Being a Swindon Town fan myself, the opportunity to interview Norwich City’s Harry Toffolo proved one of the highlights of my time with The Boot Room to date. The 19-year-old left-back – who emerged as an important figure for the Robins during his loan spell at the County Ground last term – could soon become a familiar face to Premier League fans, following the Canaries’ return to the top flight.
Reporting live on Sky Sports News during Swindon Town’s 1-0 victory over local rivals Bristol City in November, Iain Dowie’s brief slip of the tongue led to an nickname that the Norwich youngster Harry Toffolo will bear for the remainder of his professional career. From ‘Toffolo’ to ‘Gruffalo’, Dowie’s blunder resulted in an endearment adored by Swindon fans, and the player himself – a constant reminder of his time spent in North Wiltshire.
Despite being a campaign that ended in heartbreak for Mark Cooper’s Robins, with a crushing 4-0 defeat at the hands of Preston North End in the League One Play-Off Final at Wembley, it was a breakthrough season for Toffolo, packed with a number of favourable memories. Arriving at the County Ground as a relatively unknown figure, the defender soon made a name for himself in his first campaign as a senior professional.
He initially arrived on a one-month loan deal, but his stay was soon extended until the end of the season. With his direct running and ability to fashion a chance from out-wide, it was clear to Mark Cooper that the solution to his side’s troubles at left-back had been solved. A campaign capped with seven assists, one goal and a first-ever call-up to the England U20s setup followed, as the former FA Youth Cup winner quickly emerged as a fan favourite at the County Ground.
At the beginning of the previous term, Swindon had been widely tipped for the drop – turn back time to the first day of the season, and few would have predicted the events that were to follow. It was a season in which the club set out to defy all expectations – securing a convincing fourth-placed finish, before earning an audience at Wembley at the end of a riveting play-off campaign.
As Harry relayed the past 10 months, we asked him for any specific memories that stood out; particularly any memories that he would treasure from his time at the County Ground. “The 3-0 win over Coventry was a significant part of my season as it was televised on Sky”, he said, before describing the assist he provided for Andy William’s opener in the Robin’s 3-0 victory at the Ricoh Arena, “I crossed the ball for Andy to score and that kept his goal record going, which made me very happy.”
He also made reference to his first professional goal, which he notched two months later in front of his home crowd against Notts County. With the Robins’ leading 2-0 – following goals from Jon Swift and Williams – the 19-year-old sealed the victory with just a minute to go, tapping home from close range. “That was a massive day for me due to it being my first pro goal, he told The Boot Room. “I was very happy and it was a great result that day.”
It proved a bitter pill to swallow as the Robins were brushed aside by Nigel Grayson’s Preston at Wembley, for all involved with the club. However, despite defeat, Harry recognizes that there were – and are – positives to take from the club’s impressive domestic campaign. “It was very hard to take, we were outplayed and I’m still gutted to this day about it. It would have been amazing for everyone associated with Swindon to get promoted but we just fell short at the last hurdle. It was a great campaign for everyone and the lads had been excellent.”
When discussing the factors behind the club’s success, Harry was quick to commend the hard work of both the players and staff. “That is down to the hard work everyone had put in, from the players to the back room staff. It was a really good place to be and everyone wanted to do well for each other,” he said, “we were young and eager, wanting to make a name for ourselves in the game. It was an amazing journey; all the boys were excellent along with the staff.
He also noted the close-knit nature of the Town dressing room. “I personally think it is down to everyone working for each other and doing that extra bit to help your mate out.” He continued, “That is the reason Swindon were so successful. It was the hard work and dedication of the entire football club, as well as the desire to do well and achieve the best we could.”
Swindon’s coaching duo of Mark Cooper and Luke Williams – both of whom have been linked with exits this summer – are undoubtedly responsible for installing such a successful set-up. Since their arrival at the County Ground, from AFC Telford and Brighton respectively, they have implemented a very unique style: an effective 3-5-2 possession-based system, which has seen them assert their dominance over the majority of their opponents in League One.
Full of praise for the duo, Harry commended the role both have played in his development. “He [Luke Williams] was instrumental in the way we played and is an excellent coach”, he said. “I am also very grateful to Mark Cooper as he gave me my first professional debut – he had the faith in me to play me. So for that I am very thankful.”
The Town squad regularly received praise for its youthful nature, with Cooper able to motivate a side that possessed relatively little experience. With an average age of under 22 and no less than four under-21s laonees – Jack Stephens, Jordan Turnbull, John Swift and Toffolo – featuring regularly in the Robins’ first-team, Harry feels the club’s promotion push proves experience isn’t everything, “Age isn’t a problem as long as you work hard and want to do well, learn everyday from people that have done it, then anything is possible.”
“That is why we are very thankful to Swindon for giving us the opportunity and letting us express ourselves in ways other clubs wouldn’t,” he continued. “All the boys you have mentioned are a credit to their clubs and are good friends through Swindon Town now.”
However, the unity at the club has been short-lived as, less than two months after the end of the previous campaign few would recognize Swindon as the club that stormed to the play-off final last season. Following the loss of Ben Gladwin and Massimo Luongo to Queens Park Rangers, the departure of Andy Williams and Wes Foderingham upon the expiration of their contracts, and the return of the aforementioned loanees – as well as Louis Thompson and Sam Ricketts – to their parent clubs, the first-team squad is in desperate need of a patching-up job.
Nonetheless, under the guidance of Cooper and Williams, Harry feels the Robins have plenty in their armoury to replicate the success of the players before them. Responding to suggestions that the club could struggle throughout the upcoming season, he responded, “You cannot say with this team, because anything is possible, which is what we have shown this year. The players they [Swindon] have are very good. I trained with them last season. They are very capable of filling the boots of those who have now left.”
With preparations ahead of the 2015/16 campaign now underway, Harry has returned to parent club Norwich – who last season sealed their return to the Premier League – where he will now have to make the step up if he wishes to feature in the first-team. Reflecting on his time at the County Ground, the youngster was quick to stress the benefits of playing at senior level in the lower leagues. “The most important thing for any young player is to play the game and that doesn’t happen with the under-21s, the best experience comes at senior professional level.”
Despite having an FA Youth Cup already on his CV, it is refreshing to see the 19-year-old’s outlook; he clearly recognizes the need to continue his development. “It makes you realize how hard you have to work to get where you want to be”, he reflected. “I see this as very valuable experience and it showed me that its not all laser cut pitches, hugs and kisses, which under-21s football is.”
When discussing his ambition for the upcoming season, Harry said exactly what all Canaries fans will want to hear. Does he feel he is ready to break into the first-team set-up at Carrow Road? It’s too early to say until I am back at Norwich”, he said. “I will work hard and see what happens.” For a player who is yet to reach his twenties, he shows an admirable level of maturity, and this translates to his performances on the pitch. “In football you can’t plan too far ahead”, he continued, “it is about the now and making sure you take whatever chance that is given to you.”
Toffolo jumped into life in Wiltshire, as he surely will do following his return to East Anglia, undertaking voluntary work for various local charities in the area – an act that, again, displays a level of maturity beyond his years. Speaking of the importance of footballers giving back to the community, he said, “I am very passionate about it, it is close to my heart. I have been brought up in that way with my mum and dad.
He continued, “It is about giving back to people who deserve it. You cannot just receive all the time. It is about giving back to those people who care for you – showing you are there for them.” Harry’s upbringing has clearly played an instrumental role in his development as a footballer and a person. Born in Welwyn Garden City to an Italian father and English mother, the youngster grew up in a football-mad family.
His dual-nationality means that – should he be given the opportunity – he has the option to represent either England or Italy at senior level. ‘Made in Italy, Tuned in England’ is how 19-year-old introduces himself on his Twitter account, although he has already represented the Three Lions at youth level. Having already featured for the country at under-18 and 19 level, the season just gone saw him make his breakthrough for Aidy Boothroyd’s under-20 squad – his debut came in a 2-1 victory over the United States in March.
“My dad was born in Venice so I could delay for Italy too, but I am very proud to represent my home country and to sing the national anthem with pride,” he told The Boot Room. “It was a very proud moment for me representing my country. I have been very fortunate to do it at under-18/19 level and now for the under-20s.”
While we would love to see Harry back at the County Ground next season, it would fill us with even more pride to see him featuring week-in week-out in the Premier League, and perhaps one day at international level for England. We wish him all the best with the rest of his career, and would like to say a huge thanks for taking the time out to speak to us. All the best, Harry!
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