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Opera North - The Little Greats

Dan Magness: Nottingham City of Football Freestyler and World Record Holder

25 April 16 words: Ali Emm

“I'd juggle the ball for ten hours in my kitchen, then I'd go out for a run, and then I’d come back, get the ball out again and stay up all night”

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photo: Lamar Francois

Did you start out freestyling by messing around in your back garden and the playground then?
Probably. It was an obsession. From the age of five, everywhere I went, I took a ball with me. Whenever I got the time, I’d practise – when you’re on your own you do keepie-uppies or freestyling because you haven’t got anyone to pass the ball to. I had a brother and sister, but they weren’t really into football.

When did you first realise you had a talent for freestyle?
I entered a competition when I was nine and won it – everyone else did hardly anything and I’d done over a hundred. I didn’t realise I was that good, but then I thought I should keep practising to keep impressing people.

Did you ever want to be a professional footballer?
Always. I played at Wimbledon until I was seventeen, but when Wimbledon turned into MK Dons it was an awkward time. I realised I enjoyed the skills side of it more than the playing, so I decided to carry on with that.

How long does it take to master tricks?
For me, there’s doing a trick and there’s performing a trick. When I’m training to do a move, I might spend eight hours on one trick in one day. I do that for a whole week until I’ve got it. I’m a firm believer in mastering the moves so I can do them every time without fail – there are a lot of guys out there who get a move on video and stick it on YouTube, but they haven’t mastered it.

Have you ever completely fluffed a trick in public?
I’ve dropped the ball a few times over the years, yeah. I’ve slipped over a couple of times and there’s been a few times at halftime at football matches where I run the ball down the pitch at the end of my show and boot it in the goal – there’s been a couple of times where I’ve missed. That was a bit embarrassing.

You broke the keepie-uppies world record in 2009 by juggling a ball for 24 hours straight. And then broke your own record in 2010 by another two hours. How did that come about and what possessed you to do it twice?
When I knew I wasn’t going to be a pro footballer, I thought I’d better be the best at what I do. I’d always wanted to break the record for the longest time juggling a ball – it was nineteen hours that I broke. And I thought if I was going to do that, I may as well take it up to 24 hours. A year later, a company approached me and asked if I wanted to beat it. So I thought I’d go for 26.

How much training did it take?
A lot. I’d juggle the ball for ten hours in my kitchen, then I’d go out for a run, and then I’d come back, get the ball out again and stay up all night. It was a crazy training regime but it was worth it in the end.

How did you feel after both of the record attempts?
Absolutely knackered. A bit punch drunk, like I’d been in a boxing match. I’d headed the ball however many tens of thousand of times, and kicking it as well: my feet were tired, my head was tired. It was really hard work.

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photo: Lamar Francois

It’s the fact that you went in for a second go!
It’s what I do for a job. It’s not all about the money, I would have been happy to stay at 24 hours, but I thought I’d give it a go. A lot of the stamina was maintained from the first time. I’m talking about doing it again, so I’m going to have to start getting fit. I want to try and take it up to thirty hours, put it out of reach for everyone.

Is there anyone in the freestyling world that you saw as an inspirational figure when you were younger?
Big time. Rob Walters, he used to hold the world record for keepie-uppies at sixteen hours. He’s a top guy. And also Mr Woo, a South Korean who came over to the UK when I was younger. He took me under his wing and got me involved in events and things. That was brilliant.

Tell us a bit about the TV work?
I did a DVD about twelve or thirteen years ago, and the director always said that he’d love to do a TV show with me. I thought nothing of it and then seven years later I got a call from him. We did the first series of Football Freestyler, which ended up on Challenge – it was one of their best-viewed programmes on there. Then Sky bought it and commissioned a second series. I got the call and went off around the world again. It was an amazing thing to get involved with.

You must have been to a lot of places. Is there anywhere left you’d like to visit?
I’ve done a little bit in America, but I’d like to go back there. And New Zealand, I’ve never been there and I’d love to. I’ll have to get a job over there, or tell the missus I’ve got a job but go on holiday. Send home a few pictures of me with my ball!

Away from the exotic – how did you come to be in the Midlands?
My missus lived in Sheffield. We decided to move to Derbyshire and just stayed here. It’s lovely up here, nice people, got The Peaks… I prefer it to down south.

How did you get involved with City of Football?
I was doing some street shows in Nottingham city centre last summer and someone came up to me and said, “You’d be brilliant for City of Football.” I gave them my details and I got a call. When you think of Nottingham as a footballing city, it’s obviously got a lot of history and it’s great to have something like [City of Football] set up. It’s a really good idea.

What do your kids think of what you do?
I’ve got a little boy who plays football, he obviously loves it. It’s nice to be able to take my skills and teach it to them as well. They get a bit fed up of me doing it in the house all the time, but who doesn’t? I had that with my mum as well [laughs].

What’s your average working month?
I’m doing some coaching now, workshops where I teach skills. Tonight I’m doing a halftime show in Norwich, then tomorrow morning I’m filming for Sport Relief, and in the evening I’m in Bradford doing an awards ceremony. It can be anything, some weeks or months can be really quiet and you think, “What am I going to do now?” And then another month, it’s non-stop. With the coaching and those sorts of things, I’m trying to set up for the future. I’m going to be freestyling for quite a lot longer yet, but you never know – you need to have something in the pipeline.

Footballers usually retire in their thirties, what is the cut-off age for freestyling?
I don’t know. It’s until people stop booking you and when your body won’t let you do it anymore. I was thinking about retiring around 45 and making a comeback about 80. Doing it as an old man with a walking stick would be quite funny.

Dan Magness website

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