We managed to grab a few words with Maidstone United’s midfield maestro Ben Greenhalgh, probably the only man to have graced both the San Siro and The Gallagher Stadium.
I think we can all relate to this. Playing Football Manager 2016, starting off with my local club of Sutton United and searching for the next superstar. I am sure many people reading this will have done the same thing, starting off in the lower leagues whilst trying to work their way up. That’s when I came across Ben Greenhalgh. I signed him on a free on an account of his stats and he was soon banging in the goals. I got promoted and I am sure I sold him on for a decent little fee. I always give players who I signed a cursory “Google” search or look them up on Wikipedia to see how they are getting on in real life. I was shocked when I read Ben’s story. Winner of reality TV programme Football’s Next Star, he was given an 18 month professional contract at Serie A giants Internazionale, is a pro golfer and has starred as a body double for none other than Cristiano Ronaldo. All at the tender age of 24. So where did this journey start?
Ben James Greenhalgh was born in Orpington on 16th April 1992 originally played for Welling United’s youth team, before his talent was spotted on FNS. I wanted to know how this experience had shaped his career to date:
“It made a difference with some of the moves I have made. Without Footballs Next Star I wouldn’t have played in Italy and probably wouldn’t have got the opportunity to play in Scotland aswell because that came off the back of it. At Inverness I gained a of experience footballing wise from Terry Butcher”.
The experience helped in other ways, being away from home at such a young age was bound to present its own challenges.
“In Italy it was more of a life learning experience, stuck out there on your own and you have to learn the way of football and the language. It helped me grow up as a player”.
Despite nearly eight years passing since FNS, Greenhalgh has forged careers at Welling United, Ebbsfleet United, Concord Rangers and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. So, does he still get recognised from his time on the show?
“No one pulls me aside and asks if I was on Footballs Next Star but it is something I am remembered for. I know well enough it wasn’t going to make me an Inter Milan superstar. I knew it was an opportunity to go and learn at the time and take my career as far as I could.”
For such a well travelled player at such a young age, who has exeperienced different levels of the Football pyramid, in three different countries, I wanted to know where he thinks the Non-League game is right now:
“It s good, its definitely getting watched more in and around grounds. If you look at us, when we were in the Ryman leagues, we were getting one and a half thousand, now we’re pushing three thousand fans and we’re still in Non League. Even at National League level, no one looks at it as Non League because of the standard, the way football is played. A lot of the teams are full time so you wouldn’t call it Non League.”
And of course, the support from the Maidstone faithful helps spur him and the team on.
“Maidstone have always had a great fanbase here at The Gallagher, but also our away fans. If you look at when we have played teams like Tranmere, ex Football league clubs, our fans are the loudest. It’s massive for us. About two years ago we played away at Stevenage. We came out to about a thousand Maidstone fans who were filling up the ground more than the home fans. Its absolutely massive for us, it makes us feel more relaxed and makes us want to do as much as you can for the fans”.
But what about player safety? We have all heard the story of Fabrice Muamba. But what about Non League players? Tragically, the latest player to collapse and subsequently pass away was Daniel Wilkinson, a ex-Hull City professional. It’s a situation that sadly is becoming more frequent. Can anything be done to stop or reduce this problem?
“Players need to be checked on a regular basis, its not something I have seen happen in Non League and you never know what can happen. There are people on standby to help which is a good thing who are trained medical staff”.