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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Keanan Bennetts has perfect opportunity to impress Mauricio Pochettino this week
The left-sided star has a chance to impress in first-team training during the international break.
With the international week in full flow, plenty of teams in the Premier League have seen their squads diminished by call-ups to national teams.
Tottenham Hotspur are one such side. Nonetheless, with most of the first-team squad away with their respective nations, work continues at Hotspur Way.
In order for Spurs to have a full complement in training, plenty of young talent needs to be pulled in to the ranks.
Mauricio Pochettino will, therefore,e get a chance to see some of his young players training with regular first-team players such as Fernando Llorente, Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura.
One player who will be training with the first-team this week is talented wide-man Keanan Bennetts, according to London Live.
The 19-year-old left-winger has been catching the eye for the club’s youth team in recent weeks, making the news after scoring a fantastic goal for the under-19s against Monaco in the UEFA Youth League last month.
Bennetts has also been attracting interest for his positional dexterity. The wide-man has played at left-back in recent times and it could be that is his future best position.
This week he will be up against some excellent players such as Lamela and Moura, who did not receive selection to the Argentina and Brazil national teams, respectively.
If he can prove himself with this calibre of player, Pochettino will have to take notice.
It is coming to a point in his Tottenham career when Bennetts has to make such an impact. The teenager is out of contract at Spurs in the summer and needs to ensure he is kept on for at least one more season.
Tottenham fans who follow the youth teams are certain he is deserving of such a chance. If he can show Pochettino what he is capable of this week, then a new deal will surely be in the pipeline for the talented wide-man.
Despite improvement, Everton should not rekindle Thomas Vermaelen interest
The Belgian defender has been in better form for Barcelona this season.
Rumours have emerged today suggesting Everton could be back in for Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Catalan newspaper Sport has reported that the 32-year-old could be offered a new deal by Barcelona, with a team from the Premier League interested in signing him.
Sport Witness has openly hypothesised that Everton could be that team. Whilst there is no confirmation or substantiated report that is the case, the boot certainly fits.
Last summer Everton tried to sign Vermaelen.
As reported by the Liverpool Echo, at the time Barcelona vetoed a loan move to Everton as they felt the defender could be a useful asset.
The Belgian certainly has. After struggling with injuries and form throughout most of his Barcelona tenure the former Arsenal man has enjoyed a good season.
The 32-year-old has been a genuine asset to the Catalans, despite still being used sparingly, and such form has even seen him win back a place in Roberto Martinez’s national selection for Belgium.
If it is Everton interested in Vermaelen it is easy to see why. Centre-back has been a major problem for the club this season.
However, Vermaelen, or a player of his ilk, is not the answer to the Toffees’ woes.
The Belgian is obviously a talented player with plenty of experience, but Everton need to freshen up their back-line.
Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka’s age has shown in recent months.
The pair have been, at the best, inconsistent for the past 18 months and Everton need fresh young talent in the heart of defence if they are to succeed.
Vermaelen is not only 32 but also immensely injury prone. Everton need reliable figures to plug their leaky defences and the Belgian can simply not be relied upon.
Whilst on paper it seems a good deal, and one Everton could certainly turn to their benefit.
The truth is supporters of the Goodison Park outfit will hope they are not the club reportedly keen on bringing Vermaelen back to the Premier League.
Have West Ham United found the next Mark Noble in Alfie Lewis?
The 18-year-old put in a fine performance against Dagenham and Redbridge this week.
West Ham United took on Dagenham and Redbridge in a friendly yesterday, in a match to raise funds for the National League side.
It was no surprise to see West Ham come out victorious. They won 3-1, with Michail Antonio at the double and Jordan Hugill scoring his first goal for the club.
It was, however, a Hammers team depleted by international selection.
With that in mind, David Moyes’ side fielded some of their younger players. Plenty of them caught the eye, but none more so than central midfielder Alfie Lewis.
The 18-year-old put in a fine display for 90 minutes which left West Ham fans very excited on social media.
It was an even more special achievement given Lewis spent most of last year on the sidelines with a serious knee injury.
Lewis himself told the official West Ham website after the game: “I’m delighted.
“It was a good experience for me tonight, to play with the likes of Patrice Evra, and Mark Noble in midfield. It was a good challenge and a good test for us as well, and I think I did well.”
He spoke of it being an honour playing alongside Mark Noble, but is he the successor to the throne?
Whilst Noble has had his critics in recent times there is no doubt he has been a long-term hero at West Ham.
Fans of the club have often wondered why Noble has never received England recognition given his consistent form in the Premier League.
Noble has gone on to play over 400 games for West Ham since his debut for the club back in 2004.
Lewis certainly has the ability to follow in his footsteps. An energetic midfield creator, West Ham look to have another midfield gem in their ranks and one that can hopefully progress into the first-team soon.
The Hammers have a fine record of bringing through young players.
Noble is one current example and Lewis could not be at a better club if he is to find his way into the West Ham first-team.
This season, with a relegation battle raging, might come a little too soon for the teenager.
Nonetheless, in 2018-19 it will not be a surprise if Lewis finds himself playing alongside Noble in the West Ham midfield once again.
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