When Ivan Toney left Newcastle United permanently, signing for Peterborough in the summer of 2018, he must have felt he didn’t belong anywhere. Aged 22, it appeared his Premier League dream was over before it had really begun.
Just three years on, he is on the brink of a record-breaking season, having scored 29 goals for Brentford in the Championship, one short of Glenn Murray’s league high of 30 for Crystal Palace in 2012-13. It looks like, one way or another, that dream is now back on track.
Toney had joined Newcastle from Northampton Town, then managed by Chris Wider, for £200,000 in summer 2015, but quickly got stuck behind the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez in the pecking order at St James’ Park, as Newcastle were relegated from the top flight and then promoted a year later.
Just two league appearances suggested hopes for Toney were never particularly high and he spent most of his time out on loan.
He played in League One at Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Wigan and Scunthorpe, and by the time he eventually moved to Peterborough, the striker desperately needed to settle down.
Fortunately, he had found the right place to do that; the Posh recognised his talent and ambition and set about making a pitch to entice Toney to the club. A host of other forwards had been developed and sold on by Peterborough, and it was clear they felt Toney fitted the bill.
“We’d seen him a lot as a teenager at Northampton and we quite fancied him then,” Peterborough director of football Barry Fry told BBC Sport. “We continued to watch him at Scunthorpe and Wigan and still liked him, but when we made an enquiry, Newcastle only wanted to loan him. I did a deal with them eventually for £300,000 and he came with his parents and his agent.
“I said to him: ‘We’ve watched you for years but you’ve never had a home.’ If you look at what we do with our centre forwards, we had Britt Assombalonga, who we sold to Nottingham Forest for £8m, Dwight Gayle, who we sold to Crystal Palace for £7.5m, Jack Marriott, who we sold to Derby for £5m, Conor Washington went to Queens Park Rangers and Craig Mackail-Smith went to Brighton. I told him: ‘We’ll put you in the shop window. There are always plenty of scouts, and we’ll love you.’
“In the two years we had him, he was incredible; he scored 49 goals in 94 games and was probably the best signing of the lot.”
‘He was a natural finisher’
Toney’s move to Newcastle had been instigated by the Magpies’ chief scout Graham Carr, a former Northampton player and manager who still lived in the area and watched the Cobblers in his spare time.
|Glenn Murray (Crystal Palace)||30||2012-13|
|Ivan Toney (Brentford)||29*||2020-21*|
|Jordan Rhodes (Huddersfield/Blackburn)||29||2012-13|
|Teemu Pukki (Norwich)||29||2018-19|
|Ross McCormack (Leeds)||28||2013-14|
“I saw him numerous times and he caught my eye – the size of him and his first touch, he showed great potential,” said Carr.
“I thought he would fit into Newcastle’s under-21 side. Northampton were struggling to pay wages and there had been a little bit of interest in Toney. I told [Newcastle managing director] Lee Charnley about him. He must have done some negotiating and he came back and said: ‘Would you pay £200,000 for Ivan?’ I said: ‘Yes, of course’.”
Chris Doig, assistant manager at Shrewsbury between 2016 and 2018, worked with Toney in the latter weeks of his loan stint with the club. He saw first hand that the striker had raw ability, but admitted he struggled at times playing in a defensive team battling at the bottom of the table.
“We came in at Shrewsbury at the end of October, so only worked with Ivan briefly,” Doig said. “They were rock bottom [of League One] and about eight points adrift of safety; I think they’d only won one game in 15. Without being naive, it was obvious Ivan was going to go elsewhere when his loan expired in January, probably high up in the division.
“You couldn’t doubt his qualities, but it was a case of getting Ivan to produce. We won a game at Millwall 1-0, and he showed what he was capable of. He was up front on his own and he occupied their defence. If he was in the mood, he was a handful. But circumstances maybe dictated his mood; there weren’t many chances being created and we were playing better teams almost every week.”
‘Newcastle made a mistake and he’s proved them wrong’
Toney’s finishing speaks for itself, and is complemented by pace and strength.
At Peterborough he led from the front excellently, after showing glimpses of his quality in an attacking team at Scunthorpe.
“I always told everyone he was our best defender,” Fry said. “He always went back for corners and free-kicks and he’d head nine out of 10 away. He was a leader on and off the field, and his main asset was he just wanted to learn.”
“We got him in on loan after he played against us for Shrewsbury,” said Chris Lucketti, assistant manager at Scunthorpe under Graham Alexander when Toney arrived in January 2017. “He had to wait for his chance because we had strikers in form, but his application in training was superb in that time. When he got his opportunity, he stayed in the team and he was different class.”
Peterborough gave Toney the platform to improve with regular first-team football, and they quickly saw results Newcastle had not. Carr was dismayed by the lack of value the club saw from his sale, despite stipulating a 30% sell-on clause in the deal.
“He needed to play regularly on a Saturday. He mightn’t have been ready for the first team but he was proving himself better than the under-21s,” he said. “Newcastle made a mistake on the price they sold him for. The coaching staff obviously didn’t think much of him. He’s proved them wrong.”
“Newcastle ended up being a disaster,” added Fry. “It is a shame because the Geordies would have loved him.
“His parents still lived in Northampton, and it helped being close to them. We told him he had all the ability in the world but he just needed stability, and his family used to come to every game. He felt he belonged, and we kept our word and didn’t stand in his way when the time came for him to go. He’s a very special man and he went with our blessing.”
‘A burning ambition to be best in Premier League’
Interest from Brentford and other clubs was registered as early as last January, and the coronavirus pandemic eventually forced Peterborough’s hand, having curtailed the season and cost them a possible promotion to the Championship.
Toney moved to west London for an initial £5m with add-ons, but Fry insists he would have cost more without a global health crisis. Former Tottenham boss David Pleat implored Daniel Levy to sign him, while Fulham and West Ham also enquired.
“Tottenham wanted him as back-up for Harry Kane,” says Fry. “Fulham tried to buy him but they asked to wait until the end of the window [which was extended until October] and we couldn’t wait. We needed to replace him and we would have got more for him if the global crisis didn’t happen.
“West Ham were in for him – I spoke to David Sullivan recently and they still want to buy him. But Brentford wanted to put him in the team straight away. All the others saw him on the bench, and he wanted to play.”
Brentford’s automatic promotion hopes look slim, and after losing the play-off final last season, they will hope history does not repeat itself. The 25-year-old will be a wanted man and could well follow Ollie Watkins’ route from Championship star for Brentford to impressive Premier League striker.
“He has a burning ambition to be the best centre forward in the Premier League,” Fry adds. “I think he will get an opportunity to prove that very soon, either with Brentford or if somebody pays £30m or £40m for him.
“He’ll be the Golden Boot winner in a couple of years in my opinion.”