How rejection has fuelled Ivan Toney's bid to return to the top-flight

Brentford’s star forward Ivan Toney on being rejected by Newcastle, getting ‘bullied’ out on loan… and why he’s certain he will return to the Premier League and prove himself

  • Ivan Toney thought he had made it when he signed for Newcastle back in 2015
  • He wasn’t given a chance and felt like an afterthought with loan spells away 
  • The striker has gone on to rebuild his career at Peterborough and now Brentford 
  • Brentford are fighting to secure a playoff spot and a Premier League place
  • Toney is determined to prove himself in the top-flight after his Newcastle stint 

Some of the tattoos on Ivan Toney’s chest are self-explanatory. There are likenesses of his late grandmother and grandfather and of his young son, Ivan Jnr. 

There is the No17 that has been on the back of his shirt during this season at Brentford when he has scored 29 league goals for the club and made himself the hottest property in the Championship. There is a football beside the 17 as a symbol of the game he loves.

But then there is one other image, bigger than the rest. It depicts a kitten gazing into a clear pool and rather than its reflection, the kitten sees a majestic tiger looking back at him through the water. ‘It is how you should see yourself when you look in the mirror,’ he says. ‘It only matters how you see yourself. Not how others see you.’

Ivan Toney is determined to prove himself in the Premier League after his Newcastle stint

The Brentford striker has been in deadly form this season with 29 goals in 39 league games

There are many reasons why that particular image resonates with Toney, English football’s next big thing. He was signed by Newcastle in 2015 when he was a promising 19-year-old at Northampton Town and he thought he had made it. He thought his dreams of becoming a star in the Premier League had been realised and that his trajectory would be for ever upwards. ‘Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret,’ says another tattoo.

He was never given a chance by Steve McClaren or Rafa Benitez at St James’ Park. He made two first-team appearances for Newcastle. He was loaned out to Barnsley, Shrewsbury Town, Wigan and Scunthorpe and made to feel like an afterthought. The hunger that rejection bred in him is one reason he seems destined to set a scoring record in the Championship and why a host of Premier League clubs are vying for his signature.

Some young players never recover from a reversal of fortune like the one Toney suffered so early in his career. Some players slide fast from the summit of Premier League football to the bottom of the pile. But men like Barry Fry, the director of football at Peterborough United, where Toney was to rebuild his career, say that Toney is made of sterner stuff than that. ‘On and off the field,’ says Fry, ‘he’s a leader of men.’

Toney admits he was ‘bullied’ in loan spells while at Newcastle but has come back stronger

Now, as he stands on the balcony of his apartment in west London, looking out over the roofs of Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush towards the Wembley arch in the distance, still believing his goals and assists can help lift Brentford into the second of the automatic promotion places this season, Toney accepts the adversity he encountered in the North-East shaped his character for the better.

‘I feel it did me good in terms of being patient and knowing that when your chance comes you have to take it,’ he says. ‘And physically and mentally, there were times when Newcastle first sent me out on loan, where I felt I was getting bullied. I was used to Under-23s football, tiki-taka, but in the lower leagues, it’s about results and putting yourself about.

‘So from that first loan at Barnsley, I thought I needed to get into the gym and get a bit stronger. I realised I can’t just be trying to play round people. You have to get stuck in in those leagues. There is nothing better than first-team football. You want to be getting a taste of it early so you know what you are stepping into.

‘I was young when I moved to Newcastle and it is hard not to think you have made it. You are in the Premier League and people around you are saying, “You are playing for a Premier League team, that’s crazy”. You get brainwashed into thinking, “Right, I’m here now, if I go on loan, it will probably be somewhere in the Champ, minimum”.

Toney started to rebuild his career after his tough spell at Newcastle at Peterborough

‘When you go on loan you think, “Right, I’m the big boy here, I’ve come from the Premier League, everything revolves around me”. But it doesn’t. It’s far from the case. If I could go back now, I would have worked a lot harder knowing you have far from made it at that age even if you are in the Premier League. 

Look at someone with the talent of Phil Foden. He could have been chilling when he got into the first-team squad at Manchester City but look at how hard he has worked. It is hard not to get sucked into the status rather than actually doing your job and knowing what you are there for.

‘[Aleksandar] Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez were the first-team strikers when I was at Newcastle and I thought I had cracked it. I was training with these players and I was thinking, “I’m in and around it now, I can take my foot off the gas”, but that should be when you are just getting started. You need to keep going and break through. Why can’t you be the main man even though you are young and these guys are on 100 times your wage? Why can’t you be the main man?’

He has had to deal with other forms of adversity, too. Like many other black players, Toney, 25, has been the object of racist abuse on social media, the most recent after he had played in Brentford’s goalless draw with Birmingham. He and his team-mates had already decided by then to stop taking the knee before matches because they saw it as an empty gesture.

Brentford and Toney are looking to get into the playoffs and secure promotion to the top-flight

‘The purpose of it has gone out of the window,’ he says. ‘It hasn’t achieved anything. If anything, it’s got worse. Some of the television companies keep publicising it every week but it feels as if it’s to make them look good. It’s like they’re saying, “We’re doing our bit”, but are they really?

‘Normally, the abuse doesn’t get to me but after that game it did. I don’t like people knowing I’m annoyed but my mum messaged me straight away and she had been told about it. She was hurt more than I was. 

‘For her only son to be getting abused because of the colour of his skin was horrible for her. The rest of my family feel it more than I do. That hurts me even more to know my mum is hurt and there’s not much I can do to comfort her. The punishments need to be harsher. Companies should be going after these people a lot more aggressively.’

One thing the abusers cannot affect is that Toney is the main man now. He is the tiger, not the kitten. He moved to Peterborough in the summer of 2018, bided his time to break into the first team and then scored 49 goals in 94 appearances. He makes goals for others, too. He seems destined to break Glenn Murray’s Championship record of 30 goals in a season but he is fourth in the list of assists, too.

Men like Mino Raiola have given agents a bad name again recently but the career of Toney, who is eligible to play for either England or Jamaica, has been guided by Simon Kennedy, one of the best and most respected British player representatives, who has numbered Brian Lara, Troy Deeney and Jesse Lingard among his clients and Toney’s move from Peterborough to Brentford was a key moment.

‘The beauty of him is that he does not only score goals,’ says Fry. ‘When Premier League managers used to ring up about him, I told them he was our best defender, too. He was great at defending corners. What I loved most about him was his attitude. He wants to listen and to learn and to improve. He has this burning desire to improve.

Toney looks destined to break Glenn Murray’s Championship scoring record this season

TONEY’S TATTOOS 

Ivan Toney has turned his body into a canvas, with ink covering his chest and arms — these are some of the decorations, illustrations and messages that mean the most to the Championship’s leading scorer.

NO 17

The number on the back of his shirt which he has worn with such distinction and menace. He needs to add two more goals to his tally of 29 to become the Championship’s record scorer.

KITTEN AND TIGER

A kitten stares into water, a tiger looks back. ‘It is how you should see yourself when you look in the mirror,’ explains Toney.

IVAN’S MANTRA

Emblazoned across his chest are the words, ‘Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret’. It’s a phrase that motivates him to work hard in the present and reap the benefits later.

THE MASK

On his right forearm is an image of a woman taking a mask off and on the mask is a smile but underneath she isn’t smiling. It represents that there are two sides to everyone and you never know what someone is thinking or feeling deep down.

THE LION

The king of the jungle who shows no fear. Ivan explains: ‘Above it is a little saying I go by: “If he bleeds the same blood never fear him”.’

‘FEARLESS’

‘I think that speaks for itself’, he says.

FAMILY AFFAIR

Proudly painted on his front are his grandparents Elma and Benjamin and young son Ivan Jnr.

CLOCK’S TICKING

On his inner bicep is a timer and writing that says, ‘Direction is more important than speed. Some people are going nowhere fast’.

‘Can he do it in the Premier League? One million per cent he can. A goalscorer like him will score goals at any level. He’ll be playing with better players for one thing. It’s just that whoever wants to buy him will have to pay £30million or £40m for him now.’

If you are not aware of Toney’s qualities as a striker, Fry’s enthusiastic appraisal of him is a good starting point.

And Toney says: ‘The boost in confidence that kept me going in those early days when I was at Newcastle came from Peter Beardsley.

‘All the time in training and after games, he would say, “You are the reason I enjoy watching football, some of the things you do make me think how the hell have you done that and you are a joy to watch all the time”.

‘Hearing that from a legend like him was crazy. That kept me going in training and in games.

‘I feel like I’m more than ready to step up into the Premier League. I feel the qualities the players have, I can fit in perfectly. The deliveries the players get, I’d be able to get on the end of crosses.

‘I feel like I would slot into the majority of teams in the Premier League. I don’t mean that in a big-headed way but I do feel I’d be capable of doing certain things that other strikers might not be able to.

‘I’m the kind of striker that when I’m one on one with the keeper and there’s a guy to my left that I can square it to him, I’ll do that. From when I was young, I’ve felt like assisting is just as good as scoring. I can run in behind, I can hold it up, I can create something.’

Toney has thrown himself into fund-raising efforts for the people of St Vincent, the Caribbean island which has been left in a humanitarian crisis by recent volcanic eruptions.

‘It is where my father’s parents were from, the ones that are depicted in my tattoos,’ he says.

‘I know lots of people who have been affected. I want to help. I want to keep our family name strong.’

It is something else that has given him a sense of perspective and he smiles at the idea he is English football’s next big thing.

‘The next big thing is for when you are 20 or 21,’ he says. ‘I’m 25 now and I’m hungry to get into the Premier League. My stats speak for themselves. Even when I had low points out on loan when I was at Newcastle, I never thought the Premier League was an impossible dream.

‘I was ready for it last season. Now I’m even more ready to prove what I can do.’

Read about Ivan Toney’s St Vincent Volcano Relief Fund at Gofund.me/d5b2e1ab  




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