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Ben Nuttall is the footballer turned world-record-breaking freestyler
Teenager Ben Nuttall is a three-time Guinness World Record holder. Adam Bate caught up with him to find out why he's now sharing his story with young offenders to help them turn their lives around...
Last Updated: 13/02/20 7:23am
When Ben Nuttall was a boy, his only dream was to become a professional footballer for his beloved Birmingham City. "It has always been my club," he tells Sky Sports.
"It was passed down to me from my great-grandad. My heart was set on it and when I was 12 I got into the Birmingham academy so I was training and playing with them. All I had ever thought was that I was going to be a footballer for Birmingham. Reaching the first team was the dream but when I was 13 they released me from the club."
For many hopefuls, discovering that a career in football is not going to happen can be a shattering blow. But Nuttall found a way to make it back onto the St Andrew's pitch with a football at his feet - entertaining the crowd in his new career as a football freestyler.
"I did their kit launch and a performance on the pitch," he says with pride. "I always hoped I would be on the Birmingham City pitch when I was younger, but never in this way."
Nuttall, 19, has also showcased his skills at Old Trafford and those skills are considerable - he holds three different Guinness World Records.
They include the record for the most neck passes in a minute, the most kick ups in a minute while wearing ankle weights, and the most consecutive rugby ball touches without allowing the ball to touch the ground.
That's 187 in case you were wondering.
For Nuttall, being a freestyler is more than the next best thing.
"It wasn't great when I was released but as soon as I started doing freestyle it took my mind off it and I enjoyed it way more than I had ever enjoyed football when I was playing anyway.
"I had always been into the skills side of football. Nothing serious but I loved the stepovers and watching Ronaldinho and all that. Just practising keepy-ups in the garden.
"I had been a left-winger as a footballer. I had always been quite fast and skilful but I was a bit smaller and I would get pushed off the ball easily. If I had gone to the gym and worked on my strength then, who knows, perhaps I could have got back in.
"Instead, when I got released, I just decided to work on my skills a bit more. It was nothing serious at that stage. There was still an aim there - part of me was thinking that if I could improve my skills enough then I could get back into the academy at Birmingham.
"But basically the more I was practising my keepy-ups and my skills, I literally became addicted to freestyle football. I purely wanted to try the tricks.
"I started watching YouTube videos and world champions of freestyle. I realised there was a community of people doing it. Up until that point I had been doing it for a bit of fun just as a way of getting back into football but then I realised freestyle football was its own thing.
"I was becoming so addicted to it and I was finding it more enjoyable than football itself. From the age of 13, I never really got back into football. It was all about freestyle.
"I have not played a match since then."
Some would miss the camaraderie of a team environment but Nuttall has found the freestyling community just as welcoming in its own way. "You can meet up with friends and try stuff together," he says. "There is no jealousy there, it's very encouraging. It isn't lonely."
And besides, football cannot replicate the freedom of freestyling.
"That is the thing," he adds. "When I was playing for Birmingham, you have to rely on your team-mates because it's obviously a team sport. You have a coach telling you what to do and when you can train. With freestyle I can do whatever I want whenever I want.
"Whatever I put into it, I will get out of it. When you are young, sometimes you can resent authority figures. Being able to try my tricks in my garden or on the street, I don't know, I just enjoyed that. It was something that allowed me to express myself and be creative."
Not that it is all about free expression. Learning the skills requires extraordinary discipline and patience. "There is a lot of trying and failing," he explains. "You learn by trial and error."
Perhaps it helps that Nuttall's uncle is a professional juggler - with his hands. "I don't know if there's a gene for perseverance because it's the same thing - you fail and then you repeat until you get it."
It is this positive message of hard work that Nuttall is now trying to spread. He has been going into schools and academies for some time but last year he also went to talk to youth offenders in prison in the hope of inspiring them to turn their lives around.
"It is voluntary," he explains. "I don't expect anything from it. I got in touch with the youth offenders system and set up a session in Derby. It was part of the initiative with the Prince's Trust. I showed them some of my skills and taught them some tricks.
"It is obviously good for them to be healthy and active. When I started freestyling it gave me something to focus on and kept me on a straight path. So I had this idea. Some of the people I used to play football with ended up in some of the youth prisons around here. I wanted to go into these prisons and share my journey, teach them some tricks and stuff.
"I didn't go in there blind. I do a lot of coaching in youth clubs and schools so I know how it works. The difference is that the kids in those environments really react to it and when they do something good they are visibly excited and happy.
"In youth prison, when they do a trick right they won't necessarily show it outwardly but you can tell they are pleased. They are not jumping around shouting but the feedback I have had is that they are really engaged. I am not being funny but they probably get a lot of people coming in and giving them a lecture so it's something a bit different.
"I think I was lucky to stumble across something that's a massive passion of mine and has become a huge part of my life. Everyone has something. It can be football, music or art. I just like to relay that message - that having something to focus on is a positive."
There are plans for more such ventures. "I really want to do one in Birmingham soon," he says. Nuttall is making a difference and such is the growth of freestyling that it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential impact that he - and others like him - could have.
"When I started, it was nowhere near as big as it is now," he adds. "Social media has made freestyle football so much bigger. A lot of freestylers are influencers now with more followers than Premier League footballers."
Perhaps Ben Nuttall's own future could yet take him full circle, back to Birmingham's academy to talk to the young players there. "I haven't been back to the academy yet," he says. "That would be nice."
It has been quite a journey since then.