History Boys – John Halls

Miami, Sao Paulo, Milan, Paris. Iconic cities dotted across three continents. Fascinating destinations to fuel the wanderlust of any aspirant traveller.

Reams of images of cities such as these saturate the timelines of so many Instagram users on a daily basis, including those taken by John Halls; these are the four cities that most recently feature on his Instagram profile.

On the face of it, this is an ex-professional footballer flaunting his cash and jetting off to far-flung countries, but there’s more to this than meets the eye, because this is no longer John Halls the ex-Arsenal trainee and Brentford full-back. This is John Halls the international model and this is pretty much the norm.

“I’ve been really lucky,” he says with genuine gratitude. “I’ve modelled for a lot of the big designers in Europe, I’ve done a lot of things in America and I work exclusively with Next in England. With this industry, if you are working, it’s amazing.

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“You want to always be travelling and I’m kind of addicted to travelling now; if I’m at home for more than a week, I’ll pull my hair out! I’ve been really, really lucky to go to all of these lovely places, lovely hotels, lovely houses. When it all finishes and I’ve got to pay for my own hotels and flights, I’ll be gutted!”

John’s is career change that, clearly, goes some way to softening the blow of being forced to retire in 2012 at the age of 30. Had he followed a different pathway, he may well have made it in the Premier League. He was one of Arsene Wenger’s League Cup protégés, after all.

In November 2001, he made his debut for his boyhood club in the third round of said competition – known at the time as the Worthington Cup. The Gunners went on to beat Manchester United 4-0 at Highbury that evening, but, after being introduced as a second-half substitute, John lasted just 22 minutes after receiving two quickfire yellow cards.

Though it was over 17 years ago, he remembers the day vividly.

“Funnily enough, I remember getting onto the pitch and being quite excited and wanting to compete, wanting to do well. I committed two fouls, was a little bit excitable and got sent off but the main thing I remember was after the game had finished and I’d got changed and whatnot, I went downstairs into the players car park and [Arsene] Wenger was behind me as well, coming out to go to his car.

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“I came around the corner and all my mates that I’d invited to come to the game were next to my car; as soon as I’ve come around the corner, they are all cheering like silly youngsters and Mr Wenger was behind me thinking: “What have we got here?! Who is this fella? His mates are cheering because he’s been sent off!”

Two more appearances came over the next month as the north Londoners reached the quarter-final stage of the competition, but John was farmed out on loan over the next three seasons, meaning that was as far as his career progressed for the club he still affectionately refers to as ‘The’ Arsenal.

Yet it was the last of those three loan moves – with today’s opponents Stoke City – provided him with what he has previously called “the best two years” of his career as a professional footballer.

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He explains: “I went to Stoke purely because I felt I’d gone backwards a little bit with The Arsenal. I was at a stage where I was getting on the bench and being involved, playing and captaining the reserve team. Then I got injured and as soon as I got back from injury there were a few players who’d come in from abroad and it felt like they’d gone in front of me.

“I still had a year or two years left on my contract at The Arsenal and then Tony Pulis came in for me and asked me to come on loan for two months. At first I was like, “Yeah, let’s go, but I want to come back to The Arsenal.” Then I went there, fell in love with Pulis and the way he was with players, the way he man-managed players,  just playing week-in week-out and the fans also.

“I did well straight away, the fans took to me, the other players took to me and even though Pulis was so strict in how he wanted to play and how rigid we were as a defensive team, he kind of let me do what I wanted and I didn’t want to go back after that. That was it. I had a chat with the boss [Wenger] and he said, “If you want to go, you can go – it’s up to you.” So I went and it just continued, rolled on for two years in total and I had a great time – it was amazing. I fell in love with the place, really.”

A nightmare spell at Reading followed. John was restricted to just two league appearances in three seasons with the Royals – though he scored on his sole Championship appearance during their famed promotion to the top-flight in 2005/06 – meaning as his time in Berkshire drew to a close in the summer of 2008, he knew potential suitors were few and far between. That’s when Andy Scott came knocking.

“My contract was up at Reading and I had a few offers that I wasn’t really interested in,” he continues.

“I hung about a little bit and missed pre-season waiting for a team I wanted to join and then Brentford came about. It was obviously in London, which was where I wanted to be because I’m such a London boy as well. I met the gaffer down there, had a chat with him and got on well. I spoke to Terry Bullivant, got on really well with him and he was like, “Come on John, come and join us”. I went and joined them and we had a great year.

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“From then on, every time I spoke to Andy, we got on well with each other – we liked each other. I respected him as a manager, thought he did really well. There were some games where I know Andy didn’t fancy me, in terms of going away somewhere cold but other than that we got on sweet – we were as good as gold.

Straight away when I joined you could tell the boys all got on with each other; there was no segregation or split groups, nothing like that which sometimes you do get in teams. The way we got on was amazing and we had some really, really good players.

“I think we were doing alright for the first part of the season but it wasn’t really until sort of after Christmas when we thought, “Actually, hang on. We’re really good here!” and we got that confidence and I think that’s what took us on to go and win the league.”

Rarely spotted sans hairband during his time in TW8, John made 24 appearances under Andy Scott, though didn’t feature in the league between 28 October and 10 January, largely due to an injury sustained in mid-November, coupled with a reduced fixture list the winter of 2008 brought with it. But his Premier League and Championship experience was a key component and with his presence in the back four, the Bees kept nine of goalkeeper Ben Hamer’s eventual 20 clean sheet haul.

That said, his time at Griffin Park was short. And though he concedes his memory of particular games played in the 2008/09 season is faint, John echoes Peter Gilham’s recent recollections when he thinks back to his best memory of that season.

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“What I remember from the Darlington game is that it was a big, big stadium and it was empty! We won the league there and our crowd were in the corner and we got a decent fair few up there on that day. I remember celebrating at the end with all the boys and the crowd and the coach drive home was blinding. We had a few beers, the music was going and then as soon as we got back into Brentford, the streets were mobbed! We went straight into the boozer opposite the ground and that was it – it was a crazy night, brilliant! I don’t remember much else, but it was a blinding night.”

For all of the glitz and glamour that surrounds the football industry, very few players actually get the chance to celebrate winning silverware in this manner, if at all. John’s career lasted three years beyond that season, but sadly, he concedes, this was the final real high.

“That season was blinding and I would say that is the last real season I had in football, really,” he says, audibly glum at the unfortunate reality.

“After that I was at Aldershot. I remember having two seasons there which were full of injuries and then I was at Wycombe and that was where I sustained the last injury that retired me. That was the last real season [2008/09] I really believe I was still playing football or a footballer and to win the league was quite a nice one to go out on.

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He adds: “My Achilles went in the end and that was the final straw. I was 30-years-old and it was really hard to take at the time. I spent a season trying to fix it and play at the same time because if you played more than 20 games, you got your extension. So I was trying to play that many games but at the same time, I was just breaking down all the time.

“The surgeon that was working on me for the whole year said to me, “Listen mate, if you want to carry on walking, you need to give this up.” It was heart-breaking, but at the same time, I was nowhere near where I wanted to be or where I knew I should be in my career. It was bittersweet really; I knew it was going to come to an end sooner or later, but it was really hard to take.”

Fortunately, the stars aligned in hasty fashion and within days of his retirement announcement, a chance meeting occurred in a shopping centre; before the reality of being forced to hang up his boots had settled, John was moving on to pastures new.

“I was quite lucky because as soon as I retired, I think I had maybe a week or two weeks where I was wondering what to do with myself and at the end of that week, after crying and arguing, I got scouted to do the stuff that I’m doing now. It rolled straight into one and that kept my mind occupied – if my mind wasn’t occupied, I don’t know what I would have done. It took my mind straight off of football and onto something else, so I was really lucky.

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“I’d done it [modelling] up until I was about 13 or 14 and then I gave it up because I remember saying to my mum: “Listen, I want to play football; I don’t want to do this anymore” and I was working quite a lot as a kid. I did think about it a few times, but I never really thought that it would take off like this, really.

Day-to-day life does vary a lot and I still find it quite hard really because football is so regimented and every morning you wake up and you know what you are doing or what you are aiming towards. With this I can get a week off anywhere along the line and I don’t know what to do with myself, so I try and take myself to the gym to keep my mind sane.

“And then, at the last minute, it’s like ‘You’re flying to here’ or you are flying to do this and that. It’s all over the gaff, really, it’s all over the gaff. Planning things is impossible; you can’t plan things with your friends and family because you just don’t know where you are going to be but, as I said, if you are working, it’s a great industry to be in.”

So when your new Next catalogue arrives, be sure to head to the men’s section because you might just spot a familiar face…

Originally featured in BEES Issue #14 v Stoke City (12 January 2019)


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