Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Whatever Happened to Football's Next Star?

"I remember the first time I was pulled into a first team training session during the show, it was so surreal. I found myself on a team with Mario Balotelli and Ricardo Quaresma playing up against Lucio and Javier Zanetti. It's no coincidence that you can't play your best football when you're completely star-struck." Ben Greenhalgh was taking part in Sky One's 2010 reality TV program "Football's Next Star". Ben had impressed in a trial in Kent earlier in the year, and had been chosen as one of forty young footballers who could be the "next big thing" and end up being rewarded with a professional contract with Inter Milan, who at the time were managed by Jose Mourinho.

"That day I wasn't taking anything seriously" Ben reminisces about the trial day back in 2009 "Jamie Redknapp approached me and said I'd been selected. I was like the only one out of about 300 lads. I took it all in my stride, I wasn't fazed by anything as many things were going my way at the time. I'd signed a professional contract at Welling when I was sixteen, and I had just been selected for England U18's, so maybe the reason I remained so composed during the whole process was due to the fact that I felt I had places to fall back to."

Over the next weekend the forty young footballers were whittled down to ten to take part in the TV show, and Ben was chosen. By his own admittance he had a good game in the hour long match, he set up a goal for fellow finalist Hicham Abdellah. This was all part of the 1st episode aired in January 2010, and the episode ended with each player being presented with an Inter Milan shirt and the boys jetted off to Italy to take part in the TV program.  In the following episodes player's were eliminated until only two remained, and the series culminated with Ben winning and earning himself a six-month contract at then Serie A, Champions League and Coppa Italia winners Inter Milan.

"The first team would give me a lot of confidence whenever I trained with them, and they all understood what approach was best for a 17/18 year old stepping up into this level. Patrick Vieira was fantastic for me, as things had happened so quickly for me, I hadn't had time to learn Italian. Patrick translated most things for me on the training pitch, so I understood what I needed to do." Ben's first team training opportunities were limited as he spent a majority of the time training with the reserves, who were mostly young foreign players as well. "I was finding it really hard to adapt to the Italian culture, I didn't speak hardly any of the language and neither did any of my reserve team-mates. It was tough. I lived with Mattia Destro who was tipped for big things at Inter, but just as I got to know him and build a friendship with him, he was sold to Genoa."

Once the six months had passed, Ben had done enough to earn another year's contract at Inter Milan, which included a loan period at Como who at the time were playing in Serie C. "Como was more realistic for me, let's be serious I was never going to break into that Inter team. I was going into the Como team as someone on loan from Inter, that's quite a tag to have. It was definitely my big chance. No-one spoke English and I had to really immerse myself into the culture. I ended up loving my time there, I was nearly fluent in the language and I was playing really well." In twelve games towards the end of the 2010/2011 season Greenhalgh scored eight times.  But his time in Italy was coming to an end "Como were in real financial difficulty and the first team players hadn't been paid for three months. I couldn't take the risk of staying there not being paid.  If I was being paid to play, there is a fair chance I'd still be out there now." In fact during the 2010/2011 season Serie B and Serie C was awash with a number of sides facing financial ruin, in Serie B; Ascoli and Ancona were expelled from the League due to financial irregularities, and only Ascoli were reinstated after appeal. Meanwhile in Serie C, Como were deducted 1 point for financial irregularities. Como were not alone, as many as seven sides were deducted points for improper financial information. However Ravenna were deducted seven points for match-fixing, whilst Alessandria were demoted to last place in the table for the same offence.  Whilst the football on the pitch may have been good for Greenhalgh, off the pitch things in Italy were tumultuous.

Ben returned to England and during the summer of 2011 had trials at Brighton and Birmingham, without any success. Greenhalgh returned to where it all began for him Welling United.  Ben's time in Italy had served him well, as his set piece delivery had improved and was a constant threat for Ben in non-league football. "I'd worked really hard on it during my time in Italy. It all comes down to confidence, if you have confidence in your delivery and so do your management and players then there is no pressure." Ben could lean on words of praise from Patrick Vieira which not many non-league player's can call on - "Patrick always told me to be confident on the ball, and have faith in my ability. Whenever I spoke to him at Inter, he always drilled that into me."

Ben's left wing wizardry and set-piece delivery was noticed by Scottish Premier League side Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the summer of 2013 who were then being managed by Terry Butcher "Terry managed the way he played the game, he wore his heart on his sleeve and showed so much passion for the game it was admirable.  He loved his wingers as well, which was good news for me. It's probably why I got on so well with him, and I was given great opportunities. However just as I was breaking into the first team, Terry left for Hibs." Butcher's departure from Inverness affected Greenhalgh as incoming manager John Hughes did not select him and Greenhalgh was left to rot in the reserves, and despite a successful loan period at Stenhousemuir which helped Greenhalgh "get back into the swing of things", at the end of the 2013/2014 season Greenhalgh was returning back to England.

Ben spent the 2014/2015 season at Maidstone who were a team on the rise and Greenhalgh had his best scoring season to date, as he hit double figures in Maidstone's Championship winning season in the Isthmian Premier Division.  Greenhalgh was on the move again at the end of that season, and spent a year at Concord Rangers, in which he revelled in a free role given to him by manager Adam Flanagan. As Ben said earlier "If the management have confidence in your ability then you can deliver." Greenhalgh scored nineteen goals in the 2015/2016 including the winner in the Essex Senior Cup Final, and probably assisted just as many goals if not more.

Maidstone came a calling again this summer. The Kent side had now been promoted to the National League and were playing in front of crowds of over 2000 on a regular basis at their new stadium.  In six years Greenhalgh, had gone from Serie A to the National League via the Scottish Premiership, but does he still have the love for the game that day he was approached by Jamie Redknapp -  " My aim in football is to always enjoy where I'm playing, and to keep the passion for playing as high as possible which can be hard in the world of football. Maidstone have fantastic ambition and with the support we get from the fans and community, whose to say where we could end up. Full time training is something I definitely miss, but I'm constantly looking to improve my game and to keep myself in the best physical shape."

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