Harry Toffolo interview: 'When it all came out, I thought I was done as a footballer'

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Harry Toffolo interview: 'When it all came out, I thought I was done as a footballer'

The coffee shop at a local garden centre is not where you might normally expect to spot a Premier League footballer. Certainly not one tapping away feverishly at his laptop.

It is not quite right to say Harry Toffolo is a man of action, rather than words. He is, more accurately, somebody who wants to take action through words — and doing so by talking to as many people as possible.

Which is what led him to that table in a garden centre.

It has been a challenging year for Toffolo, who admits that he found himself at “rock bottom” as he faced punishment for 375 breaches of FA betting rules last summer.

In September, an independent regulatory commission handed Toffolo a five-month ban from football, which was suspended, and a fine of £20,956 ($26,500). Fellow Premier League players Ivan Toney and Sandro Tonali were banned for eight months and 10 months respectively for breaching betting regulations.

In the months leading up to the outcome of his gambling case, Toffolo had convinced himself that his football career was over at the age of 28. It was a chapter in his life that led him to a realisation: he wanted to use his experience to help others. He wanted to listen to people, just as others had listened to him in his darkest moments.

He was given that opportunity when he received countless messages on social media, some offering support and others discussing their own experiences with mental health problems — which Toffolo had discussed as a factor in his betting.

“We had to report for training a little later than normal the other day,” he tells The Athletic. “So I dropped the kids off at school, I sat in a coffee shop at a garden centre, and I tried to reply to every single person who had messaged me. It took me a little while, sitting at my laptop. I had warned my wife that she was not going to get anything out of me for an hour or two, so she might want to go off and have a look at the plants or something…

Toffolo against Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka last month (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“I was in the zone. These people had built up the courage to message me, so I wanted to do them the decency of giving them a reply. It made me feel good and like I could do something. It was all private messaging. My only motivation is to help people if I can.

“Some of the messages I got back were great. Some of the messages just hit you right in the heart. But I have to kick that on. I can’t just stop. I won’t just be the guy that says he will do something and then not deliver.”

This is one of the reasons why Toffolo is now an ambassador of Tricky to Talk, a programme run through Nottingham Forest’s community trust, which is focused on encouraging people to open up about their mental health struggles. The programme stages meetings in which people can get together to share their experiences.

“It gives me the chance to do what I want to do and that I am passionate about,” he says. “I will get involved, I will speak to anyone and hopefully help people to open up and talk. I was put on this planet to be a footballer because I have made it as a player. But there is another side to it. We are all human beings. We all want the best for people.

“If my kids were struggling at some point and somebody was out there to look out for them when they needed it, I would be so happy for that. That is one of the reasons I am doing this now. Because I can do that for people now, I am in a position where I can have a voice. I don’t feel any pressure about having to do anything. I am not using any extra energy, because it is something I want to do. It is not like I have been told I have to empty the dishwasher.”

Regarding Toffolo’s case, the commission heard that the left-back had placed small bets on football at the age of 18, but stopped at the age of 21. The stakes were generally small. Toffolo staked a total of £1,323.92, making his average bet £3.53. Toffolo’s total return was £956.22, with an overall loss of £367.70. He also placed a 25p bet on himself to score during the League One play-off final in 2015, which his Swindon Town side lost 4-0 to Preston North End.

Toffolo was under contract at Norwich City but had five loan spells between 2014 and 2018. He was a young man, away from home, his friends and his family and loneliness was a factor.

“I will never say, ‘Look at the price of the bets I was putting on’. No, what I did was wrong and I should never have done it. I hold my hands up,” says Toffolo. “I respect the FA and I respect the independent panel because they were willing to listen to my story. At that moment, in that room at Wembley, in an intense environment, I sat there worrying that anything could happen.

Toffolo playing for Lincoln City during the 2018-19 season (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

“I went down with my mum and dad and my agent. I sat there thinking that it was make or break for me. I managed to come out of the other side of it and think to myself, ‘Look how far you have come now’. But also: ‘Remember where you were’. I do not want to let anyone else go where I was in the darkest moments of this.

“People talk to me in the street, I see people on the school run. One guy came up to me and told me he had been suffering from anxiety and depression. He had kids and a family and he had the courage to come to talk to me about it. So I tried to encourage him to talk more. If you can encourage people to walk away from the fire and open up… you can sometimes sense that there is a certain moment in a conversation with somebody when their guard goes down.

“I need to learn, I am not perfect myself. Far from it. I just know I want to use my position to help. I have to do it. I can’t let anyone go through what I did. The memory of what I have been through gives me super strength. I am going to try to impact on the lives of as many people as I can.”

Toffolo is also grateful for the support he received at Forest. In the final months of last season, the full-back had the prospect had the prospect of a ban hanging over him but he was still involved regularly in the squad.

“I found out in March (about the charges) and I was playing until the end of the season. You can imagine the frame of mind I was in. But I try to be professional so I was putting things to the back of my mind,” he says. “All I said to myself at the time was to go out there and empty my tank. Give everything I had, every time. If you go home and you are knackered, just go to bed.

“When it all came out, I hit rock bottom. I thought I was done (as a footballer). Finished. My family were brilliant. Steve (Cooper), Ross Wilson, Mr (Evangelos) Marinakis and his family — they all gave me incredible support.

“I feel indebted to them. That is why I give my all in every single game I play. They stuck by me in a moment in my life which was really tough. You never forget those people. They listened. They let me speak. They let me say what my story was, let me be honest and stuck by me.

“When we had to go to Wembley (for the hearing), they put on cars for us, they got us hotel rooms… They really care. They care about people. It meant a lot and it felt special to me. I am proud to be at this club.”

Toffolo also says a modern dressing room is not quite what some might expect.

Toffolo celebrates scoring against Wolves at Molineux last December (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

“It is somewhere where you can talk about things like this,” he says. “It is often just business and you look to the next game. But there is also a lot of time when you travel and conversations do happen. I remember Woody (Chris Wood) shaking my hand. He said that he had never known that I was going through everything that I had.

“Nobody really knew. There was all this carnage going on around me — and a lot of the time I did not tell people. Perhaps that was an education to him: understanding it might sometimes be the guy who isn’t talking very much who is the one who might be going through the most.

“It has been a positive journey in the end. I have got to this point, now it is time for me to tell my story and to be Harry — when I have not been able to be that for a long time.

“When you stop for a second and think to yourself that I was down here (gestures downwards) and now I am in a much different place… it is emotional. I could have been down and out.

“I was fortunate enough to have the strength to get through it. It took so much and I was so grateful to have what it took. I am not sure everyone would have been blessed with that. That is why I take a lot of pride. I sometimes think to myself, ‘You did it. You f***ing did it’.

“Then you look at the situation — you have a lovely family, you have your kids and your wife — and you just feel so grateful.”

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(Top photo: Jon Hobley | MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)