John Farnworth: ‘The art of freestyle football has become my life’

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Freestyle footballer and World Record holder John Farnworth knows only too well how everything happens for a reason, as he fell into the art of performing incredible football tricks almost by accident.

“Don’t try this at home” is the mantra we’re used to hearing from our television screens when stunts or tricks are performed.

John Farnworth

John Farnworth

With a wry grin, John Farnworth admits if he hadn’t copied what he’d seen on TV, his life would never have taken the path it has as he made some of his most important decisions after seeing freestyle football skills on television.

John, 29, who lives in Longridge, near Preston, is widely regarded as the top football artist in the world and has won both World and European Freestyle Football titles as well as currently holding five Guiness World records.

Freestyle football is the art of self-expression with a football, while performing various tricks with any part of the body.

John, who loved playing football from a young age, remembers being bitten by the footie bug when his dad Steve took him to watch Manchester United against Sheffield for an FA Cup away game when he was about seven.

There were professional freestylers on stage. Watching them gave me a glimpse of what could be achieved if you put your mind to it.

John recalls: “I wasn’t
really into football but going to that match was amazing.

“Manchester United won and I remember loving the whole experience and watching the fans and players.

“It was my first proper taste of football and I was hooked.”

John joined Grimsargh Cubs’football team as well as playing for Alston Lane Catholic Primary School.

John Farnworth, freestyle footballer

John Farnworth, freestyle footballer

He says: “I enjoyed playing football in the playground. We weren’t allowed to use proper balls in school because the teachers were worried about windows getting smashed.

“So we used to play with tennis balls. It was a bit like in deprived countries where people play football with rolled up socks.

“I think it actually made us better footballers. Because we were used to playing with such a small ball, when we played with a real football in a match, it seemed easier in comparison.”

John, an obsessive Manchester United fan by then, also watched Preston North End who his dad supports.

John Farnworth, freestyle footballer, with Bill Gates

John Farnworth, freestyle footballer, with Bill Gates

He and his brothers, Paul, 25 and Mark, 23, regularly played and watched football and the sport became their life. When John went to St Cecilia’s High School in Longridge, he joined the school football team.

John remembers: “I did every sport I could at school and was quite good at distance running.

“I was quite good at football even though I was small and skinny. I played midfield mostly. I just fitted in where I could.”

When John was 12 or 13, he went to football camp and the then Preston North End manager Gary Peters was at the Centre of Excellence.

John explains: “We were playing a match when I suddenly did a skill – I don’t know where it came from! They call it the Maradona and it is where you touch the ball twice and then spin.

“I did this while Gary Peters was watching and he stopped the game.

“I thought I had done something wrong, but he praised me and said it was creative. This made me feel about two feet taller and I was buzzing all day.”

John was invited to trial for Preston North End and trained with them for six weeks. He says: “They did not put me with my age group but me with the age group below because I was so small.

“I didn’t grow until I was about 16 so when I was at high school, I was a little scrawny thing and hadn’t changed in stature from when I was at primary.

“I am now of average height – about 5ft 9 or 5ft 10.

“I did my six week trial with Preston North End but they didn’t sign me.

“However, they dropped me in nice way and told me to carry on playing football.”

John’s schoolteacher put him forward for the Preston Schoolboys football team and he went for a trial and got in. However, after about two years, when he was 14 or 15, John was dropped.

John recalls: “My coach went into school and told my PE teacher not to send me down anymore as they felt I was too small.

“My PE teacher told me and I was pretty disappointed, but I thought there was nothing I could do about it.

“I decided I would just carry on playing football with the school and my friends and show them in the future what I could achieve.

“I thought I would turn the negative into a positive.”

It was around this time that John watched a show on Channel 4 fronted by footballer Michael Owen.

John explains: “It was called ‘Michael Owen’s Soccer Skills’ and was a six part series teaching you how to play football.

“Children on the show were amazing and talented. They did all sorts of different skills.

“I’d watch what they did then go outside and practice skills I’d seen.”

John realised the children on the show were part of Brazilian Soccer School in Leeds and after browsing the Internet, he found one in Bolton and went along. It proved a life changing experience.

John says: “I met children my age doing the same skills I’d seen on TV.

“I realised it was a new way of playing with more emphasis on developing rather than winning or losing.

“Everyone had a ball, the coach would teach a move then everyone would do it.

“It was done to music and was totally different. I loved it. With football, I had been used to it being about winning the ball and the game.

“But with this, it was about discipline, practice and fitness.

“There was a lot of respect and a great team environment and it was about having fun and getting better.”

John trained with Brazilian Soccer School whenever he could and his mum and dad made sure he worked hard at school and John did his A-levels at Cardinal Newman College.

At the age of 17, John saw something else onTV which prompted him to pursue a different avenue.

“It was one of those moments like when I saw the children on the Michael Owen’s programme.

“There was an advert on TV for Nike Freestyle and there were all these players doing tricks with the ball.

“At the end of the ad, they said they were coming to Manchester to do auditions. I had two or three football skills so thought I would go along.

“I got there and there were hundreds of people doing tricks so I grabbed a ball and joined them.

“Spotters went around watching and telling them if they had got to the next stage.

“I got to the last 100, so nothing major.

“But I thought to myself: ‘This is it. This is what I want to focus my energy on.’

“There were professional freestylers on stage. Watching them gave me a glimpse of what could be achieved if you put your mind to it.”

After leaving college, John moved to Leeds to play for non-league Garforth Town, but carried on with his freestyle football.

However, when he was about 20, John realised he wanted to concentrate on freestyling. He moved home and set up his own business John Farnworth teaching freestyle and doing performances in schools.

John says: “The first thing I did was become a street performer. I went to Manchester as much as I could and did performances on the street with a ball. Basically busking with a ball.

“The first time, I was nervous. But I made £150 in five or six hours. A web designer built me a website in exchange for me teaching freestyle to his son and the money I earned from street performances went into my business.

“Even at that early stage, I knew I wanted to do what I did at a world scale. I wanted to travel and perform to a bigger audience and go to different countries.”

John’s career was given turbo chargers when he won the World Championship in Freestyle at the age of 20 in Amsterdam.

John says: “I didn’t expect to win and it was a huge boost. It enhanced my career and made me want to get better still.”

The following year, John won the European Championships and began tackling Guiness World Records. He currently holds five.

Since then his freestyle footballing career has gone from strength to strength.

His performances have taken him to more than 30 different countries including shows at the World Cup Final and The Grand Prix.

John was personally invited by Ruud Van Nistleroy to perform in Holland at his birthday party and has performed at most premiership clubs.

One of John’s biggest tasks was in April 2011 when he completed the 26.2 mile route of the London Marathon while keeping a football in the air.

John completed the challenge in 12 hours 13 minutes, earning just short of £10,000 for Kick4Life, which raises money for HIV in Africa.

John is now working with the BBC after appearing on CBBC show Match of the Day Kickabout.

The BBC have created a freestyling mascot for the series, based on John, and even called it Farnworth.

John has appeared in TV shows all over the world showing what he can do. He even appeared as Justin Bieber’s body double in Alan Carr’s Summer Specstacular show on Channel 4.

John says: “I have been to so many different places and met so many different people as a result of my freestyling.

“One of the coolest I met was Tony Hawk. I have always looked up to him with what he did for skateboarding.

“He is a great example of what you can do on a world scale with something that is considered a niche activity.

“Over the summer, I met Bill Gates. Microsoft got me over to their Seattle head office to do some choreography for a video for the World Cup.

“By chance, Bill Gates was in the office. He only went there once a month.

“I got to meet him and do some filming with him. To meet someone like that who has transformed so many lives with computers was amazing.

Laughing, John adds: “In hindsight, being dropped by the football team when I was a lad was the best thing that ever happened to me!”