Home Sports ‘Football’s Next Star’ Ben Greenhalgh on his remarkable career

‘Football’s Next Star’ Ben Greenhalgh on his remarkable career

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From acting as Cristiano Ronaldo’s body double to joining Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and missing out on a two-year deal at Tottenham… this is the remarkable story of ‘Football’s Next Star’ Ben Greenhalgh 10 years on from his win on hit Sky show

  • Ben Greenhalgh won Football’s Next Star, a football TV show which aired in 2010
  • He won a six-month contract with Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan 
  • The winger was also offered a two-year deal at Tottenham by Harry Redknapp
  • At 16, he doubled for Cristiano Ronaldo and he has also worked with Diego Costa
  • After a whirlwind 10 years, Greenhalgh talks to Sportsmail about his career 

At the beginning, Ben Greenhalgh went along for a laugh. Playing football, like any other 17-year-old obsessive, was all he craved. Little did he know then just how his life would take off.

In 2009, the fleet-footed, left-sided winger trialled, or some would say auditioned, for a new reality football show on Sky One called Football’s Next Star. The winner would receive a six-month professional contract with soon-to-be treble winners Inter Milan, managed by Jose Mourinho.

If your memory isn’t jogged yet, spoiler alert: Greenhalgh won the competition, with the final airing in February 2010 hitting higher ratings than Strictly Come Dancing. Ten years on, ‘Football’s Next Star’ is spending his Tuesday night coaching his Under 18s side at Corinthian FC, a remote club on a farm in rural Kent. And Storm Dennis is howling.

Ben Greenhalgh with then Inter boss Jose Mourinho after winning Football’s Next Star in 2010

The 27-year-old being interviewed whilst playing for his current club, Tonbridge Angels 

‘This was my first proper club. I go from A to B every day in the rain but football is football. Can’t beat it,’ the 27-year-old tells Sportsmail, as we take a seat in the pitchside dugout, jackets zipped up to the max.

It is a far cry from the heavy heights he once reached. Whether it be doubling for Cristiano Ronaldo, playing under Terry Butcher or being mentored by Jamie Redknapp, he has been privileged to meet some of world football’s most famous stars.

On Ronaldo, whom he met a year before his big TV break while working for modelling company Select Sports Artists, he radiates positivity. ‘I did a couple of adverts when I was 16 for my coach Mike Delaney, who was a football choreographer,’ Greenhalgh tells.

‘As I was growing up, I moved more like Ronaldo. I was a winger, who liked to do skills. Admittedly I based myself on him and ended up looking a little bit like him!

‘Back then at Manchester United, he was probably more willing than he is now. He hung about for three hours, did keepy-ups with me, showing skills, that’s what he was like.’

His most amusing celebrity tale from his fledgling modelling career may not come as a surprise to many however.

Greenhalgh acted as a double for Cristiano Ronaldo during his Manchester United days

‘They got me to double for Diego Costa which I wasn’t too happy about! Anyway, as they tried to film he kept slide tackling the camera! 

‘I’ve never seen anything like it, he was like a little kid in a man’s body. I think that’s why Chelsea got rid of him simply because [Antonio] Conte couldn’t handle him!’

But the most crucial eye he caught was Redknapp, who was impressed with his speed and trickery in that trial match. 

‘I was lucky enough that Jamie saw something in me. He gave me his phone number and we were chatting the whole time. It did feel surreal, but I surprised myself massively – even when I was out in Italy, I didn’t get starstruck.’

The 2,000-player shortlist was ruthlessly trimmed and Greenhalgh jetted off to Italy alongside nine other promising youngsters – 10 players, seven weeks, one contract.

‘We were chucked in a mansion, cameras everywhere, a bunch of boys who’d never met each other before. Realistically we were living the dream.’

The show was a massive hit, in particular the X-Factor style ‘danger-zone’ which concluded every episode. One-by-one, the shortlist was narrowed by Inter youth coach Marco Monti; the show’s very own Simon Cowell. Was this a gameshow, or a genuine talent-spotting masterstroke?

Greenhalgh (L) in the ‘danger-zone’ during the penultimate episode of Football’s Next Star

‘The danger-zone was three minutes of footage, but it took about two hours to film,’ Greenhalgh explains. ‘You did a different angle, you stood up, sat back down again and by that point you knew you were in the danger-zone.

‘It was definitely nerve-racking. Sometimes when I watch these shows now, people play up to the cameras but we didn’t do that.

‘Early on, we were watching the first-team train when they needed another body. I got the call over, and I remember receiving the ball from [Ricardo] Quaresma. I started running at Lucio and my legs turned to jelly! I looked up and realised who I was trying to dribble past.’

Simply put, for a 17-year-old footballer it was fantasy land, all documented for national entertainment. After winning, he spent time training with the first-team during the 2009-10 season, the most successful in the history of Italian football. He even received a Champions League winners medal.

Greenhalgh trained alongside Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning side in the 2009-10 season

The teenage winger trains with the Inter first-team, with Patrick Vieira in the background 

‘To this day, those memories you can’t compete with,’ he reminisces. ‘I was quite level-headed when training with the first-team, I knew where I was and where they were. Everyone was so respectful of Mourinho. Those he didn’t like, he’d freeze out.’ 

So brace yourselves folks, it’s storytime with our regular maverick, Mario Balotelli.

‘Balotelli was 19, a bit older than me,’ he tells. ‘He couldn’t acclimatise himself to not playing. He came on for 15 minutes in the Champions League semi-final first-leg against Barcelona and after a 3-1 win, he spat on his Inter shirt and threw it in the ground. Like, what has gone through his head?’

Mario Balotelli gestures to Inter supporters after they beat Barcelona in the Champions League

Greenhalgh couldn’t make the meteoric breakthrough at Inter, but thoroughly enjoyed his time on-loan at Serie C club Como. He quickly learned the language, and was keen on signing permanently on the northern border. If only it wasn’t for the match-fixing and financial turmoil.

‘We had a guy come in and said we were meant to draw. I asked the boys “is this serious?” They said “not really” but we ended up drawing the game. Maybe a few players were in on it.

‘It’s a shame because when you look at Italian football, it does come across as quite boring. Is it boring because all the players know what they want to happen?’

He returned home to Kent where his new-found fame meant he tended to be stopped in the streets. The ‘top 10 celebrities in Orpington’, as he puts it. 

Yet still, despite the experience of a lifetime, failing to win the show could actually have given him a bigger break. A two-year deal at Tottenham was on the table from Harry Redknapp.

Harry Redknapp was prepared to offer Greenhalgh a two-year deal if he didn’t win the show

The 17-year-old formed a close bond with the host of Football’s Next Star, Jamie Redknapp (L)

He openly admits: ‘Jamie said if I hadn’t won, I could’ve had a two-year deal at Tottenham. I never look back on it. Football can take you on so many different journeys.’

Indeed it can. From Brighton’s development squad playing with Lewis Dunk, to a period under Butcher at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and then the rigours of sourcing your next paycheck in non-league football, Greenhalgh has seen it all.

‘If anyone asks me what my best time in football was, I’d say it was Inverness. We were in the middle of nowhere, we saw each other every day and the best thing was Terry Butcher bought into the culture of the changing room. 

‘The changing room matters. Terry was one of the most honest, most truthful men. You did not want to do wrong by him or let him down.’

BEN GREENHALGH’S CAREER 

  • Welling Utd (2009-10, 2012)
  • Inter Milan (2010-11)
  • Como (2010, LOAN)
  • Ebbsfleet United (2012-13)
  • Maidstone United (2013, 2014-15, 2016-17)
  • Concord Rangers (2013, 2015-16, 2017-18)
  • Inverness Caledonian Thistle (2013-14)
  • Stenhousemuir (2014, LOAN) 
  • Hemel Hempstead Town (2017) 
  • Dartford (2018-20)
  • Tonbridge Angels (2019 LOAN, 2020-current) 

TOTAL – 11 clubs 

Let him down he did not, but upon Butcher leaving for Hibernian in November 2013, Greenhalgh was frozen out under successor John Hughes and moved back down south, carving out a career at semi-pro level. A standard he still excels in now.

He has just moved from Dartford – where he coaches at the club’s academy – to Tonbridge Angels, in the National League South. He wants to play until the age of 40 but he admits his future lies in coaching and he will take his UEFA B Badge next year.

For the whirlwind decade Greenhalgh has experienced, Football’s Next Star on the other hand was a one-series wonder. A second season, supposedly involving Manchester City, did not materialise.

‘To this day, I don’t know why there isn’t more football shows. I guess what they struggle with is keeping the reality the reality. It’s frustrating because being picked up is so difficult.

‘Football is a brutal career. Every Saturday, at every level, there is someone shouting at someone, finishing their career.’

As for the man himself, the future looks set to be immersed in the game he loves and has never left.

‘I’d like to say top-flight management,’ he ambitiously states. ‘A big inspiration for me and one of the best managers I ever played under was Danny Cowley at Concord Rangers. He’s now at Huddersfield and he is someone who keeps going up and you don’t see that in management careers – there’s always a drop.

Greenhalgh played under Danny Cowley, now at Huddersfield, while at Concord Rangers 

The semi-pro footballer and coach talks to Sportsmail at Corinthian FC about his career 

‘But one thing I learned from him was his energy and his love for football. Non-stop, and always positive. He got the most out of me in just 12 weeks.’

It is at this point in the interview when a club official sprints over to ask: ‘Ben, have you done the teamsheet?’ The answer is an emphatic no, and as we dash across the pitch to the changing rooms, the heavens open. Bang on cue.

He may not be turning heads in the Mediterranean heat, but it turns out Ben Greenhalgh is right. No matter where or when, in sun or in rain, football is football.

 

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