that Liverpool are unlikely to be at full strength, especially after the success of their alternative side in the last round against Everton.
“They played on Thursday, so I think they will be resting a few,” Beckles says. “If they play their youngsters again, it might make it tougher because players on the fringes always have a point to prove.” Pierre is equally philosophical. “We just have to try and stop whoever we are playing but, if you are going to get knocked out of a competition, you always want to have been beaten by the best,” he adds. “It would be good to have the experience of playing against Mo Salah or Sadio Mané, just to see if they are any harder to stop than Son, and as a centre-half I would love to play against Virgil van Dijk as well. In fact, if he even turns up at the ground to watch, I might ask him for his shirt.”