Living for kicks

Billy Wingrove may be a Premiership reject, but he could still teach Ronaldo and Co a few tricks. Like keeping the ball in the air with his feet 2,848 times. Peter Conchie gets a humbling lesson in the art of close control from Britain's foremost freestyle footballer

In my capacity as The Hoofer, the Independent on Sunday's token amateur footballer, I am invited to meet Billy Wingrove, Britain's foremost freestyle footballer. My team's season finished over a month ago, so on the night before my appointment, I decide that some practice is in order.

In my capacity as The Hoofer, the Independent on Sunday's token amateur footballer, I am invited to meet Billy Wingrove, Britain's foremost freestyle footballer. My team's season finished over a month ago, so on the night before my appointment, I decide that some practice is in order.

Rumour has it that Billy can do things with a football that would flummox even Ronaldo and David Beckham. He can kick the ball up in the air 2,848 times using alternate feet, he made it to the last four of a Nike skills competition which had 30,000 entrants, and he was once offered work in preference to the Brazilian international Gilberto. In short, a ball on Billy's head is balanced more securely than a hat on almost anyone else's.

I lace up my trainers and walk out, rather self-consciously, to the road behind our house. It's a quiet street - more in the sense of being abandoned than leafy - that is used by local youths who gather at dusk to kick footballs against the school wall.

Checking first that no one is watching, I go through my basic repertoire of football-juggling skills. In common with my performances on the pitch, I'm solid but unspectacular. I spin the ball from foot to foot and keep it up on my thighs, but whenever I try something more complicated, such as one of those back-heels I've seen in the commercial breaks, I lose control of the ball. In my defence, I am rather distracted by a learner driver struggling with parallel parking.

I'm due to meet Billy the next morning in another urban wasteland, this time in Ladbroke Grove, and naturally I want to look the part. I choose shorts from Matalan, a baggy khaki pair with an unnecessary number of pockets. Then I find a T-shirt that someone gave me at work featuring a transfer of a BMX rider leaping dramatically, if confusingly, through the legend "trick nuts". I play safe with the trainers and pick my oldest, most comfortable and, quite frankly, most malodorous pair. They may hum like a bee, but I reason that unless I'm wearing something familiar, the ball at my feet is highly unlikely to float like a butterfly.

Next day I set off on my pushbike and, arriving uncharacter- istically early, pop into a shop for something isotonic. I choose Orange Lucozade - "Orange Flavoured Fuel", according to the label - mainly because I hope that the picture on the label of Michael Owen will get me in Billy's good books and prevent him from sniggering too much when I start to kick the ball. I'm meeting Britain's foremost freestyle footballer, and I'll only get one shot to form an impression.

As I'm deciding which pocket of my shorts to put my change in, a fresh-faced young lad, who appears to be around 14, approaches the counter with two Bounty bars and a bottle of Lucozade Energy.

It's Billy Wingrove! At 22, Billy is 14 years younger than me, and looks younger still. He's dressed in new white trainers and long white socks that come up to his knees. Then there's a pair of baggy shorts and the sort of nondescript grey track-top worn both by genuine athletes and people in the corner shop first thing in the morning.

We chat as we walk along the Grand Union Canal underneath the Westway in search of a pitch, and Billy tells me he comes from a footballing family. His father, Alan, played for England Schoolboys, and briefly for Spurs and Arsenal; his cousin Greg Lincoln currently turns out for Northampton Town after a spell, and two Champions' League games, for Arsenal. Billy himself had a trial with Spurs when he was 11, but he was considered too small. Undeterred, Billy played non-League football for Enfield after he left school at 16, and coached in local schools as part of the Football in the Community scheme. And, of course, he dedicated his undoubted talents - their form in recent decades shows that Spurs aren't always the best judge of a player - to perfecting his tricks, something that he now does professionally. You can see him on television, promoting Copa America for Sky Sports.

Billy is a smashing lad, personable, chatty and fresh-faced - Blazin' Squad meets Wayne Rooney meets Spencer from EastEnders - but walking along with him, I get no sense of his astonishing ability. Until he changes from his white trainers into the red pair that he uses for tricks, and retrieves a football from his holdall.

With the ball at his feet - and his head, instep, chin, neck or forehead - there is a remarkable transformation. It's as if he is a fish that has been released from a net into the river, albeit a fish fantastically good at kicking a football into the air. He has the same beautiful balance and camera-shutter reflexes of a circus performer, and his tricks are touched with the same wit. Just when you expect him to kick the ball with his left peg, the right will whip underneath and scoop the ball away somewhere unlikely, like his shoulder. And he goes about his craft with a joyous enthusiasm, seemingly happy that he has someone to play with.

Billy talks in awe of Mr Woo, the Korean featured in the T-Mobile adverts during Euro 2004. He admires Mr Woo's skills - many of which he has mastered - but also his fees, which seem to rival those of Naomi Campbell.

Billy remarks that the relationship between freestyle football and association football is like that between chess and drafts. Freestyle, presumably, being drafts, not least for the monotony of all that practice. I ask him about his record of 2,848 consecutive "kick-ups", or "keepie-ups" for those north of Wolverhampton. "It took about 35 minutes," he says. "But towards the end I got pins and needles, and the ball rolled off my tongue." The tongue of his trainer, it should go without saying.

Billy claims that his extravagant skills aren't much use in matches, which seems a crying shame given that they took so long to acquire. These days, Billy is a tricky, speedy winger for Ware FC in the semi-professional Ryman League Division Two. Nevertheless, Billy observes: "With the skills I've got and cheeky as I am, I wouldn't like playing against me."

This is something of an understatement, and in his league, dislike finds uncomplicated expression. Billy was injured for three quarters of last season after a full-back he had just nutmegged regained some self-esteem by slicing through his ankle ligaments.

As a defender of sorts, I agree that he must be a nightmare to play against. Billy agrees to demonstrate. What follows is like a scene from The Matrix: Extra Time as he appears to rewrite the laws of physics. Billy runs straight at me, dribbling the ball on the floor, and I go up on my toes, preparing to tackle. When he gets within a yard, he stops. Simultaneously, it appears to my befuddled brain, he takes a step backwards, and the ball sails forwards over my head as if ejected from a jack-in-the-box that he keeps in his socks.

On another occasion, he bends down on one knee with the ball trapped between his shin and the ground. As he leaps to his feet, the ball inexplicably shoots forward with the shallow trajectory of a cannonball.

As well as appearing as the on-pitch entertainment at Bolton Wanderers and Spurs and on television programmes such as Dream Team, Billy is also a coach, and a good one at that - he is in the process of setting up his own coaching school. Patiently he attempts to share his knowledge with me, an old dog in search of new tricks, and I start with a move favoured by Zinedine Zidane. Within a few minutes, I'm stepping over the ball as it falls and half-volleying it back to the same foot with my big toe, all with a goofy smile on my face.

Then it's "Around the World", a nifty trick that first involves balancing the ball on your foot. When it's perfectly still, the idea is to whip the same foot around and catch it again in mid-air. I do this once, accidentally, and Billy, bless him, excitedly calls out to Shane. I feel I've let him down when in the next 10 minutes I fail to achieve a repeat.

When I leave him, Billy is lying full-length under-neath the Westway with a ball balanced on his forehead. A train rumbles past on the way into Paddington, and pedestrians stop to watch. Still prone, he waves goodbye, looking like the happiest young man in the world.

For more details of Billy Wingrove's career: www.billywingrove.co.uk

FOUR FEATS FOR FEET

Around The World Balance the ball on your foot in mid-air. When the ball is steady, whip your foot over and around it, catching it on the same foot on the way down. Pioneered by Ronaldinho.

The Zidane Let the ball fall to the left of your standing foot. Bring kicking foot behind standing foot in order to flick ball up on the half-volley. As demonstrated on behalf of various corporate clients by Zinedine Zidane.

Mr Woo Lie on back, supporting your hips and moving legs in pedalling motion. Move ball from foot to foot using soles of the feet. As seen on the T-Mobile advert with Korean freestyler Mr Woo. Extremely difficult to master.

The Wingrove push-up Billy's speciality. Balance the ball on the back of your neck and do press-ups. Visually impressive, but of limited application during matches.

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