Arsenal academy graduate John Halls playing for the club against Peterborough United

John Halls: From training with Henry & Bergkamp at Arsenal to the catwalks of Milan

John Halls came through the ranks at Arsenal, was a star at Stoke City, and played in the Premier League for Reading, but remarkably it’s not his football career which has been his greatest success.

Having stumbled into work as an international model since hanging up his boots, Halls is understandably a man that exudes confidence.

He is one of the lucky few to have both natural talent and good looks, traits he has to thank for making him successful in two careers at opposite ends of the spectrum.

But his story is certainly not one of just ups. In fact, sitting down with him in a London cafe, he refers to several decisions he made during his football career that he wishes he could change.

And no matter how glamorous his new life may be, it’s clear he would like to have extended his former one.

Having won the FA Youth Cup with Arsenal and then breaking into the first-team squad, making three League Cup appearances, Halls expected to achieve more in the game than he managed.

“I was very lucky and privileged to come through at a team like Arsenal,” he says.

“It wasn’t until I left the Arsenal I thought, ‘Oh my God, I was training every day with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.’

“At the time I was as a cocky young lad, thinking I was better than everyone, thinking, ‘I should be playing in front of him and him.’

“It’s only when you come away from it and think about different aspects of life you realise how privileged you were.

“I always fully believed in myself, as most footballers do, and I did have a little break at 17 or 18, making the bench at Charlton – Nelson Vivas missed a penalty and we lost 1-0.

“I did my knee after that, so I was out for a while, then I got back and was included in the League Cup squads again and was on the bench when Dennis Bergkamp scored that ridiculous goal at Newcastle.”

Life after Arsenal

Despite confidence in his own ability, opportunities were limited for Halls. He still saw a future for himself at Arsenal when loaned out to Colchester United and Beveren, but things changed when Tony Pulis took him to Stoke City on loan in 2003.

It was a deal that was made permanent that December.

“It’s always hard to leave a club like Arsenal,” he says, “as the way we were taught in my era was incredibly different to even the Championship and lower Premier League, which meant when you had to leave and go down a level, it was quite hard.

“But I went to Stoke City on loan and played every game for two months. I didn’t want go back to the Arsenal then, I loved it.

“I didn’t want to sit on the bench or play reserve team football so I spoke to the boss. I had a year left on my contract, but I wanted to play, I was young and enthusiastic. I made my mind up and went to Stoke City.

“In hindsight, I think maybe I should have stayed at the Arsenal, as who knows what would have happened, but at the time I wanted to play.

“Pulis took me in with open arms. He loved me, I loved him. He let me do what I wanted on the pitch, which is what I needed as a footballer.

“The fans were brilliant too, everyone knew my name in the town centre, and it was great to known as a footballer. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Making the wrong move

Halls, who still lives a stone’s throw from the Emirates, spent just over two years at Stoke before the departure of Pulis and contractual grievances led to him leaving for Championship rivals Reading.

It proved to be the beginning of the end for him as a footballer, and in over two years at the Madejski Halls played only two league games – though that did include a Premier League outing against Bolton, the only top-flight appearance of his career.

“It didn’t work out at Reading,” he says. “I don’t know who signed me, which I think is quite common in football, but (manager) Steve Coppell didn’t take to me, and I didn’t take to him.

“I didn’t suit their style. They used their full-backs to put the ball down the wings, playing safe balls, which wasn’t my game at all.

“I had injury problems and before I knew it my time there was over. And once you’re out of sight and out of mind, you’ve got to start again.

“When I left there were only a few clubs interested. I wasted my time at Reading.

“Everything I did at Reading was no good to me. I look back it now and I have no regrets, but I wish I’d got out of there a lot earlier.

“I got on the pitch as a Premier League player, which was nice, but I got nutmegged without touching the ball within about 30 seconds of coming on! Considering my talent, it was just a waste.”

The lack of games and injuries took their toll on Halls as he sat on the sidelines waiting for a chance in between time spent in the physio’s room.

“I really fell out of love with the game,” he says. “The last year at Reading I was playing reserve team football, which can really break a player.

“No one really tries too hard, except for some of the youngsters. The older boys don’t feel they should be playing reserve team football so don’t bother trying. It might as well be a friendly. I fell out of love with the game.

“I had to go down a league to Brentford, and I had a great time there as we won the league, but I felt like I’d lost a bit of pace and all the rest of it as not playing for three years takes it toll. It all went downhill from there.”

Later career

Injury-plagued spells at Aldershot and Wycombe followed as Halls’ career began to prematurely wind down prior to him calling it a day in 2012 aged 30 following advice from a specialist on an Achilles problem.

The Londoner admits his lifestyle as a younger professional was partly to blame for him having to quit the game early.

“I liked a night out, I’m not going to lie. I had a lot of friends who enjoyed a night out and I enjoyed it.

“The best two years of my career were at Stoke City, and I was probably going out more than I’ve ever been out in my life.

“The problem is when you get injured and you keep going out, that’s when things go wrong, as you’re not keeping fit so more injuries come from that. If I could go back, I would change that.”

Fortunately for Halls, having been forced to retire from football, he had a lucky encounter when out shopping which ensured he would not have to spend much time wondering what to do next.

“I was really lucky, I retired with Wycombe and about five or six days later I was in a shopping centre when my now agents approached me and asked if I wanted to start modelling, so I gave it a go.

“Before that, my sister made me go to a few agencies while I was still playing and she put it in my mind that it was something I could do. I did a test shoot for my agents and they signed me.

“I’ve worked with Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Marks & Spencers, Next and H&M, so I’ve been really lucky. It’s taken me all around the world, which is really nice, especially when you’re not paying for it.”

Halls has experienced both a cold night in Stoke and the catwalk in Milan, and he knows which was one is harder to cope with.

“Confidence goes a long way in football and modelling,” he says. “I’ve always been very assured of myself from football and my upbringing at Arsenal.

“But with the catwalking, they make you get there four hours before you have to walk down the catwalk, even though it takes 30 seconds.

“For the four hours you just want it over and done with, but there’s people touching your hair and doing your clothes, so it’s a lot of waiting about. It’s quite boring. I would prefer to play a game of football.”

By Will Unwin

This article was originally published in June 2017.

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