Taking Football to the Streets — Part II

Taking Football To The Streets
Part Two
In part two of a special feature looking at taking football back to the streets, Jon Townsend interviews John Farnworth on his remarkable journey into freestyle football.

By Jonathan Townsend | 4 March 2014

Every footballer has their own story. Some are more akin to war stories of the jaded and faded who claim to have never received a fair shot or shake at glory. Others will tell you that they decided to pursue other avenues away from the sport. Still more will have their footballing fate decided for them through a series of events of glorious triumphs and failures.

John Farnworth, a freestyle football player who holds more than few Guinness World Records and is considered one of the world’s most entertaining and most-skilled freestyle players, has a story worth telling.

Much like Edward Van Gils and countless other street and footballers, skill acquisition for him required an innate desire to be the best player possible. What is compelling about John’s story, aside from his obvious skill, is his acknowledgement that his adventure is purely a result of his dedication to his craft.

He, like many players, harbored aspirations to play professionally, but unlike many of today’s young players, he became a student of the game. By reading and re-reading a skill book and rehearsing the movements and techniques for hours on end, John bridged the gap he sought to fill and didn’t give up on the sport. He simply found an alternative way to continue playing and making an impact as an entertainer and ambassador of the game.

Interview with John Farnworth

How did you start playing football?

I started playing football when I was about 8 or 9. Before that, I wasn’t really interested in the sport at all. It was my dad who took me to Old Trafford around that time that I started showing an interest. After watching Man United play I was quite inspired to go out and start kicking a ball about and it soon became a massive part of my life. Also, having two brothers helped as well and my family has always been interested in football. My Granddad played for Accrington Stanley and was offered a contract at Burnley before pursuing teaching as it was seen as a “proper job” at the time as there was no money in football.

Did you ever dream of playing professional football? If so, do you have a story about what happened that lead you to be the world’s best freestyle footballers?

Yeah I did, when I was younger I used to go to watch Manchester United all the time and literally played football whenever I could. It was always playing on the street with my mates that I enjoyed most, though. I played for Preston North End Centre of Excellence for a few games and Preston Town team for two years, but around 14-15 years old I stopped playing football for a team and even stopped playing for school, as I stopped enjoying it.

A lot of the coaching was about winning and, in all honesty, I wasn’t bothered about winning. I just wanted to play and develop my skills. I started to enjoy practicing alone usually and this is what eventually led me to Freestyle. At around this time, I had seen a man named Simon Clifford on a TV show called, ‘Michael Owens Soccer Skills’ where Simon had a group of children who were better than Michael Owen at skills.

Simon had trained them up through his method taken from the Brazilians (which later became Brazilian Soccer Schools). Seeing this on TV inspired me a lot. These children where amazing! I was shocked at what they could do. They’d been coached in such a different way, what they were doing was exciting; almost magical and I wanted to join what they were doing immediately.

This experience led me to join one of Simon’s Schools in the Bolton/Manchester area, led by Brian Leach. Brian was brilliant, he taught me so much, the session was all about learning new skills and expression, and some of the lads there were amazing. We always did a bit of freestyle in the sessions, even though at the time it was called freestyle we just called it juggling. We’d learn how to control the ball on every part of our body. It was a lot of fun, but I started to get so much better from being inspired to practice every opportunity that I had. Not long after, I met with Simon who had some nice things to say about me.

We used to go over to Leeds where Simon was based and play games of futebol de salao (futsal) and work on our skills. The environment was very good, very much about learning as opposed to winning. Simon would always teach you in a way like a teacher would by actually showing you something that you could learn from.

I carried on practicing my skills, and a few years down the line in 2003 I went to the Nike Freestyle event in Manchester. At the time, I didn’t know what Freestyle was. I just went along, but I was amazed at what I saw, especially by I guy named Mr. Woo who was juggling the ball with his shins, toes, heels and soles in addition to performing some of the most breathtaking moves with a ball that I had ever seen. That was the day I found what I was going to do!

As a young player, how many touches did you get a day with the ball? How many hours did you practice to develop your skills?

Well that is hard to say but 1000’s of touches. I used to dribble to ball to school and back; even when I was younger I was fascinated with getting better and developing. I used to read Simon Clifford’s book cover-to-cover again and again, just in case I missed something, I would practice all the skills in the book every day. My mum and dad used to tell me to rest, but I could never sit still, it was training with the ball that almost gives me peace. I enjoy practicing, I love mastering things.

When I started more seriously training in freestyle I practiced in every possible opportunity, the same is true today. I always have a ball with me, just in case. I practice all the time it’s a never ending journey of refinement and improvement—it never stops. I believe whatever we are training for or doing in life never hits one big goal, you have to go on and see further each time you improve.

What is your goal as a freestyle footballer? Do you want to see this side of the game grow more? Or, do you like the “underground” (hidden) aspect of the game?

My only goal as a freestyler is to be better than I was yesterday; I just want to make sure that I am guided each day by growth. I want to explore every facet of movement that I can to improve my art and transcend it. I’m sure freestyle will continue to grow and I hope it does. I guess the underground side is quite cool, but the more people see the benefits of freestyle the better.

I hope that those doing freestyle or interested in the art can learn to express themselves through the movement, learn from others of course but find within themselves their own style for that is what freestyle really is. I intend to take what I do to a larger audience I would hope that one day freestyle can be a part of the game of football – that coaches look upon what is behind the art to move the game forward. Football should be entertaining; fans and players love to see amazing skills and creativity and the more I look at freestyle, the more I see it connected to the origins of the game we see today.

I feel this type of football, which requires an exceptional level of skill, is not appreciated as much as the mainstream game. Do you agree? Why or why not?

I think it is appreciated, but I think most coaches don’t see it as an activity that can help football. I have been lucky to work with top football players and it’s interesting to see them trying some of the moves. They are really interested with freestyle; it’s almost this new thing that they don’t know what to do with but they are still fascinated with it.

I want to change this and show how everyone can learn from freestyle whether it be for the game of football or to learn new moves for fun. I agree that it takes a lot of skill and practice and it is something that you have to spend time on. I think that mastering something is quite rare and almost overlooked in society as we have been inclined for the short gain or win for whatever reason.

Freestyle for me is about the journey to master something then keep going and going to see how far you can push it, when you do this you create something that is totally unique and it would be hard not for the mainstream to notice.

What can you tell people about yourself? Describe yourself aside from football so I can help build context to who you are as a player and freestyle football icon.

That’s quite hard! Well I guess I am a very determined person, but I would say that my best quality is just curiosity. I am always curious of everything around me. I want to stay childlike and stay connected to that playful aspect within me. I love to read, write, take pictures and spend time with my family. I love to travel and take in new cultures and learn more about the world. I really like films; I want to learn from film in how I can connect more to people through what I do, especially today with the social media platforms and YouTube.

Who and what influenced you to continue to play football and become the world’s best freestyle footballer? Any favorite players or teams? Unique experiences that you would like share?

As mentioned previously, Simon Clifford has been a massive inspiration on my life and still to this day continues to help guide me on my journey. As a child, I was fascinated with Eric Cantona, he was amazing to watch. Also seeing Ryan Giggs as a youngster was inspiring and players to this day like Ronaldo and Messi make football such an amazing sport.

I am a Manchester United fan, since my dad took me to Old Trafford as a child I have always loved going to games. I don’t go as much now as I would like to do but I was lucky enough to see Alex Ferguson’s last game at Old Trafford. It was so inspiring to see what he had built, from the players to all the staff that works at the club; something truly amazing!

I feel like I have had many unique experiences on my journey so far, I have travelled to over 30 different countries so far which has been amazing. It was amazing performing in the townships of South Africa, I have been lucky enough to travel there a few times now and the people are amazing, whenever I did a show there the people went crazy I had never seen anything like it!

Also, performing at events around the world have been great, including a highly embarrassing experience when I went up to Kevin Spacey and said, ‘Hi, my names John’ he said, ‘Hi’ I said, ‘What’s your name?’ without thinking about it! He just said ‘I’m Kevin.’ I was so embarrassed, but he was one of the nicest humblest guys I’ve met.

Another amazing experience was completing the London marathon while keeping a ball in the air the whole way, it took me 12 hours, the day was amazing, but it was a buildup of training for six months that enabled me to do it.

What is your favorite place to perform freestyle football? What country, would you say, has the best freestyle football?

It’s so hard to choose. One place but being at the 2010 World Cup Final was amazing, performing at Old Trafford was a dream come true. Also performing at a private party for Ruud van Nistelrooy was a huge honour.

Do you have any freestyle footballer friends that have helped you develop as a player?

I mostly train on my own. I feel I am most creative when alone, but I train a bit with Richard Braithwaite, John Whetton, Abbas Farid and Dan Magness. They are all amazing freestylers in their own way with their own styles. I have also worked on events with them quite a bit which is always good fun.

What advice would you give young kids who want to become freestyle footballers or just get better at football in general?

The obvious thing to say is to practice! I know it’s what everyone will say but it’s the truth. I wasn’t born with any particular specialness that has allowed me to get good; I just did what I enjoyed. I only became good after years and years of practice when I started I wasn’t that good at all. I would also advice players to be their own coach, look at your own performance, look at both sides positive and negative and find the middle ground where you can develop.

I would say combine play or creativity with more serious training, I feel we [players] need to combine the two, not being too mechanical with a set belief or not being too playful where they will not get anything done. Personally, players should look, review and aim to be open to everything, but attached to nothing in everything that they do; this way you can progress and achieve amazing things.

It has been said that you have taught some famous footballers some of your moves. Can you share what players you worked with? Have you worked with any football companies to help them promote freestyle football?

Yes, I have worked with and met some amazing football players such as: Jay-Jay Okocha, James Milner, Joe Hart, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia, Anders Lindegaard, Scott Parker, and Rafael Van der Vaart. I also met Ronaldinho years ago when I was doing a demonstration for Brazilian Soccer Schools with a few of the players. It was funny as he stopped and watched with a big smile on his face! The players I have worked with have been brilliant, it’s really strange at first but then you just realize that they are just lads wanting to play football.

I have worked with many brands across the world to promote freestyle and use freestyle as part of certain events. A lot of companies are recognizing freestyle as a way of engaging people, which shows its growth and that people are aware of it. I’m doing a lot of work on a regular basis with some big football brands and clubs.

Aside from asking some of football’s underground stars some salient questions, I also aimed to show readers that whether a player takes it upon themselves to get thousands of touches a day, play for hours on end, or finds some other method to improve their game, the onus of their individual improvement should ultimately rest on their shoulders. The end goal is to for young players to enjoy their football and recapture a passion for the game through simplification and, if nothing else, play for the love of the game.

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Published by Jon Townsend

Jon is a long-serving writer for These Football Times and the Original Coach and is the author of the upcoming book "It's Just a Ball: Exploring the Complexities of a Simple Game". Jon is a supporter of Liverpool Football Club and AFC Ajax. Based in the U.S., Jon is involved in promoting grassroots football and specializes in player development writing and coaching. He is the co-founder of Year Zero Soccer, a non-profit grassroots football organization that is partnered with TFT. His work has been featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Inside Soccer, NSCAA Soccer Journal, White Lines Magazine, and Spartan Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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