By Ryan Ferguson
In the modern age, Tranmere have stumbled around the loan market like a weary father at Christmas; spotting something that will suffice, purchasing it without contemplation, then experiencing buyer’s remorse before leaving the shop. A fortnight later, we typically spend hours rooting through pockets and wallets for the receipt, hoping to return the defected item back from whence it came. But very occasionally, perhaps every three or four years, we happen upon a sensational bargain. A gem on the island of misfit toys. A Ben Tollitt in a world of Mamady Sidibés.
For the past nine weeks, this 22-year old has illuminated Prenton Park with performances that demand attention. A bright winger on loan from Portsmouth, Tollitt has made ten appearances for Tranmere, and his fine productivity has inspired a Rovers revival. Though it’s still a really small sample size, the Liverpudlian has already scored three goals, assisted just as many, and established himself as one of the most mercurial talents in non-league football. There is still room for refinement, as the lad was even sent off in one game, but rarely have we seen such a polished forward arrive on loan.
When Tollitt made his debut, at home to Woking in late September, Tranmere were in a dire situation. Paul Carden was in temporary charge, and Rovers were without a win in four games. They hadn’t even scored for three, and were humiliated by the lowly Sutton United a week earlier. Victory over Woking did little to assuage the frustration, and performances cratered again shortly thereafter. But then Micky Mellon was drafted in, and with Tollitt playing a central role, Tranmere began a steady march up the table, from ninth to joint-second in the space of nine matches.
Ben’s first scintillating display came in a tense local derby against Wrexham. It was also Mellon’s first game at the helm. That’s not a coincidence. Early in his reign, the new manager simplified things, re-empowering star players and putting them in the best positions to succeed. Micky could see the obvious talent of Tollitt, and he duly unleashed it. Live on BT Sport, the youngster was fresh, energetic and hungry to impress. He produced several mazy runs, and came extremely close to scoring a long range firecracker as Rovers won 2-0.
A forgettable FA Cup defeat at Barrow followed, before Tollitt stayed on the bench as Tranmere thumped Solihull Moors. Three days later, North Ferriby proved obstinate customers on a challenging night at Prenton Park. Rovers struggled to break down the visitors, but Tollitt provided fresh impetus as a second half substitute. His pace and direct running gave the opposition something new to think about, and Tranmere eventually conjured a winner late in stoppage time through Andy Cook.
Rovers then ventured to Dover, the type of place where they typically lose regardless of who’s in the dugout. When the hosts took an early lead, a wry sense of foreboding engulfed the fanbase. But this Tranmere team wasn’t done fighting. Instead of rolling over, the Whites came roaring back with a vengeance, scoring four unanswered goals to send a warning signal throughout the National League. It was a watershed moment for the new regime, and Ben Tollitt was the leading puppet in Mellon’s grand production.
Quite simply, Dover could not deal with such a dynamic player. All afternoon, Tollitt ran riot, an unchained colt rambling free in the countryside. Just after the half-hour mark, Ben breezed past two challenges, careered into the penalty area and squared for Cook to tap home an equaliser. Cook scored again after an hour, before an own goal made it 3-1. Then with just over ten minutes remaining, Tollitt scored the goal his performance deserved.
After a knock on by Jay Harris, Ben exploded into the penalty area, flicking the ball around a slow defender and meeting it again, flush on the half-volley. The goalkeeper had no chance, as the ball flashed into his top corner. Game, set and match.
Above all else, this kind of fearlessness distinguishes Ben Tollitt. He represents a fresh era at Prenton Park, totally unaffected by our disastrous collapse into non-league purgatory. To use the old cliché, he is a breath of fresh air. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Tranmere player with such immense confidence in his own ability. The way Tollitt plays with a smile on his face, brightening with each game, goal and Man of the Match award, is incredibly exciting. It’s the mark of a player destined for a higher level.
Of course, there is still a lot to learn for any footballer of his age. Though it means the world to us, this is only the National League. There’s a long road to genuine stardom, and the Chester game at Prenton Park in November encapsulated that. Tollitt scored another clever goal, shooting across the visiting keeper to put Tranmere 2-0 up, but he was then sent off in the second period, before Rovers unravelled in horrid fashion. His second yellow card, supposedly for simulation, was highly contentious, so Tollitt deserves the benefit of doubt here. But the game changed when he was dismissed and Rovers were forced to accept a solitary point when Chester equalised.
Nevertheless, young players learn from these experiences. Tollitt continues to have a great rapport with the Tranmere fans, who love his passion for football. His emphatic celebration against Chester was brilliant, and his interaction with supporters via social media is laudable. Ben looks at home on the Wirral, and we’re delighted to have him.
After serving his one-match suspension, Tollitt returned in the away game with promotion rivals Forest Green. Tranmere came from behind twice to earn a quality point, and Ben certainly played his part. But another of his virtuoso exhibitions came four days later, when Torquay United made the journey to Birkenhead. On that day, Tollitt didn’t even have much luck, as a few final balls went awry, but the extent to which Torquay were petrified of him was simply startling.
Ben was instrumental in Rovers taking a twelfth-minute lead. He galloped onto a loose ball some forty yards from goal and dribbled into the open space with menacing intent before shifting a cute pass into the stride of Andy Mangan, who finished with aplomb. Tranmere ran out 2-1 winners when Mangan added a second, but it could have been so much more.
Torquay were inept defensively. They left oceans of space all afternoon, right across the pitch. Tollitt ran at them with guile and guts, forcing the issue. Every time he received the ball, a susurrus of enthusiasm spread through the crowd. Torquay defenders retreated time and time again, unwilling or unable to thwart this flying phenom. At this level, few players stand out. There are a lot of workmanlike grafters who play the percentages in rigid lines. Then there’s Ben Tollitt, roaming free, coasting between the banks of four with probing ingenuity, reaching for the jugular. It’s a pleasure to watch him play.
Right now, Tollitt is one of the main differences between Tranmere and the more generic teams at this level. That theory manifested itself in the actual scoreline away to Gateshead on Tuesday, when Tollitt’s third-minute goal gave Rovers all three points. Once again, Ben gathered the ball from deep, perhaps twenty-five yards from goal in a central area. He then dropped his shoulder, burrowed between two defenders, jinked inside a third and slotted a calm, left-footed shot into the bottom corner. Gateshead were simply outclassed.
Amid all the hype, it’s important to remember that Tollitt is still a Portsmouth player. From what we’ve seen, he would certainly hold his own near the top of League Two. Of course, one must show some restraint when describing his ability or project his future. Tranmere fans know all about loanees who fizzle out. Yet Tollitt seems different. He’s here until January, at which point the situation is likely to be reviewed. Hopefully Rovers can swing a deal to extend his stay on Merseyside.
One way or another, Ben Tollitt will play many games in the Football League. Perhaps that’s with Portsmouth, who have obviously done a great job of developing his game. But it could also be with Tranmere, who have looked freshly potent with Tollitt in the side. Sometimes, certain players fit certain clubs at certain times. Ben Tollitt is everything we want in a player at this point. We can only hope Tranmere Rovers is everything he wants in a club.