Ivan Toney may be at the center of a very modern football phenomenon, the tweet war where the attack is imagined and hostilities conducted via smartphone, but there is an old-fashioned element to his progress. He is set to become the first Brentford player to represent England in 83 years since the Second World War curtailed Les Smith’s brief international career, and his resume has a certain retroactive appeal.
Some are accelerated to the top. Like many players of a previous generation, Toney took the indirect route. As he noted, he was part of Gareth Southgate’s senior team without ever representing his country at a lower level; in fact, Jamaica showed interest in him before England. While only Erling Haaland, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Harry Kane have scored more Premier League goals this season, the 26-year-old has made fewer appearances in the top flight than in the Championship. He did even more in League Two, but played more in League One. He was a serial loaner, lining up for Barnsley and Wigan, Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe, but a permanent transfer was when he felt further from realizing his ambitions.
He made two top-flight appearances for Newcastle in 2015-16, spending just 10 minutes on the pitch. And that may have been the sum total of his Premier League experience when they sold him in 2018. “Leaving Newcastle when I went to Peterborough was a surprise,” he recalled. Especially when he started on the bench, replacing Jason Cummings and Matt Godden. “Other forwards were in front of me, scoring goals,” he said. “It was about being patient, and when your chance comes, you have to grab it with both hands.”
Which he certainly has. “I feel like you have to keep working hard and that makes it so much sweeter when you get the chance,” Toney said. The road to England was paved with goals: 101 in just over four years for first Peterborough and then Brentford. A 12-yard experience helps: he scored 24 of 25 penalties, leading Thomas Frank to rank him as the best penalty taker in the world. Diplomatically, Toney argued that Kane is better because he took more pressure penalties.
He came to taste his way. There was a temptation to “run out” on loans, but the experience benefited him. He is able to look back on his three years in the books at St James’ Park with understanding. “If I were a Newcastle owner or manager looking at a 20-year-old Ivan Toney, would I have taken him? Probably not,” he said. “There are no hard feelings. They thought I wasn’t good enough.”
If he is now, it’s thanks in part to the advice of his mother Lisa. “She texts me before every game: ‘Be a beast on the field. Put your body around.’” Toney’s rise is a family affair in other ways. His older sister, Jasmine, was a college student who took her little brother to train and work on the car while she waited for him to finish. Her mother sometimes missed dinner so Ivan could have his. Brentford is a family club and Toney’s recognition reflects well in many others. “It makes everything that much more special,” he said. “We know that no one has been called Brentford for over 70 years.”
Southgate let Frank deliver the good news; when Toney saw the Dane’s number flashing, he thought he was calling for other reasons. “I was a little late so I thought he was calling to talk about my timing,” he explained: “Then he said, ‘I’m privileged to say you’ve been called up to the England senior squad.’ For the first time in my life, I had nothing to say.”
Showed a level of self-awareness. Toney admits he can talk too much with the referees. His opening extends to ruminating about playing in bigger clubs. Would he be as prolific as the outstanding stars if he were on the same kind of team? “Until I’m there, who knows?” he said. “I hope that one day I will be in their shoes and have the opportunity to score goals like Haaland and [Gabriel] Jesus.”
The Brazilian scored in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Brentford on Sunday. When the Bees won the opening Premier League game at the expense of the Gunners last year, Toney tweeted: “Nice kick with the lads.” It felt a little excessive when Mikel Arteta used it to motivate Arsenal for last season’s rematch. Gabriel Magalhães produced a deliberately similar tweet this weekend. “I think one time it was funny, the second time a little scary,” Toney said. “But I bit my tongue: I wanted to answer, I wanted to nibble.” It wasn’t the kind of problem Les Smith had ever encountered.