Norwich City full-back Harry Toffolo determined to be one of the few who make the grade
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Norwich City full-back Harry Toffolo speaks with David Freezer about the difficulties facing young players trying to make their breakthrough
The challenges facing young football players have always been huge but the astonishing amounts of money in the game today look to be placing even bigger obstacles in the paths of those aspiring stars.
Among the current Canaries crop is full-back Harry Toffolo, who has just started his latest loan spell, at League One promotion hopefuls Peterborough United.
The 20-year-old will stay with Posh for the rest of the season but looks set to miss today’s trip to West Brom in the fourth round of the FA Cup due to a concussion suffered in Tuesday night’s 1-0 home loss to Burton Albion.
It is the third club Toffolo has spent time on loan with since helping City’s under-18s win the FA Youth Cup under Neil Adams in 2013.
His promotion push with Swindon Town in League One last season led to Toffolo having the chance to impress City boss Alex Neil in pre-season.
He was then handed his Norwich debut in a Capital One Cup second round game at Rotherham earlier in the campaign, before going on to join the Millers on loan.
“The most important thing for any young player is to get out on loan. It’s a bit of a cliché, but you really do have to do it,” the England Under-20 international said.
“Under-21 football isn’t anything like the Football League. A lot of lads coming in from under-21s football look great in training, are very technically gifted but in the Football League when you are out on loan you are up against men and it definitely develops you better.
“I saw a stat the other day about the amount of players who actually make it at their parent clubs being very low.
“Obviously my aspiration, because I’ve been with the club since I was 12, is to make the breakthrough at Norwich. But eventually you have to look after yourself because players generally play until they are 35 or 36, if you’re lucky, so you have to make a name for yourself and sometimes that means leaving your parent club.”
Toffolo looks to have a decent chance of making it with City but is one of hundreds of young players at Premier League clubs who face a difficult journey to making their breakthrough.
“Nowadays young players are on a contract which is very hard to get out of because clubs are due compensation up until the age of 24 and sometimes the lower league clubs can’t afford to pay that,” he continued. “And in the Premier League the wages that young players are on mean that some lower league clubs can’t even afford their wages.
“So it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation for players because if you don’t get a loan move then you get to 21 or 22 years old and you’re at a club and you’ve only made 10 appearances and it’s very difficult to break through.”
The young defender, originally from Hertfordshire, made seven appearances for Rotherham before returning to Norwich in January.
“I’m very grateful to Rotherham for the chance to play. I played the first seven games because they signed me as back up because of an injury to Joe Mattock,” Toffolo continued.
“He was supposed to be out for two months but then it only ended up being about two weeks.
“I then injured my hamstring and he went back in and then kept the jersey, which was fair enough. But I learnt a lot about mentality at Swindon and clearly came on leaps and bounds there, and it makes you realise how tough it can be, when you’re not winning every week like at Swindon.
“We were playing teams like away at the Riverside against Middlesbrough and I was up against Albert Adomah, who’s a very good player, and I played against Jonny Russell (of Derby) as well so it was a whole step up for me.”
Beyond the challenges created by finances, huge amounts of competition and actually performing on the pitch, there is also the difficulties of holding your own in a dressing room with older players.
With the usual amounts of banter and bravado flying around behind the scenes at different clubs, a young player has to learn how to fit in quickly.
“It is tough but you kind of expect it to be, like your first away trip when you have to sing a song,” Toffolo explained.
“There are all different types of personality in the dressing room and you’ve got to be careful with some players saying things, and saying things in front of other players.
“The respect comes if you’re performing well and you don’t turn up and start telling people what to do. As much as with any loan move you went to be a sponge and to be absorbing as much as you can, like I said to (Peterborough boss) Graham Westley, although I’m young I can bring a lot to the table because although we lost in the play-off final at Swindon last season, I’ve got that experience.
“So although results have not gone great the last couple of games, I remember last year when MK Dons went on a run of something like 12 out of 13 and finished second.”
It can be a bracing maturing process for youngsters – who just two or three years ago were still playing football computer games and dreaming of their big break.
“I think about when I was playing Fifa when I was 16 and all the players I’m now playing with used to be in the game when I played Fifa!” City’s confident young defender joked.
“So it’s quite cool and I have got to enjoy it but not be intimidated by that, you’ve got to be ready for every opportunity you get and hopefully take those opportunities.”
Toffolo is well aware he still has much hard work ahead of him but also believes he has the ability to make the grade, such as his left-footed crossing, which has drawn praise already.
“That takes a lot of hard work,” he added. “It sounds like a bit of a cliché but it is, and when you are watching TV when you are younger and you see how the likes of Kolarov at Man City, he has a great technique and is a very good player, and I see myself as that style of player.
“The way he kicks the ball, and you can obviously look at the likes of David Beckham and James Ward-Prowse at Southampton – who I’ve heard takes 50 corners and free-kicks every day.
“That shows that it doesn’t come simply for anyone, even Ronaldo and Messi have to practise all the time.”
As long as he keeps that kind of realistic outlook on his prospects, you suspect Toffolo could just be among that small percentage which will make the grade.
For more from Toffolo, see today’s Eastern Daily Press or Norwich Evening News