Tomorrow will be a massive day for Ivan Toney, at a time when Brentford need a massive performance from their goalscoring talisman, Beesotted’s Tim Street looks ahead to a match the Bees’ striker will be even more desperate to score in.
Making his return to St James’ Park is probably a day Toney has spent many years waiting patiently for – since never really being allowed the chance to shine for the club he joined as a teenager.
Signed from hometown club Northampton Town in the summer of 2015 after three solid if unspectacular (goalscoring-wise) seasons with the Cobblers (13 goals in 60 games), there was obviously something Newcastle felt they could work with – a raw talent they could develop.
Indeed, Toney was awarded a long-term contract by Toon boss Alan Pardew, while football development manager Peter Beardsley said: “We have been very impressed with Ivan already. He is a very good player, with great enthusiasm and a first-class attitude, and has all the attributes to have a bright future at the club.”
Toon fans never got the chance to find out if Toney would one day be worthy of wearing their fabled number nine shirt. In three years at the club he made just four substitute appearances – the majority of them clustered in his first month on Tyneside.
Twelve minutes against his former club and 19 against Sheffield Wednesday – both in the Capital One Cup – followed by five minutes off the bench against both Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premier League were the sum parts of Toney’s contributions. After that brief cameo against Manchester United, in January 2016, Toney would never again pull on a Newcastle shirt for a first team game.
Instead, the next two-and-a-half year saw him wander the lower leagues on successful loan spells at Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Wigan and Scunthorpe, before Peterborough finally ended his St James’ Park misery by shelling out a reported £650,000 for his services in the summer of 2018.
What must have been especially galling for Toney was the fact that Newcastle – a club not exactly renowned in recent years for developing lower league talent – had, during his time there, turned to the likes of Dwight Gayle and Daryl Murphy to get them out of the Championship. Toney, though, didn’t get a sniff.
The striker was never one, however, to be lacking in self-belief or confidence. He has since said that he saw himself as a Premier League player playing in League One, and that he knew he’d be a top flight player again one day.
If he had a point to prove, League One defences would soon know about it, as 49 goals in 94 games for Posh attested. Stepping up a level proved to be no obstacle either, with Toney smashing in 31 goals for the Bees last season to set a new Championship scoring record, along with two in the play-offs to make it 33 in 52 games.
Had the Bees not reached the promised land, Toney would probably have followed his Brentford goalscoring predecessors Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins out the door and into the top flight anyway. This time, the club’s elevated status meant they were able to hold onto their main man, and all eyes were on Toney to see if he could reproduce such form at the highest domestic level.
The answer looked to be a resounding “yes”, as despite a lack of goals (only one of his two so-far coming from open play), Toney’s willingness to lead the line, run the channels, put himself about and generally make a nuisance of himself to unwary Premier League defenders was integral to Brentford’s surprise package status for the first couple of months. He rightly earned praise from pundits and supporters alike, and there was even talk of Toney being an option for an England call-up.
However, Toney is first and foremost a goalscorer and will have been getting increasingly frustrated by not only his lack of goals, but also his lack of chances to score (compared to, say, Bryan Mbeumo). This frustration will have been compounded by Brentford’s downturn in form in the weeks leading up to the international break, with Toney not looking his usual self. It’s probably not only been his first lean spell in front of goal for some time, but also the first time in a while he’s played in a struggling side.
It’s probably not helped that, whereas last season Toney spent a lot of time in and around the penalty area knowing chances would come his way – or creating chances for himself against weaker defences – that’s not so much been the case this season. Increasingly, he has had to venture into other areas of the pitch to try to make things happen – witness his superb sprint down the left channel and cross for Mbeumo to score Brentford’s crucial second goal at Wolves.
He has also had to play more of a unfamiliar target man role, as Brentford have mixed up their eye-catching passing game of the last few years with a more direct approach at times, and even popped up quite often at the other end of the pitch to help out with defensive duties. Another thing to mention in Toney’s defence is how isolated he has looked at times recently – but Brentford’s injury list and, in my view, intrinsically related loss of confidence – has not helped.
I’m sure it won’t take long for Toney to come good again, although his team-mates could certainly do with getting up closer to him on the pitch again, and get the balls in the final third of the pitch back to the quality they were in the opening months of the season. Brentford need to play to his strengths, and when they do, I’m certain we’ll see a return of the Ivan Toney who looked a Premier League natural not so long ago.
Yes, there are certain aspects of his game still developing – but his raw power, pace and ability to bring others into the game certainly unsettled a few celebrated defences in the early stages of the season. A player of his finishing ability also does not lose it overnight, if only he was getting more opportunities to display his known prowess in front of goal. It was never going to be easy though, this Premier League lark, was it?
One good result and Brentford’s confidence should hopefully come flooding back (getting a few more injured players back will certainly help too), just the same as one goal should get Toney back to being the player we all know and love. Perhaps the chance to show the St James’ Park faithful what they missed when Newcastle let him go will provide that extra motivation to help Toney click back into gear tomorrow, but his team-mates have to share the responsibility for helping him recapture his form.
Boss Thomas Frank believes his striker is level-headed enough that he will find that right motivation without losing his focus, saying this week: “Maybe he will be slightly more motivated to show, but it is about that inner fire. It is important to hit that right level that you aren’t going over the top.
“I never see that from Ivan, he is very level-headed, very much focused and in the game. In terms of goals, Ivan is maybe the only one who believes he can score 31 goals in the Premier League, which is why he is so good. He has been fantastic in the link up and assist play in our team. He has two or three assists but should have more. He’s getting his chances. It is natural it goes a little bit up and down with strikers and goals.”
Interestingly, one of the players Toney replaced for one of his rare forays onto the pitch for Newcastle was Aleksander Mitrovic, who joined the Geordies at the same time as him. Despite his goalscoring heroics for Serbia, Mitrovic has never really cut it as a Premier League player, but instead forged a reputation as something of a Championship flat-track bully. Will we be saying the same of Toney in a few years? I’m confident there’s a lot more to come from him at this level – but we need both him and Brentford firing on all cylinders again for both club and player to realise their Premier League potential.