Ivan Toney: England have finally found their perfect Harry Kane back-up plan

Ivan Toney Brentford 2022-23
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The Brentford striker has earned his chance on the international stage having established himself as one of the Premier League's top forwards

It would be a surprise if, by the end of this week, England had not capped its 1,272nd senior men’s international player. What a deserved cap it would be, too. Few players are in better form than Ivan Toney right now, and having missed out agonisingly on Gareth Southgate’s squad for the World Cup in Qatar, the Brentford striker will be desperate to make his mark as England launch their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with games against Italy and Ukraine.

At 27, Toney has certainly taken the long road to the top level, but his performances for Brentford this season place him, unquestionably, among the country’s best players. His tally of 16 Premier League goals is bettered only by Erling Haaland and Harry Kane, and has the Bees dreaming, improbably, of European qualification.

“He deserves his opportunity,” said Southgate when announcing his squad last week. Off-field issues may change things but Toney has, for now it seems, moved ahead of the likes of Callum Wilson, Ollie Watkins, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the battle to be the understudy to captain Kane.

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Nobody can say he hasn’t earned his chance…

  1. The hard yards

    The hard yards

    It is more than 10 years since Toney made his professional debut, doing so as a 16-year-old for hometown club Northampton Town in an FA Cup first-round defeat to Bradford City.

    He had been rejected by Leicester City as a schoolboy, but he would go on to make 60 appearances for Northampton in League Two, working under the likes of Aidy Boothroyd and Chris Wilder before being signed by Premier League club Newcastle for £250,000 ($306,000) in 2015, aged 19. 

    Ironically, his debut for the Magpies would come against Northampton in a League Cup tie, before he made his Premier League bow in September 2015 as a late substitute in a 2-2 draw with Chelsea, replacing the current Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

    Toney would, however, only play one more league game for the club - another late cameo in a 3-3 draw with Manchester United - and managed only four sub appearances in total.

    Instead, his time on Tyneside became a series of Football League loan spells. He played for Barnsley and Shrewsbury Town, had two stints at Scunthorpe United and another at Wigan Athletic.

    He collected experience and games, more than 100 in total, and scored goals too, but it wasn’t until a £650,000 ($800,000) move to Peterborough United in 2018 that Toney’s career really started to take off.

  2. Hitting the bigtime

    Hitting the bigtime

    Toney, according to Peterborough owner Darragh MacAnthony, rejected offers from the Championship to join the League One side, but it wasn’t long before his decision was vindicated.

    He scored 23 goals in his first season with the Posh, and then netted 26 in the following campaign, earning him the League One Player of the Year award.

    Celtic tried to sign him that summer, Middlesbrough too. He was reportedly recommended to Tottenham, but it was Brentford who agreed a deal worth an initial £6.5 million ($8m), with a series of add-ons which would eventually take the fee past £10m ($12.25m).

    Those add-ons, it’s safe to say, have been met. Toney scored 31 goals in his first season with Brentford, including one in the play-off final win over Swansea City at Wembley which secured promotion to the Premier League.

    Once back in the bigtime, he swiftly made himself at home. He helped Brentford beat Arsenal in their first Premier League game, and a fortnight later scored his first top-flight goal away to Aston Villa. By the end of the campaign, he’d netted 14 times as the Bees finished a more-than-respectable 13th.

  3. Going up a level

    Going up a level

    That form has continued, and even improved, this season. Toney started the campaign with a goal at Leicester and has carried on scoring since. 

    There was a hat-trick against Leeds, two in the home win over Brighton and, best of all, another brace in a brilliant victory over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium just before the World Cup.

    Southgate watched that game with a wry smile, having already opted for Newcastle’s Wilson ahead of Toney in his squad for Qatar, but if the Brentford man was disappointed by his omission then it hasn’t shown in his performances. Since the World Cup, he has scored six times in 11 matches, his displays including a centre-forward’s masterclass at league leaders Arsenal last month.

    “I like his presence in games,” Southgate said last week, and Toney is certainly a player who gives defenders a hard time whenever he plays. Only Mitrovic has won more aerial duels among Premier League strikers this season, while only five forwards - Haaland, Kane, Mitrovic, Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez - have taken more shots. Toney’s expected goals (xG) tally is bettered only by Haaland and Kane.

  4. The penalty king

    The penalty king

    Another of Toney’s big assets, and one which could come in more than a little handy should he ever find himself at a major international tournament, is his ability to score penalties.

    Of the 28 spot-kicks he has taken as a professional, he has scored 27, with his sole miss coming for Peterborough against Barnsley in October 2018.

    His style is unique, his eyes remaining fixed on the goalkeeper even as he strikes the ball. “The ball doesn’t move,” he once said, deadpan, although earlier this season he offered a deeper insight into his mindset around penalties.

    "The keeper's trying to give the talk and everybody's trying to get in my head,” he said. “But I just walk away, compose myself, think of different things, think of being on the beach with a cocktail and put it in the back of the goal.”

    In the Premier League, Toney has scored all 10 of the penalties he has taken. Only Yaya Toure, with 11, has a better 100 percent record. “He is the best penalty taker in the world,” says Brentford boss Thomas Frank. “It’s a unique skill.”

  5. Off-field uncertainty

    Off-field uncertainty

    Of course, as Toney rightly celebrates his England call-up, and as he is rightly lauded as one of the best forwards in the Premier League, it must also be pointed out that there is an elephant in the room. Namely, that he looks likely to soon receive a significant ban from playing.

    In November, it was announced that he had been charged with 232 breaches of the FA’s betting rules, with a further 30 charges following in December. 

    It has been reported that Toney has admitted several of the charges, which date back to his time at Newcastle and Peterborough, but that he has denied others. It has also been reported that he could face a six-month ban from football as a result.

    Earlier this month, Toney expressed his “shock and disappointment” that such details were leaked into the media. "It is especially disturbing for me to read that the FA is saying I shall be banned from football for six months before there has even been a hearing,” he wrote on his Instagram page. “And it does make me worried about the process.”

    Frank, his manager, spoke openly about the issue in an interview with The Daily Mail this week, urging the FA not to put Toney in “footballing prison” by banning him, but to instead use the high-profile nature of the case to educate players with regards to gambling rules.

    It is clear that football, as a sport, has work to do in that regard. As Frank pointed out, Toney wears a shirt bearing the slogan of a betting company every time he plays for Brentford, a club who are owned by a man, Matthew Benham, whose fortune was made through companies linked to the gambling industry. 

    The bulk of the striker’s career has been spent in the Football League, which is sponsored by SkyBet, while you don’t have to look far to find gambling links in the Premier League, where eight of the 20 clubs are sponsored by betting companies and where advertisements accompany every single fixture, whether in the ground or on television. 

    “It is hard for players when the advertising for betting companies is all around them at stadiums and on our shirts and the shirts of other clubs,” says Frank. “Yet we are saying 'ignore the advertising'.

    “Ivan was in hotels, he was on loan, he had nine different clubs in eight years before arriving at Brentford, he is a young man and he has all this influence going on around him from gambling and yet we will not pay any attention to that, we will just look at the offence itself.

    “If you ban Ivan from football for six months, that is the football equivalent of putting him in prison for six months. This is what he is having to face.”

    Frank, of course, has good reason to hope the FA show leniency with Toney when it comes to their judgement. He and Brentford need their talisman.

    In a few days’ time, though, Southgate and England may find himself in a similar position.