“The bigger the stage, the better I play,” he says. And he’d be right. The Bees’ leading goalscorer has lit up the Sky Bet Championship since joining the club last summer and now he has a new title to his name... Ivan Toney: record-breaker.
“Where players enter and legends leave” reads the sign as you walk out onto the Wembley pitch, and Toney could make yet more history with Brentford this weekend, as he looks to round off the most impressive of debut Championship campaigns with promotion to the Premier League.
The striker is in a jovial mood as he does countless post-match interviews at the Brentford Community Stadium following the Play-Off Semi-Final second leg, and rightly so.
Having broken the Championship goalscoring record on the final day of the 2020/21 campaign, Brentford had just overturned a two-goal deficit against AFC Bournemouth to reach the Play-Off Final – a game in which Toney was on the scoresheet again - and now, Wembley awaits for the Bees, with Premier League football the prize.
“It was a crazy game,” he says, reflecting on the Semi-Final second leg. “The fans, the atmosphere and the football from minute one was crazy. People say I only score penalties, but that was a pretty important one, so I’ll take it!
“When that final goal went in you could see what it meant to every single person in the ground. It was the best feeling in the world.
Toney has had a few of those moments this season, his most memorable arguably coming on the final day of the regular season.
With 30 league goals to his name, the striker had equalled Glenn Murray’s record of the most goals scored in a Championship campaign – a record that has been in place since the 2012/13 campaign, and he had one more game to rewrite the history books.
Confident and composed in front of goal, when his chance came, Toney made no mistake in taking it. The goal took his tally to 31 for the season and it was a moment that rounded off a near-faultless first second-tier campaign for the former Peterborough United man.
“It’s slowly starting to sink in,” he continues. “Especially now we’re that step closer to promotion. I don’t want to sound big-headed, but I knew that I could score goals, it was just about coming to the right team to help me do that.
“But it’ll genuinely mean nothing if we don’t get promoted. If we get promoted, ask me again how ‘Ivan Toney, record-breaker’ sounds and I’ll try to give you a better answer!
It’s easy to see why Toney is being talked about as English football’s next big thing. But it’s not always been Golden Boots and Wembley appearances for the striker, who has the words ‘suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret’ tattooed on his body
It’s been quite a journey for the 25-year-old thus far who, in 2015, got the move of a lifetime as he joined Newcastle United as a 19-year-old from Northampton Town. Within a matter of days, Toney had gone from League Two to the Premier League. He thought his dreams of becoming a star in the top flight had been realised and that, from there, the only way was up.
When asked outright if he thought he’d made it, his reply was honest and eye-opening.
“Yes, 100%, I did,” he answers.
“I went from League Two to the Premier League as a young lad and thought, ‘I’m in the Premier League now, this is the top level that I want to get to, that’s it.’ But that wasn’t it
“It’s hard not to think like that; I was a teenager, I was young and naïve. I went to the big league, had more money and suddenly everyone talks about whether or not you’re going to be the next big thing and you start to think that you’re a star. But you’re not. I wasn’t playing week in, week out in the Premier League, I wasn’t scoring goals in the Premier League and I think I got caught up in that.”
Toney was never given a chance by Steve McClaren or Rafa Benitez during his time at St James’ Park, which ultimately left him feeling a sense of rejection. He made two first-team appearances for Newcastle, spending the rest of his time out on loan at Barnsley, Shrewsbury Town, Wigan Athletic and Scunthorpe United.
“Looking back, the loan spells definitely helped me. I did feel like I had a point to prove, but I needed to change my mentality. Even when I went out on loan, I still expected to be playing at a high level, but nobody has that right, you’ve got to earn it. You have to respect every league that you’re playing in, whether that’s on loan or as a permanent player and most of the time you have to wait for your chance.”
Toney’s openness and honesty is admirable. Some young players never recover from setbacks, but the strength and hunger that came from his early rejection at Newcastle explains why the 25-year-old is more determined than ever to succeed at the highest level possible.
“Looking back now, would I change it? Probably. Can I change it? No. If I could talk to myself back then as a youngster, I’d tell myself that you’ve never made it until you’ve proven you can do it. You have to earn it.”
The striker does accept, however, that the challenges faced in the North East have shaped his career for the better.
“I was a young boy. In certain games, I was getting bullied, both at Northampton and out on loan. I remember thinking, ‘right, I need to get in the gym, I need to get bigger, I need to get clever and I need to start adapting my game.’ At the time, it didn’t work out for me. It was a huge setback but I picked myself up and wanted to prove myself.”
And prove himself, he did. A move to Peterborough in 2018 propelled Toney into the spotlight as he scored 49 goals in 94 appearances. Hard work, a change in mentality and sheer determination to rise again appeared to be paying off.
“There was a moment when I thought signing for Peterborough may have been a step back for me,” he admits.
“The facilities changed, the players changed and my mentality was a bit negative, but I soon grew out of that. I knew I was in League One for a reason and that was the turning point for me. I worked really hard to do the right things and make the right decisions, from there my career has just got better and better.
“I’ve had to use all those past experiences in the best way I can to help me get to where I am now. And if I ever get the chance to play in the Premier League again, I’ve got to make sure I work hard to stay there.”
A man for the big occasion, one thing is for sure, Toney is certainly the main man now and Brentford’s history-maker is only looking forward.
It may only be his first season in the Championship, but he’s creating a legacy, with his record of 31 league goals in a Brentford shirt one that has the potential to remain in place for many years to come.
“Before my move to Brentford, I read a lot of stuff about people doubting whether or not I could score goals in the Championshit and that just because I’d scored goals in League One didn’t mean I was going to do the same in the Championship. I think it was fair enough for people to question me, it’s normal. But I’m here now and it’s been nice to prove to people that I can do it
“The next question is, can I do it in the Premier League? Hopefully I get the chance to show whether I can or not.
“I feel that the bigger the stage, the better I play. I want to get Brentford to the Premier League and play on the biggest stage for them, and I’m really excited about what’s to come.”