Ivan Tonei may be at the heart of a very modern footballing phenomenon, the tweet war, where offense is imagined and hostilities are waged via smartphone, but there is an old-fashioned element to his progress. He is determined to be the first Brentford player to present England for 83 years, since the Second World War ended Les Smith’s brief international career, and his resume with some comeback appeal.
Some of them quickly go to the top. Like many players of an earlier generation, Tony chose an indirect route. As he noted, he did Gareth Southgatethe senior team, never having represented their country at a lower level; indeed, Jamaica has shown interest in him before England did. For now only Erling Holland, Alexander Mitrovich and Harry Kane scored more Major league goals this season, the 26-year-old has played fewer matches in the top division than in the Championship. He did even more in League Two, but played the most in League One. He was a serial loanee with spells at Barnsley and Wigan, Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe, but a permanent transfer was the moment he felt further away from realizing his ambitions.
In the 2015-16 season, he played twice for Newcastle in the top division, spending just 10 minutes on the pitch. And perhaps that was the sum total of his Premier League experience when they sold him in 2018. “Leaving Newcastle when I went to Peterborough was an eye-opener,” he recalled. Especially when he started on the bench, backing up Jason Cummings and Matt Godden. “There were other strikers in front of me scoring goals,” he said. “It was about being patient and when your chance comes, you have to grab it with both hands.”
Which he certainly has. “I feel like you just have to keep working hard and it makes it a lot nicer when you get the chance,” Tony said. The road to England was paved with goals: 101 in four years with years first for Peterborough and then for Brentford. Expertise from 12 yards helps: he’s made 24 of 25 spot-kicks, leading to Thomas Frank calling him the best penalty taker in the world. Diplomatically, Toney argued that Kane was better because he took more pressure penalties.
He came to taste his way. There was a temptation to “lie back” on loans, but the experience was beneficial. He can look back with understanding on his three years behind the books at St James’ Park. “If I was the owner or manager of Newcastle and I was looking at a 20-year-old Ivan Toney, would I take him? Probably not,” he said. “There are no grievances. They felt I wasn’t good enough.’
Where he is now is partly due to his mother Lisa’s advice. “She texts me before every game: ‘Be a beast on the field.’ In other ways, Tony’s growth is a family affair. His older sister, Jasmine, was a university student and drove her younger brother to practice and worked in the car while waiting for him to finish. His mother sometimes did without dinner so that Ivan could have his. Brentford is a family club and Tony’s recognition reflects well on many others. “It makes it that much more special,” he said. “We know that no one has been called from Brentford for over 70 years.”
However, Southgate allowed Frank to deliver the good news; when Tony saw the Dane’s number flash, he thought he was calling for another reason. “I was a little late so I thought he was calling about my timing,” he explained. “Then he said, ‘I’m honored to say you’ve been called up to the England first team.’ This time in my life I had nothing to say.”
It showed a level of self-awareness. Tony admits he can talk too much to the judges. His openness extends to thinking about playing for big clubs. Would he be as prolific as the flashy superstars if he were on the same team? “While I’m there, who knows?” he said. “Hopefully one day I’ll be in their shoes and get the chance to score goals like Haaland and [Gabriel] Jesus.”
The Brazilian struck Arsenal beat Brentford 3-0 on Sunday. When the Bees won their first Premier League match at the expense of the Gunners last year, Tony tweeted: “Good game lads.” When Mikel Arteta used it to motivate Arsenal for a return match last season, it seemed a bit over the top. Gabriel Magallias posted a deliberately similar tweet this weekend. “I think it was funny one time, a little bit creepy the other time,” Tony said. “But I bit my tongue: I wanted to answer, I wanted to bite.” This was not a problem Les Smith had ever faced.