From non-league to the Championship, Fulham’s summer recruit Ben Pringle has experienced a terrific rise to the second highest tier of English football. Having started his journey at Wallsend Boys – the same youth outfit as Alan Shearer and Steve Bruce – the 26-year-old, then only a teenager, made his move to West Bromwich Albion, where he was unfortunate not to make the grade.
A spell outside the football league followed, as he earned his merit at Newcastle Blue Star, before joining Morpeth Town, and later Ilkeston Town. However, destined for bigger things, his performances at this level soon attracted the attention of Nigel Clough’s Derby, the side that offered the Geordie his first shot at senior action in the Championship.
Nonetheless, still only in his early twenties at this stage, and despite showing a tremendous amount of promise, Pringle was not content with his role as a peripheral player with the Midlands club. Following a brief spell on loan with Torquay United, he made the admirable decision to join League Two outfit Rotherham United.
A double promotion ensued, with Pringle playing a starring role in the Millers’ impressive climb up the hazardous English football ladder. It took a second placed finish in 2013, and a victory at Wembley – in front of 43,000 spectators – just a year later to confirm Rotherham’s Championship status.
Five years on from the summer in which he first signed for the Yorkshire based-club, Pringle has now moved onto pastures new. Indeed, following a successful final season with the Millers – in which they achieved their ultimate goal of avoiding the Championship drop zone – the Geordie opted to see out the end of his contract, before sealing a move to Craven Cottage with Fulham.
Less than a week after his switch, we sat down with Ben to discuss his recent transfer; a move he is “delighted” with. Following his departure from Rotherham he has been speaking to a few teams who had been interested. However, as soon as he learnt of Fulham’s interest in his services, he was quick to push a move. “As soon as I knew there was interest, I wanted to sign there,” he said. “I think the platform they have set themselves, to kick on and try to get back in the Premier League, is why I wanted to sign here. It’s a massive club.”
Understandably eager to make his competitive debut, it was the opening fixture of the season that first attracted Ben’s attention upon the release of the 2015/16 fixture list. The Cottagers travel to Cardiff City on the opening day of the campaign, before meeting Rotherham at the New York Stadium towards the end of August. “The first thing I looked for was the opening game of the season and when I would make my debut,” he said, “Then of course I looked for both of the Rotherham games. It will be nice to go back and I am looking forward to it.”
Considering his contribution during his time with the Millers, one would imagine that Ben’s return will be met with a tremendous level of respect. After all, who could fault someone for wishing to achieve a personal dream. For the 26-year-old, the ambition and professionalism shown at Fulham is exactly what is expected of a club aiming to one day return to the highest echelon of the Football League.
Ben may only have joined his new club relatively recently, but already he has noticed distinct differences between the set-up of a side who were operating in the Premier League a matter of seasons ago and Rotherham, who’s success far outweighs the quality of the facilities at their disposal; testament to the players, staff and fans who have steered the club to such heights.
“The first thing I noticed was the size of the training ground and the facilities inside,” Ben described. “From the back room and fitness staff to the work on the training pitch, everything is very thorough.”
Like all those who experience relegation from the top flight, Fulham is evidently a club chomping at the bit to make a return to the country’s most illustrious sporting division. A theme of “professionalism” ran throughout our discussion with Ben; a trait that will play a vital role when it comes to the London club’s future prospects.
Despite his departure, Ben’s achievements with Rotherham will not be easily forgotten. He accrued 146 league appearances throughout his spell, playing a major role in the club’s aforementioned back-to-back promotions. We were eager to hear the 26-year-old’s best memories from his time with the Millers. Naturally, his trip to Wembley – during which he successfully converted a penalty in the final shoot-out – ranked at the top of his list of anecdotes.
“Obviously the final at Wembley was by far the greatest memory, but the best personal memories for me include scoring the winner against Sheffield Wednesday in the [Capital One] cup.” This first round fixture saw Ben smash the Yorkshire outfit ahead after just ten minutes, in a match that would eventually conclude with a 2-1 scoreline.
He also made reference to the play-off semi-final home leg versus Preston, a tie the Millers won 4-2 on aggregate, “for me, I thought I played well and managed to assist two goals which I was pleased with.” He added, “For the team it was a great night as we knew we were going to Wembley.” Indeed, the club travelled to London just over a week later, and as the old cliché goes, the rest is history.
Although difficult to believe, it was not all plain sailing for Ben at Rotherham. Indeed, after an impressive few months at the club – a period in which he made nine appearances in total – he soon found first team football difficult to come by. “For whatever reason the manager (Andy Scott) just didn’t like me,” he explained. “I tried everything I could to get in the team. I remember not having a day off for eight weeks, constantly asking what I could do and how I could get better.”
However, in mid-March the situation soon changed, as an under-pressure Andy Scott took a chance on the underused winger. The manager was sacked soon after, current boss Steve Evans took the reigns, and Ben’s career with the Millers went from strength to strength. “I played the last eleven games of the season and I have never looked back,” he described.
Would he ever have expected such a meteoric rise, both as a team and on a personal level? The answer is simple, no. The level-headed Geordie could only have dreamt of the club’s achievements over the past few years following his descent to League Two in 2011.
“When I first signed, I didn’t really know what kind of journey I would go on with the team,” he confessed. “I would never have expected in a millions years that we would eventually achieve what we did. To get promoted from League Two was kind of expected, especially with the new stadium completed. However, after that, to then go again and stay in the play-offs all season was unbelievable.”
With Rotherham promoted to the Championship, Ben’s previous experience of the division from his time at Derby – with whom he made 20 league appearances – proved vitally important. “I think that helped massively. It made me aware of the quality of players and teams in the division, and I experienced playing at some top grounds in front of big crowds. When I returned with Rotherham, I felt I knew what was coming.”
He continued to express the benefit of training alongside the international players plying their trade at Derby, describing this as “an invaluable learning curve.” Among those names were current Celtic midfielder Kris Commons, now-Porto striker Alberto Bueno and retired Welshman/Match of the Day’s ‘marmite’ pundit Robbie Savage. Playing with them daily helped him “massively”.
Ben’s experience proved a tremendous asset as he enjoyed a stellar return to the second tier of English football. He scored no less than three goals, while providing a further seven assists – a tally he is determined to build upon at Craven Cottage – as the Millers achieved a 21st place finish and survival, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
Despite his impressive form, when discussing the step-up from League One, Ben was quick to point out the differences between the two divisions. “The jump from League One to the Championship is huge,” he said. “Every team has quality players all over and you really need to concentrate for the full ninety minutes.” Having successfully established himself at this level, he is now hoping that regular game-time at Fulham will serve to improve his performance.
We quickly moved on to discuss the earlier years of Ben’s playing career, with particular interest towards the time he spent outside the football league. Between 2007 and 2009, the Geordie spent the opening stages of his time as a senior player between the non-league Northern divisions, with spells at Newcastle Blue Star, Morpeth and then Ilkeston Town.
Despite asserting that his spell outside the football league provided little values in terms of his footballing development, Ben appreciates the contribution this experience had on a more personal level. “I don’t think it assisted with my development, as anybody at those levels will tell you, the games are very physical. I think it just made me grow up a bit and realise I’m not playing against youth team players anymore.”
“It’s a tough experience, but one I really enjoyed,” he added. “Especially now as I am lucky enough to be at the club I am. I would definitely advise the young pros at Premier League clubs to drop down, perhaps not to that kind of level, but certainly League Two/League One standard, as that experience in two proper leagues is invaluable.”
We also touched upon his time at Wallsend Boys Club – an organisation renowned for the footballing stars it has produced. With the likes of Premier League record top scorer Alan Shearer, and current top flight pros Michael Carrick and Fraser Forster, all graduating from the North Tyneside outfit, we asked Ben if he had felt a greater sense of expectation, even at youth level.
“To be honest, when I was that young I didn’t really pay much attention to the players that had come through before me,” he explained. “As a young lad you just want that first break through with a professional team (Ben’s first shot at this would be with West Bromwich Albion) and even then you never know how long it is going to last.”
Contrary to what one may expect, Ben said that he failed to notice any differences at Wallsend during his time spent as a youngster, although he now appreciates the calibre and prestige of the club. “Being in the position that I am in now, I feel very honoured to have come through the Boys Club and be mentioned alongside some of the great players,” he said.
“At the time I didn’t notice anything different,” he continued. “Newcastle is a city which at young ages produces good footballers. Wallsend Boys Club was brilliant because it gives those talented youngsters a chance.”
To end our chat in the most light hearted manner possible, we asked Ben to give us his ideal five-team (including a manager), consisting of the best players he had ever featured alongside – a side that is perhaps unsurprisingly dominated by Rotherham United, both past and present.
Adam Collin (Rotherham United) – “After saving two penalties at Wembley, and being unbelievable in the League One campaign, he would be my goalkeeper.”
Craig Morgan (Wigan Athletic – formerly Rotherham United) – “He was solid in League Two and League One, and improved against massively in the Championship. A tough opponent to play against.”
Kris Commons (Celtic – formerly Derby County) – “Technically unbelievable and always makes something happen.”
Lee Frecklington (Rotherham United) – “Also full of energy – gives 100% every game and training session. Never lets you down.”
Tom Hitchcock (MK Dons – formerly Rotherham United) – “Scored a twenty minute hat-trick away at Gillingham in League One – one of the best I have ever seen. He is also one of my best mates, so he would be upfront.”
Ben also reserved special praise for former Derby manager Nigel Clough – who he selected as manager: “I would not be in the great position that I am today without Nigel changing my life and giving me the opportunity at Derby. To sign a young lad from eight divisions below was a big risk for him and for that I am grateful.”
The perfect way to end a thoroughly enjoyable interview. The Boot Room would like to say a huge thanks to Ben for being such a good sport, and we wish you all the best for a successful career with Fulham.
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