On the final day of last season, after a 1-0 victory over Manchester City at the Gtech Community Stadium, Thomas Frank strolled onto the pitch with a microphone in his hand. Addressing his club’s supporters, the Brentford head coach delivered a celebratory speech which ended with a simple question: “Who is the best f------g team in west London?!”
In the stands that day, a couple of weeks into his eight-month gambling ban, was Ivan Toney. Wearing black trousers, a black top and a black cap, Toney had not dressed for a celebration. While the rest of the club could enjoy their remarkable ninth-place finish in the Premier League, Toney’s mind was evidently in a different – and darker – place.
It was around that time, we now know, that Toney felt himself “falling out of love with football”. In the early days of his exile from the game, he switched off from the sport. “I kind of punished myself, not watching games,” he told Sky Sports earlier this month.
Toney may have lost the love, for a short while at least, but he did not lose the hunger. Since the start of his ban in May, and throughout the last eight months, the England striker has been working relentlessly to get himself in better shape than ever.
‘Ivan Toney version 2.0’
Such has been Toney’s focus on his strength and conditioning, an argument could be made that he will be the fittest and most physically primed athlete in the Premier League this weekend, when he is expected to make his long-awaited comeback. He returns to the pitch completely fresh, with none of the niggles, bruises and strains that hinder every professional player at this time of the year.
He will captain the Brentford team on his return and has already spoken about his desire, even if it is away from his current club. He wants to be fighting for titles and has left the door open for a move, perhaps in the next fortnight.
“Everybody wants to play for a top club, that is fighting for titles. Whether it’s this January that is the right time for a club to come in and pay the right money, who knows?” he said. “But my main focus is to do what I do on the pitch, and let the background work take care of itself.”
For Brentford and Toney, this weekend represents the culmination of eight months of planning, grinding and travelling around the world in search of different perspectives and ideas. Brentford’s coaches did not simply want Toney to come back as the same player he was before the ban. They wanted him to be better, stronger, more rounded and more deadly. “Ivan Toney version 2.0,” as Frank has described it.
For the first four months of his suspension, Toney was not even permitted to train with Brentford. This presented a number of challenges, for both the player and his club, and his exclusion from the group did not sit well with Frank. “What do you gain from that?” Frank asked in May. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, was also critical of the decision.
When the ruling was made, the initial assumption was that Brentford’s training ground would therefore be entirely off-limits to Toney. That turned out to not be the case, though, as Toney was allowed inside the building to receive treatment for a hamstring injury he suffered shortly before his ban. This was one-to-one rehabilitation work only, and it took place mostly during the off-season.
Away from those sessions, and alongside a few summer getaways, Toney spent much of those first few months working with Jim Burnside, a strength and conditioning specialist. This was largely football-specific strength work, but it also consisted of psychological training and focusing on mindset.
‘Al, lets go again’
In an interview last year, Toney described himself as being in “football prison” while he was barred from training with his team-mates. He said he was counting down the days until September 18, when he was finally allowed to join the group sessions at Brentford.
When that day finally arrived, Toney came back to a detailed 16-week plan which had been constructed for him by Frank and the first-team coaching staff. But he was not expected to be at the club every day of the past four months, and was actively encouraged to take some time away from the Premier League bubble.
As part of that, Toney made two trips to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was put through a series of striker-specific drills by Allan Russell, the former England coach. Russell is a striker coach and he worked with Toney on further mastering the art of finishing. They also targeted improvements in his movement, one-versus-ones, weight transfer and balance. This was no holiday: Toney travelled alone, and did three sessions a day.
“He flew 5,000 miles to benefit for five days so there wasn’t a second wasted, he pushed himself particularly the first time and it is about finding the technique based on the fitness and volume needed mentally,” Russell told Telegraph Sport.
Toney was up early due to the time difference from England and did an early-morning session in the gym before working tirelessly on repetition drills with Russell.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best strikers in the world and when it comes to Ivan, he never wanted it to be the last set,” said Russell. “He never wanted to quit. ‘Al, lets go again’. He wanted to get better, even when there were 160 repetitions...‘lets go again, I don’t like it’.
“Every minute of every day he just impressed me and he knows that. He has a quiet strength about him. Top players don’t deal with ‘confidence’. With confidence players, you see it come and go, the top players have the reassurance in their thoughts, mind and actions. They are assured and if it isn’t right, they will make it right. Lots of players deal with confidence, with big guns they are self-assured.”
‘If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain’
Whether in love with the game or not, there was a determination to be at his very best when he returned.
“It is not so much about technique but top players are always learning and the reason they are there is that they constantly challenge themselves,” said Russell. “You can teach and challenge people, some is from the content and intensity, some of it more on balance or reacting quicker, being first to reach the ball inside of the box. All this is incorporated in the work. Some learn more based on where they are in their careers.
“He is high level. He is a very focused young man and wants to learn and there are points we discussed and trained. Every top athlete will say they have things to learn. You might challenge intensity, or technique or positioning.”
Back at Brentford, there have been extra individual sessions and a handful of behind-closed-doors matches. In October, he scored in a friendly against Como. Earlier this month, he smashed a hat-trick past Southampton’s under-23s. The third of those goals, a towering header from a set-piece, was startling in its ferocity.
— Brentford FC (@BrentfordFC) January 6, 2024
It is rare for a player to be absent for this length of time without any sort of long-term injury. Will Toney need a few games to build his match sharpness? Perhaps, but it is not like he has spent the last eight months on the treatment table. He has been moving, working and building towards this moment.
For Brentford, the timing of his return could hardly be better. Frank’s side are in desperate need of a boost, and indeed of Toney’s goals. With Bryan Mbeumo and Kevin Schade out injured, Brentford have lost their five league games. No wonder they are so excited to have Toney back, and no wonder they have no interest in selling him this month.
In the summer, shortly after his ban was announced, Toney posted a few words on social media. “If you want the rainbow,” he wrote, “you gotta put up with the rain.” Well, the clouds have finally cleared. Now it is time for Toney to shine.