Despite the chaos of the 2020/21 season, Ben Tollitt has been a player revitalised since signing for AFC Fylde. The former Tranmere Rovers and Portsmouth wideman has felt wanted, and it has shown, with the 26-year-old top of the Coasters’ scoring chart in all competitions.
The ex-Everton youngster has certainly learned senior football the ‘authentic’ way, juggling Sunday league and non-league while still a teenager, and ultimately making it back to a professional club via the likes of Vauxhall Motors and Widnes. That ‘real world’ grasp and understanding perhaps also comes through in how he has taken the initiative to begin studying to become a physio of late.
The Anfield native was speaking here shortly before the null and void decision for the National League North was made public – just the latest example of everything in football being ‘until further notice’. Whenever the action resumes – hopefully free of all that has compromised the enjoyment and experience of it over the past year – the attacking talent is ready to drive forward again…
Everything else aside, how happy have you been with your season on a personal level?
Personally, it’s been one of my better ones, to be honest with you. I’m at a club where I feel appreciated and wanted, and I suppose that brings the best out of you. I’m not far off double figures now for the season, so from wide, it’s nice to get those goals, but I don’t wanna stop there. Obviously it all depends if the season carries on.
Jim Bentley spoke highly of you when you joined, also mentioning wanting to sign you when he was Morecambe manager. Obviously he’s not been there all season, with Nick Chadwick stepping in while he was away, but how has he approached it with you since you joined?
He’s been class; one of the best managers I’ve had. Just the way he treats everyone makes everyone feel wanted, which is good. He just said how much he’d really like me to join and stuff like that, and after a couple of up-and-down seasons, that’s what made my decision for me really. He’s been brilliant, and Chaddy as well, he’s been class with me. I feel as though this season, I’ve added a lot more to my game than I have in most seasons that I’ve had. They’ve really improved me a lot and I’m thankful for it, because it’s paying off and showing on the pitch.
How much of that changing-room spirit have you managed to get going as a team this season, when you can’t do as you normally would with nights out and extra things that typically bond a group, especially at this level?
It’s been hard. Normally at the beginning and then midway through the season you’d maybe have a night out together or something like that. It’s been tough. With the way all the protocols and rules are, it’s literally you turn up for training, you get out your car, get on the pitch, you do your training and you get off. It’s so minimal the time that we get to spend together, but it’s just been a great group to be part of, even if we haven’t been able to do those things. During the times we’ve been at training, and on the coach to away games, we’ve really bonded. It’s been a bit of a weird one but I’ve learned a lot about all the lads there, and I’m part of a good group.
— AFC Fylde (@AFCFylde) August 24, 2020
You’ve been studying to become a physio recently, where did the idea come from to pursue that?
It was just something that I thought about when I was injured myself. I’d never had an injury before, and then I did my ACL, and obviously I had a lot of time out. I learned a lot just by being injured, looking at what the physios were doing, and I just found it dead interesting. So it’s sort of been on my mind for a few years, and when the first lockdown happened, nobody really had much to do, so I just thought ‘why not give it a go?’ I enquired about it through the PFA, and after speaking to them and the people at Salford Uni, it really stood out and I just thought it was the perfect time, with all that’s going on, to keep myself occupied. Not so much planning for after footy, because at the end of the day, I’m only in my mid-20s, I’ve not even been playing five years professionally. It’s just because of the time we’re in, and at least then whenever I do stop playing, I’ve got a back-up option to fall back on.
In terms of gaining that hands-on experience, how much of that are you able to do at the moment, with all that’s going on? Is it mainly theory for the time being?
Normally it’s two days a week, and one of the days you’re in doing your lectures, and the other day doing your practical. At the minute, it’s one day of the week doing online lectures, and the other day you’re actually in the uni doing practical, so you’re full PPEd up, gloves, aprons, masks. Because of the course that it is and the nature of it, you can’t really learn how to be a physio without getting hands-on experience. The uni have been brilliant with making it feel as normal as possible.
Staying in the North West, whereabouts in Liverpool have you grown up, where’s home?
I lived in Anfield for 24 years, five minutes away from Liverpool’s ground; you can hear all the songs and that when the game’s on, if you’re not actually there. So been in Anfield all my life, then two years ago, me and my partner bought a house just about ten minutes away from there. Still in Liverpool, so Fylde’s ideal for me as well, although there was a number of reasons besides just the location. But grew up in Anfield all my life, hence being a big Red!
You’ve spoke before about getting the neighbours on the estate outside for some quizzes etc. during lockdown last year. So were you basically the host, organising everything once they came out?
Yeah, that was a mad one really. Me and my girlfriend were sat there after about a month of lockdown and we were like ‘we need to do something here’, and because the estate was brand-new, we hadn’t really had much chance to engage with neighbours and find a bit out about them. We were doing family quizzes, like everyone was, and we just said ‘why don’t we ask anyone in the street if they wanna take part?’ So just wrote up a little note on a piece of paper and photocopied a load, and posted them through everyone’s doors, saying ‘if you wanna join in, just come out and sit on your front drive, and everyone can kind of gather in the estate’. It just started from there and a WhatsApp group developed with all the neighbours. It’s been nice, and I think the past nine months or so, we’ve actually made some really good friends; there’s a lot of interesting people on the estate. Some friends who I’d class as my really close friends now.
Did any of the games get a bit feisty, bit competitive? Did you have to send anyone inside?!
Oh no, no red cards! Everyone brought five questions each and we just went round each other. It was a good laugh, and the prize for first place in the first one was a bottle of wine or something like that. It just grew and developed from not knowing anyone, to like I say, now having some really good friends. The people here are class, so, love living here.
Hat-trick to start the year ⚽️⚽️⚽️ great win by the lads today, it’s been coming, made up 🙌🏻 pic.twitter.com/4Ry6RqBe89
— Ben Tollitt (@bentollitt) January 2, 2021
You mentioned being a Red, but you were with Everton growing up. How long were you at the club?
I was seven when I started at Everton, and then I left just before 16s. I loved it, I did things as a kid that most kids would dream of having with their football and education, I suppose. Playing in tournaments across Europe, had some of the best training that you could have, going to the training pitch pretty much every day after school, and even sometimes missing school to go to training, because we were dragged out a day a week. As a young lad, it’s just all you want to do. It was a brilliant experience. It never worked out at Everton, I got let go for being too small and too slight; I was only 5 foot 5 at the time. Still am skinny, I suppose, but I’m 6 foot 2 now, so I’ve shot up a lot. I probably wasn’t physically ready for that level at that age, but people mature at different ages and I’m playing full-time footy now, which is any lad’s dream. I’m grateful for the education I had and I still speak to most of the coaches I had when I was at Everton.
So when you leave the club, how long is it before you get back into playing, to then be making your way up via non-league? Soon after, or was there a bit of time needed to process leaving Everton?
I left Everton and then I didn’t really play for six months, to be honest with you. Obviously I was devastated that I left Everton, but because all I’d known was academy footy, I didn’t really know anywhere to go and play. About six months later, a lad who I played with in the team I got scouted at by Everton, at the age of seven, just got in touch and said ‘do you wanna come and play for us?’ I played for them, Sunday league, and then from there, went to play at Vauxhall Motors for a little bit. Then Widnes took me at 17/18, and I just played men’s football from that age. Still growing up and developing, and it was a massive learning curve, but probably the best one I could have had, because some lads who come through academies don’t play men’s footy until 20/21. So I was getting kicked left, right and centre. I was playing Sunday league still, but adults, while still playing for Widnes on a Saturday. From out the blue, I just got scouted by Portsmouth, asked down for a trial, and the rest is the rest.
Going to Portsmouth, a big club but it’s also a long old hike from the North West. How did you take to the experience living down there?
Yeah, it’s probably one of the furthest places in England you can get to from where I’m from; go any more south and you’re in France, aren’t you? Yeah, it was scary. I’d never lived away, was always around my mum, my dad, all I knew was Liverpool and around Anfield. My mum did my washing, my cooking, all that, so it was a steep learning curve when I had to move away. Also, being in a city and knowing absolutely nobody, mixed with coming from where I had, playing for Widnes, to then signing for Portsmouth, who were the biggest club in League Two, potentially even in League One as well. Not that I didn’t feel I deserved to be there, but coming from where I did, I thought ‘I need to prove to these guys why I am actually here’. So combining that with living away, it was crazy, but an unbelievable experience; not many can say they had their first professional contract at a place like Portsmouth.
In terms of getting a foothold to settle a bit in the area, was there anyone you could spend time with outside of training and matches?
One of the lads in the team, Matt Clarke, we got put living together; he’s on loan at Derby now (from Brighton). We lived together with a couple called Tom and Charlotte, and Tom worked at the football club at the time. When I first went down, I was in a hotel, but then they looked after us. It was good coming back from training with Matt, and then we were in together in the house, we had a really good laugh. Being so far away, I probably fell lucky with the people I was living with, and still keep in touch with them now.
A couple of the other notable clubs you’ve been at are Tranmere and Wrexham. In a similar sort of way to Portsmouth, they were in leagues below their stature perhaps, in the time you were there, and Wrexham for now still are. How do you look back on the time at each of those?
With fondness really. Obviously Wrexham was only loans from Tranmere, but my time at Tranmere was brilliant. I was playing and everyone was great to me while I was there. Playing for clubs like that, at that level, they shouldn’t really be at that level. To play at that level but for those clubs was nice, because Tranmere did end up getting back into the Football League, and Wrexham look like they’re having a good season now. The season that I was there, they got to the play-offs but just missed out, didn’t get through, but they’re back in the play-offs now, so hopefully they do end up getting back where they belong as well. They’ve had the takeover now that everyone knows about, but they were a big club anyway for that league.
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The Tranmere goal you got against Woking, with the solo run, the Scouse Ryan Giggs! Is that your favourite you’ve scored so far?
That’s probably the best one I’ve scored so far, but it just happened instantly, I didn’t really think anything about it. It was only after the game when I look back and think ‘that was actually quite a good goal’, but hopefully I can create a few more of them. Obviously the goal was good, but I wanna try and get better goals than that in my career.
What do you think gets the best out of you from a manager? Encouraging, firing up, annoying even?!
Probably a little bit of all of that really. Don’t get me wrong, I do over-think, and that’s one thing I have to work on, and Jim has said to me ‘listen, you are a good player; every good player makes mistakes, nobody has a perfect game’. There’s been times where he has put his arm around me, or going through things as the game’s going on. So just a mix of everything really, but Jim’s been brilliant, and Chaddy as well, in the sense of realising that I have had a bit of a bad past couple of years, and they have made me feel reassured and wanted. I suppose that has got the best out of me.
There’s not much better on the pitch than when you’ve got teammates on the same wavelength. Have any you’ve played alongside especially stood out for the extra connection and understand you felt with them?
Yeah, a couple really. Playing at Tranmere down the left side, I had Liam Ridehalgh behind me. As a left-back, I had the best connection with him out of the ones I’ve played with, but then, Luke Conlan who I’m playing with now. I’ve only played with him for half a year but we bounce off each other really well, compliment each other’s game. Luke’s a good player, and it’s easy playing with good players. Strikers: Andy Cook. I knew if I went past the man and put it in the box, I instantly had a feeling where he was gonna be. He’s obviously doing well, he’s now at Bradford. Then I’m playing now with players like Nick (Haughton) and we’ve done really well together; he’s playing central and I’m playing out wide. Even at Portsmouth, I had Enda Stevens sometimes behind me and he’s played in the Premier League. There’s that many I could mention that I don’t wanna forget anyone, so I’ll just say that there’s been a lot, and I’m lucky to have had them there.
What about some of the standout characters? Of the fair few you’ve surely been around…
There was a few at Tranmere. Ste McNulty, Adam Buxton, Jay Harris; there was just a group of Scousers who were loud and they were characters. At Portsmouth, there were players like Gary Roberts. Michael Doyle was a big one; on the pitch, he was an animal, but off the pitch, the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. Going to Portsmouth as well from where I’d been, that was a big experience, coming across people like that.
Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a new team?
Yeah, every single team. I’ve done a bit of Robbie Williams ‘Rock DJ’, I did Backstreet Boys ‘I Want It That Way’, I did ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ (Giorgio Moroder and Philip Oakey).
Has there been a team DJ lately at Fylde?
Mostly Luke Burke, but the odd time, I have thrown myself on there and the lads have been quite impressed! So I think Luke’s spot is in danger…
Finally, away from football, studying – and parenting! – what else have you got in terms of other interests, ambitions even?
Another ambition I’ve got is to not be playing at the level I’m playing at now. I’ve been playing four-and-a-half/five years now, and I’m playing where I’m playing, but I still have the ambition of playing as high as I possibly can, and I back myself to reach those levels if I carry on playing well over the next couple of seasons. That’s definitely an ambition, for football. As for other interests, I love my TV series. Obviously I haven’t been able to for the past year, but I’m part of a snooker club, so play in a snooker league when I can, obviously fitting around (football) games and stuff. I’ve recently got back into playing on the PlayStation the odd time, because my girlfriend’s a nurse, so when she’s in work or on nights or something, I’ll try and get a bit of game time! There’s a few really, but I’d say they’re the main interests, other than footy.
Interview by @chris_brookes