When a 17-year-old lad from Kent was brought to a roadshow in the Scottish highlands seven years ago, the chance of becoming Football's Next Star was just a dream, but after 7,000 applicants, several grueling episodes and a tense final showdown, a fresh-faced Ben Greenhalgh was offered a six-month professional contract with European giants Inter Milan.
On the 14th of February 2010, thousands of people tuned in to watch Greenhalgh realise his dream of becoming a professional footballer for one of Italy's greatest clubs, but what happened to the pacey winger tipped for greatness by Jamie Redknapp? How did the experience of playing with Patrick Vieira, Lucio and Ricardo Quaresma impact on his career and what really happened during and after his time in Milan?
If you're unfamiliar with the programme, Football's Next Star was a show on Sky1 that gave young, British talent a platform to showcase their abilities, with a professional contract at Inter Milan the winning prize. Former Tottenham and Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp hosted the show, while Italian coaches Marco Monti and Paolo Migilavacca decided who stayed, and who was released from the process. Week by week, the group became smaller as the competition became tougher.
Sky1 produced one of the most iconic reality shows in recent memory when they broadcast Football's Next Star back in 2010. It was something different. It showcased a unique blend between reality and fantasy. The fact that a teenager from Kent, who had only previously featured in a handful of games for Welling United youth team, could win a contract at three-time Champions League winners Inter Milan is special television. Watching back some of the old footage has just emphasised that fact.
Seven years on from that memorable contract signing in Milan, I spoke to Greenhalgh about his journey from Football's Next Star to Serie A and beyond. Now playing at National League side Maidstone United, the 24-year-old spoke about the roadshow in Scotland and how it changed his life:
I was taken to the roadshow by Kent manager Ken Brooke at the time. He brought the whole squad along and treated it as a training session for us. I was lucky enough to be spotted by a few of the scouts and put into the match at the end of the day. It was then where Jamie Redknapp noticed me and pulled me aside.
I was the only one to get through that day out of 250, in the matter of a few drills and a match I had gone from being a Kent rep player to being on the books of Jamie Redknapp.
Greenhalgh certainly made a name for himself in the roadshow as scouts looked on, impressed with the his trickery, pace and ability to take on a defender. The 17-year-old breezed into the top 20 and in a later episode, the 20 contestants quickly condensed into the final ten. The group would then arrived in Lake Como, Italy, to battle for a professional contract and take part in Inter Milan training, language lessons and more challenges to test their ability to cope with Italian life. After six episodes and hours of filming, Ben eventually reached the final three.
He was joined by some memorable characters during the series, including Gavin Colton and Hicham Abdellah, but the final three was made up of Craig Walsh from Dublin and Connor Smith, who now plays for Plymouth Argyle.
It was clear from our chat that the trio became good friends during the process:
I've got most of the guys on Twitter, and I try to keep an eye out on how they're getting on. It's very much a thing with football though, you become great friends with your teammates, live together almost like they are family and then players move. Obviously with the amount of clubs I've had, I'd have to travel around the world to keep up with everyone.
After a tense hour-long episode, Ben was greeted with a classic line from Inter Milan youth coach Marco Monti, "Well done, you have won Football's Next Star". It was a dream come true for the 17-year-old who could only dream of a professional contract on that cold day in Scotland.
One of the biggest icons on Football's Next Star was Inter Milan youth coach Monti, who became a father-figure for many of the contestants. The "I'm sorry" and "well done" catchphrases were repeated in living rooms up and down the country as his strict but kind personality warmed the hearts of many viewers, including myself. Greenhalgh was certainly complimentary about Monti:
I got along with Marco really well and I noticed watching the show back that I caught his eye quite early on in the process, because he didn't give much a way while filming. To this day, I still try to avoid playing with 'fare' (he was meant to say fear but after five takes I think the film crew just went along with it.)He had done it, but the reality of becoming an Inter Milan player was to hit Greenhalgh hard in the coming weeks. The winger honoured his original six month contract in Milan and the Italian side decided to renew his deal. That being said, Inter sent the youngster to Calcio Como on a four month loan deal. He scored 8 goals in 12 games during his time in Serie C but his time in Italy was about to come to an end:
He kept in touch while he was out there, I went for a meal with his family and they were very welcoming. At the time, I didn't see much of him as he worked on the media side rather than around the training pitch.
I was given a 6 month contract following the programme, and once this had run out I re-signed for a following season, which included a four month loan to Calcio Como. It was difficult because the show was never aired in Italy, so even though I had a lot of media attention back home, at Inter Milan, no one knew who I was. It was the reality once I was off the cameras that hit me hard.
"After Inter Milan, i was offered deals in Serie B and C but this was a bad time for Italian lower league football, there were match fixing scandals, poor attendances and lots of clubs couldn't pay their players. So realistically, I couldn't take the risk.
After spending 12 months in Italy with the Nerazzurri, he returned to England and began training with Brighton and Hove Albion's reserve team, but it turns out Greenhalgh's career would have taken a huge twist if he had failed to win Football's Next Star.
The 25-year-old revealed to us that Harry Redknapp, who was the Tottenham manager in 2010, would have offered him a two-year contract if he had not been crowned the winner of the show:
I remember Jamie (Redknapp) said to me after I won the show that he had his father (Harry) on the phone about a potential deal. If I hadn't have won the show, he was waiting with a two year deal. To this day I would love to have taken that option because i would've been in England, playing football where I wanted to be and it would've been easier to make more of a career back home too.
But I couldn't turn down Inter. Being out there for two years in the reserves definitely effected my chances of returning because I went off the radar. But being part of something at Inter, and training with the team that won the Champions League and the treble under Mourinho is something I can't get my head round to this day.
After spells at Brighton, Concord Rangers and Conference Premier side Ebbsfleet, the winger joined England legend Terry Butcher at Scottish side Inverness in 2013. He then joined Stenhousemuir on loan before taking in spells with Hemel Hempstead Town and Maidstone United and finally returning to Concord for a third run with the club.
I loved my spell up in Scotland but it dried out once Butcher left the club and Hughes came in and changed things up. I'm still in touch with people up in Scotland and it is a possibility too head back up there. Clubs are interested so that may be on the cards again, however I'm enjoying non-league again and Maidstone is a massive up and coming club. It has been a good club to be a part of.
Since leaving the full time game, Greenhalgh has been part of Select Sport Artists, who originally set him as a Cristiano Ronaldo body double, but since that gig, he has doubled for players such as Mesut Ozil, Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie, Luke Shaw, Lionel Messi, and Diego Costa (to his disappointment). Ben has worked on most Adidas adverts over the last two seasons, so if you ever see footage of just feet, there is a good chance that the footwork featured is in fact him.
It feels good to display my skills on camera again. I'm really enjoying working with the best players in the world. It's incredible to have a kickabout with the likes of Ronaldo on and off set. I'm also enjoying the balance between playing football still in front of good crowds, and teeing off during the week in professional golf competitions."
Ben Greenhalgh won a six-month contract with Inter Milan, played with the likes of Patrick Vieira. It's safe to say that only a handful of 25-year-old's in this country have such a range of incredible life experiences and the Orpington-born winger has incredibly fond memories of his time in Italy and the challenges of Football's Next Star:
Being on the show was probably my greatest moment in football. You're stuck in a dream world where everything just kept getting better and better. In my mind there was no pressure. I was just taking it all in. I had been under the radar for a few months since winning the show before it was aired but after the first episode my Facebook account crashed and that's when it all kicked in.
The show itself was a positive experience and I learned how to keep my head in tough situations like 'the danger zone' which was a lot more nerve racking than it looked because it was take us hours to film before we even found out who was to stay. Being chucked in the deep end with massive names like Vieira and Quaresma has helped me today to feel no pressure in games.
An incredible story, but the journey is far from over for Ben, who is also proving to be a dab hand on the golf course these days, as well.
Where next for Football's Next Star?
Featured Image Credit: Sky/Inter Milan