Before every game, Ivan Toney receives a message from his mother.
“Be a beast,” it reads.
So that’s what he tries to do. Whether it’s for Brentford as one of the Premier League’s leading scorers or, in the next few days, as the newbie in England’s national team.
Toney got a call-up by his country last week for the first time in any age group, a reward for scoring five goals in seven games for Brentford in England's top flight this season. For a man well known for getting in the ear of referees on the field, he was momentarily lost for words.
The first thing he did was to make a group call to his family — his mother, father and two sisters.
“They were screaming for about 20 minutes,” Toney recalled Tuesday after his first training session with England. “My dad was beeping his horn wherever he was — people must have thought he was going crazy. Yeah, it was a massive moment for my family.”
For Toney, this was a call-up to be cherished by not just himself but by those closest to him.
His mother, who used to skip meals to ensure her son ate enough before soccer practice. His big sister, who would take him to training and do her university work while waiting for him. Or his father, who used to drive Toney up and down the country for matches.
“It’s sweet that I’m now sitting here in an England top,” Toney said. “But it’s not just me who has done that.”
Maybe the 26-year-old Toney should be giving himself a bit more credit, given the setbacks he has had to recover from in his career.
Notably when he failed to make it at Newcastle and was sent out for six separate loan spells at lower-league clubs around the country, from Barnsley to Shrewsbury to Scunthorpe.
Just over two years ago, Toney was playing in England’s third division for Peterborough, still waiting to break into the big time. That has come with Brentford, which he helped to achieve promotion to the Premier League last year. Now the tall and lean Toney is one of the best all-round strikers in England, impressing not just because of his goals but his vision, aerial ability, link-up play and flawless penalty technique.
England coach Gareth Southgate could hardly not take notice, especially with Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin — the backup to first-choice striker Harry Kane at last year's European Championship — currently injured and not too many other forwards putting their hand up for selection.
Toney is not lacking in confidence, either, saying he has never felt burdened by pressure at any moment in his career.
“The more pressure that’s on me, the better I perform. The bigger the stage, the more likely I am to perform,” he said. “My dad always tells me going into every game, there’s no pressure. Do what you do best.”
It sounds like Southgate said similar things to Toney when the striker arrived for training on Tuesday.
“Just be yourself, you are here for a reason, you are not here to make up the numbers by any means,” said Toney, when asked what Southgate had said to him. “There are the main things he told me to do. I’ll do that and hopefully it’s enough to keep me in the squad for the World Cup.”
Indeed, Toney could hardly have timed his run to the England squad any better. After this international break, when England plays Italy and Germany in Nations League qualifying matches, England will next be seen at the World Cup in Qatar.
Play well in the coming days — the best Toney can realistically hope for is some minutes as a substitute — and he could earn himself a seat on the plane to Qatar.
How's that for a career arc?
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press