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Shortly after the final whistle of Brentford’s last match of the regular season, Ivan Toney fired up Twitter and sent a brief message to the world. He had just struck his 31st goal of the campaign to break the Championship goalscoring record, underlining his status as one of the most exciting forwards in the English game, and he had a request for those who had doubted him over the years.
“Maybe now you can put a [little] respect on my name,” said the 25-year-old, who not so long ago was derided as a Newcastle United flop. It is safe to say that no one is sneering now, least of all the Bournemouth defenders who will have to face Toney in the play-off semi-finals this week.
Thomas Frank, Brentford’s head coach, has made it clear that Toney is heading for the Premier League. The hope is that he will go there with Brentford, and with a play-off winner’s medal. If not, he will surely follow in the footsteps of Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma, who left the club last summer for a combined fee of around £50 million.
Whether it is through promotion or a transfer, Toney’s imminent arrival in the top flight will mark the next step in a journey that has carried him through the lower leagues, from Northampton to Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Scunthorpe, Wigan, Peterborough and now Brentford. It would also mean Toney is back at the level where, in his own mind at least, he belongs.
He was just 19 when he was signed by Newcastle from Northampton Town, and he made only two appearances in the Premier League before a series of loan moves in League One. Since joining Peterborough United permanently in 2018, Toney has emerged as one of the Football League’s most consistent goal threats. He struck 23 times in the 2018/19 season, and then hit 26 goals in 2019/20 before joining Brentford for an initial £5 m.
“There is more to come from him,” Frank has warned.
Toney, for his part, is not lacking in self-confidence. “I feel more than ready for the Premier League,” he told FourFourTwo.
Talk to those who have worked with Toney and they will say his goalscoring ability was never in doubt. It was the other areas of his game – the running, the pressing, the defending from the front – that needed work. This season he has reached new levels of fitness and, in a progressive Brentford side who demand front-foot football, he has added those elements to his repertoire.
“He had an inner belief that he was going to be a top striker,” says Graham Alexander, who twice signed Toney on loan for Scunthorpe United. “He was a genuine goal threat. As someone who could physically compete, if you got the ball into good areas he was generally going to be around them. And he could finish. The need to defend from the front is very important. It took him a bit of time, but I always felt he was searching for what was needed for the next level. Scoring goals was never going to be the issue, it was just the other things he needed to take up through the levels.”
In some ways, Toney is a throwback forward. He is a penalty-box striker, a poacher who stays between the posts and attacks crosses with all parts of his body. All 31 of his goals this season have been scored inside the box.
“The ball drops, and he will somehow change his body shape to make sure he is getting a shot on target,” Alexander says. “He does not need three or four touches to get his shot off. He will judge the bounce of the ball and adjust his body position.
“He was brilliant in the air. I remember he scored a goal where it was him and the goalkeeper challenging. Honestly, his head must have been at least level with the crossbar, if not above. It was awesome. He scored all types of goals. He chipped the keeper, he volleyed, he scored tap-ins. He was always in goalscoring areas.”
Toney’s hunger for goals has, at times, been all-consuming. He once tried to snatch a penalty off a Scunthorpe team-mate, Josh Morris, who was the designated taker. After an argument between the players, Morris missed.
“He overstepped the mark and I let him know that,” Alexander says. “I had a duty to let a young player know that it wasn’t on. I felt Ivan was man enough to take it [the anger in the dressing room], and he did.”
Off the pitch, Toney is a strong voice. “We are being used as puppets,” he said of taking the knee before matches, which Brentford no longer do. Since April, he has raised more than £25,000 to support people affected by the eruption of a volcano on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent.
A natural goalscorer with a forceful personality and the belief that he can cause damage to the biggest teams in the land: Toney will certainly be an exciting, watchable addition to the Premier League. The question now is whether he can fire Brentford into the top flight or take his own path this summer.