FA Cup fourth round: Cheltenham captain Ben Tozer on anxiety and counselling

By Neil JohnstonBBC Sport
Cheltenham Town captain Ben Tozer with his wife Sophie and their two children Hugo, two, and seven-month-old Felicity
Cheltenham Town captain Ben Tozer and his wife, Sophie, with their two children Hugo, two, and seven-month-old Felicity
FA Cup fourth round: Cheltenham Town v Manchester City
Venue: Jonny-Rocks Stadium Date: Saturday, 23 January Kick-off: 17:30 GMT Coverage: Watch live on BBC One - build-up starts at 17:20. Full match commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live plus text commentary on the BBC Sport website

It seemed a good idea at the time, a chance to catch up with friends and relieve the anxiety that had been building after being frozen out at Newport County.

Ben Tozer had been labelled a "bad egg" and told to stay away from the League Two club after a disagreement with then-manager Graham Westley during a team meeting.

So when friends suggested a day out in nearby Cardiff to celebrate Tozer's birthday, the former Newcastle United player jumped at the opportunity to forget his problems for a few hours.

"We were in a pub and something happened. My mates didn't recognise my behaviour," recalls Tozer.

"I became embroiled in an argument with a stranger. That's not me. It was trivial but I was in a dark place because of everything that was going on."

On the brink of quitting after becoming disillusioned by football, Tozer was persuaded by his partner Sophie, now his wife, to start counselling sessions.

Four years on and he is getting ready to lead Cheltenham Town, sixth in League Two, against Manchester City in the FA Cup.

As he prepares for Saturday's fourth-round tie (17:30 GMT), which is live on BBC One, the Robins captain opens up about anxiety and how getting married proved "a turning point".

"I'm just glad I listened to Sophie and sought help after a few months of going downhill mentally," he says.

'I hated football'

With a wedding planned for the June, 2017 should have been an exciting year for the footballer. But three months before the big day, Tozer remembers being at a "dark moment" in his life.

He had moved to south Wales from Yeovil in the summer of 2016 but by January 2017 he had been banished from Newport's training ground, with Westley stating he was free to leave.

Tozer would visit a boxing gym to stay on top of his fitness.

"It was my only form of release because I was stuck indoors on my own," the 30-year-old adds. "Sophie had a job so I would spend hours watching television."

Cheltenham Town captain Ben Tozer reacts during a pre-season friendly with Leicester City in July 2019
Tozer has captained Cheltenham on their best FA Cup run since 2005-06

The incident in the pub happened in the March, around the same time as Westley was sacked following a poor run.

However, weeks of being isolated from his team-mates had left Tozer "hating football".

"In my head I had completely given up," he recalls. "I didn't kick a ball for six months. I wasn't interested."

Tozer, who was 17 when he joined Newcastle from Swindon in 2008, embarked on a course of counselling sessions. "I didn't like it at first but by the end I could feel the benefits."

It was only after marrying Sophie that he was able to enjoy his life again. "Getting married and going on honeymoon, it helped clear my head," he says.

With Michael Flynn in charge, he returned to Newport's team for the 2017-18 season.

"I'm pleased I didn't quit and I'm grateful to Michael I had a second season at Newport which was much more enjoyable," Tozer says.

"I appreciate everything after that experience. It was a life lesson."

'Safer training than shopping'

Manchester City's visit is the biggest FA Cup tie in Cheltenham's 134-year history.

There will be no fans inside their 7,000-capacity Whaddon Road home, known since 2018, for sponsorship purposes, as the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.

For some Cheltenham players a game against Pep Guardiola's City is the biggest moment of their careers. Lockdown rules, however, mean their families cannot attend.

Tozer, part of the Northampton Town team that knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup at Anfield in 2010, was hoping to have his parents, Keith and Sue, present along with Sophie and their two children, Hugo and Felicity.

"It feels safer training and playing than it does walking in a supermarket," Tozer, now in his third season at Cheltenham, says.

Northampton's Ben Tozer in action with Liverpool's Daniel Pacheco during a League Cup tie at Anfield in 2010
Tozer helped Northampton Town to a famous win over Liverpool at Anfield in the League Cup in 2010 after joining on loan from Newcastle

"We have very strict rules in place and we're tested twice a week.

"As players, we're very fortunate to be able to carry on when lots of people are stuck at home.

"Whenever I'm on a day off, I'm banging my head against the wall. I can't imagine what it's like for everyone else."

'Pep will love Cheltenham's slope'

Tozer, who sits at the heart of Cheltenham's three-man defence, has a reputation for being a throw-in specialist.

He spent last summer analysing videos of former Stoke midfielder Rory Delap, who was well known for his long throw-in "missiles" in the Premier League.

Tozer's deliveries into the opposition box have led to several goals this season, including one against Mansfield in the third round on 10 January.

Cheltenham Town captain Ben Tozer is a throw-in specialist
Cheltenham have scored several goals this season following long throw-ins by Tozer

"I've taken a lot over the past couple of seasons and we didn't really capitalise," says Tozer.

"It's been good for us this time. It's definitely more accurate than a corner but it takes its toll on my body because it's an explosive movement."

Cheltenham boss Michael Duff, the former Burnley player, will hope his captain's throw-ins can help deliver a shock against six-time FA Cup winners Manchester City.

"Cheltenham's a lovely part of the world, the views from the training ground are incredible," adds Tozer.

"I'm sure Pep will love the slope on our pitch."

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  • You can stream five fourth-round games live on the BBC this weekend, including Liverpool's trip to Manchester United. Find out more here.
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