How the Joe Wicks of football freestyle is changing the game

Like all of us, Ben Nuttall is looking to make the best of a bad situation during the Coronavirus lockdown.

As a freestyle footballer, the 20-year old was always posting tricks on social media. Last Monday, he decided to do something different and post a skill tutorial.  Like Joe Wicks, The Body Coach who has become the nation’s PE teacher, Nuttall figured why not try and do the same if only for his more than 230,000 followers on TikTok.

“I realised every kid is at home, off school and has access to social media,” he tells The Independent. “So I thought to myself I could do a tutorial series. Put out a new trick every day to give kids something to do.”

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The effect was profound, getting numerous comments and tagged into clips of people uploading their own attempts. Then, things got even bigger when he received a call from Sky Sports.

From Monday Nuttall’s tutorials will be shown on Sky Sports News, with a different skill broken down daily. The hook? All seven are skills performed in Premier League matches.

The seven players involved (and their specific moves) are Marcus Rashford (performing the flip-flap), Wilfried Zaha (step-overs), Ricardo Perreira (roulette) and former Premier League maestros Dmitri Payet (the rabona), Cristiano Ronaldo (the fake rabona), Theirry Henry (the standing-foot pass) and, of course, Jay-Jay Okocha with his famous rainbow flick.

“I reckon the hardest to crack will be the rainbow flick. That’s the one everyone wants to learn, right? It looks the most spectacular. My favourite is probably the Henry fake pass, that’s a lot of fun,” Nuttall remarks.

Performing the moves and showcasing their component parts were straightforward for someone of Nuttall’s ability. However, he did admit he used up more camera space than necessary with multiple takes as he was talking bout them. “Speaking about the skills was definitely harder than doing them!”

Nuttall’s interactions, however, are clear cut which is not a surprise considering, even at 20, he has experience teaching others new skills.

“I coach with the Princes’ Trust working with youth offenders and going to institutes and teaching them skills. You are dealing with loads of different types of young people and you appreciate people learn differently and how to make something positive out of negative situations and help them out.”

Just as Sky Sports are welcome for a bit of football content with the shutters firmly down on the Premier League and other major competitions across Europe, Nuttall is grateful for the opportunity. Like everyone else, the majority of his work has either been cancelled or in a state of limbo. As a football freestyler, the landscape is precarious enough without a global pandemic.

“Every event of mine has been cancelled or postponed,” he says. “With the Euros and the Olympics this summer I was doing a lot of exciting things around that. A lot of filming adverts and some opportunities that were really the stuff dreams. Now it’s all up in the air.”

Nuttall is dealing with the social effects of lockdown by drawing on the same aspects of his character that freestyling allowed him to embrace. He was a promising winger as a youngster, earning a place at Birmingham City’s academy – his family club – but was released at the age of 12, which he understood.

“I was always into the skill side of football, watching people like Ronaldinho and taking inspiration from them. But when I did tricks on the pitch I was a little bit smaller than the other kids so I’d get pushed off the ball. That’s basically why they let me go.”

Record your attempts and tag me, I’ll be liking and commenting! ⚽️👀 ##fyp ##foryoupage

Understandably gutted, Nuttall looked at the game and weighed up what brought him joy and what did not. In doing so, he was able to pinpoint that tricks and flicks were what nourished him.

“It was very serious at the academy and the coaches were hard on you, which it absolutely should be,” he maintains. “And same with the training which was intense. But I realised I like practicing whenever I want and I purely get out whatever I put in. Not being reliant on teammates and feeling down when they make a mistake. But being responsible for what you do.

“I realised I loved being creative with a football. For some people I understand they prefer sports like football as a team. But I realised I could still get what I enjoy from it on my own.”

Aged 13, he began focussing more on skills, eventually feeling confident enough to share a few videos online. He soon came across the radar of another freestyler based in Birmingham who suggested the pair meet up and train together. Soon, they had amassed a small crew and it is with these fellow enthusiasts that Nuttall would be spending his spare time with were it not for the pandemic.

“It’s not a big community so it’s very tight-knit. It’ll be hard to deal without it. Even though it’s you on your own and training can be quite lonesome, you all support each other, especially over social media which will be even more important now.”

The future remains uncertain though the postponement of the European Championships and the Tokyo Games means the summer of 2021 is looking especially packed for Nuttall.

He presently holds three titles as the Guinness World Record holder 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 hit the ground. By the end of this week, he might have a fourth as “the nation’s Tekkers teacher”.

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