He didn’t realise it at the time, but when Ivan Toney was crowned as FourFourTwo's best player in League One last season, his dreams of promotion with Peterborough were already over.
The 2019-20 campaign had just come to a halt and it never resumed, leaving Posh in seventh and outside the play-off places – by just 0.02 points per game.
THE FULL LIST FourFourTwo’s 50 best Football League players 2021
Toney’s 24 league goals took him and Posh alike to the top of the scoring charts, and by some margin: no other League One player got more than 15, and no team came within seven goals of Peterborough’s tally. There was no surprise at all, then, when he ended up in the Championship anyway this season.
Brentford bought the striker for £5 million, which could rise to £10m after add-ons, and the goals continued to flow in west London: 28 in his first 36 league games put Toney way out in front in the Championship’s Golden Boot race. The 25-year-old also contributed nine assists in that time, meaning the Bees are comfortably the division’s leading scorers as well as automatic promotion contenders.
Then Toney topped FFT's now traditional fan poll of the best player in the Football League for 2020-21.
He makes it look so easy! Ivan Toney steps up to the spot and casually rolls in the opener for his 28th goal of the season to put Brentford in the lead! Watch #BrentfordFC v #NFFC live on Sky Sports Football or follow it here: https://t.co/apV9ijyW9g pic.twitter.com/FLoK4quYyKMarch 20, 2021
You were FFT’s best player in League One last year, and now you’ve been crowned the number one player in the whole of the Football League. Congratulations!
Thanks very much. Now I want to be the best player in the Premier League! There’s always more you can achieve, but it’s a good feeling to be named that. I’m delighted.
How happy have you been with your form?
I know I can score goals. Coming to a team like Brentford, it’s inevitable you’re going to score because of the chances they create. It’s up to you to put them in the back of the net, and I’m doing that. People said I had big shoes to fill, replacing Ollie Watkins, but I like a challenge. They brought me here for a reason – because they know what I can do.
Were Brentford the natural next step?
I feel like I completed League One – not in a big-headed way, but all the stats speak for themselves. You want to climb the ladder to the top. I think Brentford had been interested in the previous window; it didn’t get over the line, but they kept their interest. The club has high ambitions, so it was a no-brainer for me.
Peterborough’s director of football, Barry Fry, said eight clubs were keen to buy you last summer...
Interest and putting in an offer are different things – everyone can be interested, but the ones putting in bids are the ones who really want to sign you. Brentford kept their interest for a long period, and that was key. You want to join a team who actually want you.
Was a move to Celtic close to happening?
Yeah, that was close. I spoke to a few people there, and I spoke to the manager, but just couldn’t get a deal over the line.
Would they have won the league instead of Rangers if you’d signed?!
It would have been different, is all I’ll say...
Brentford reportedly paid £5m for you – was that flattering?
I think it was a bargain, to be honest! [Laughs] No, listen: Brentford showed their faith in me. They knew they were spending lots of money on a League One player, and it was up to me to repay them for that faith.
Did you set a goals target for this season?
I did, but then I changed it halfway through the season because I was doing so well! I’ve passed my target from the beginning. You’ll know what my next target is when I hit it!
Have you surprised even yourself with how many goals you’ve scored?
In a way, no. That sounds crazy, but I could have had more goals. I get loads of chances and I should be putting more in the back of the net. In the first few games, I didn’t really start with a bang and I missed easy chances that a player of my quality should be scoring. If I’d started on fire, there could have been an extra five or six goals.
How keen are you to collect this season’s Golden Boot in the Championship, having topped the League One charts last term?
Very keen, because I don’t think back-to-back Golden Boots have been done. But it would be a little pointless if I won the Golden Boot and we didn’t get promoted. It might sound greedy, but I want both. I want it all! It would mean a lot to be part of a team that goes to the Premier League. Everyone wants to make that happen; to play their part. That’s vital. Outsiders will probably say I’m carrying the team with my goals, but I’m far from carrying the team – there are loads of people making blocks, making tackles or making that extra run for the team.
Your goals-per-game ratio has improved tremendously in the past two years. Why?
It’s been a crucial time in my career, starting with leaving Newcastle for Peterborough. You want to prove them wrong for letting you go, and you just want that stability in one place – at Newcastle I’d been out on loan here, there and everywhere. You want to feel loved by a club, and Peterborough gave me the love that I needed. Brentford have also given me that love, and it’s about wanting to give something back to the teams that wanted you and really looked after you. Another huge motivation is my son, Ivan Jr. He’s 18 months old and I want to make him proud.
Crazy – from playing with them on FIFA to playing against them in real life. But I think I played the occasion rather than thinking, ‘I’m here to do a job’. You could say that it backfired, because I didn’t do as well as I could have. Maybe I was too young; maybe I wasn’t good enough – I don’t know. At the time it wasn’t meant to be, but hopefully I’ll get back to the Premier League soon and then stay there for a very long time.
Will you feel ready for it next time?
Yes, 100 per cent. I felt ready before I came to Brentford, but you can’t jump right to the top – you’ve got to climb slowly. I feel more than ready for the Premier League now.
Was it harder for you at Newcastle when Rafael Benitez replaced Steve McClaren?
Things did change – for the better, it seems, with where I am now. Rafa came in, he had a decision to make and he made it, which was clear and fair enough. He didn’t see me in his plans. If somebody doesn’t want you, it isn’t the end of the world. It’s their choice. You might not fit in with their style of play, or it might be something little – you don’t know. But just because one manager doesn’t want you, it doesn’t mean another one won’t. You want to prove to yourself that you can do it, and I think that’s what I’ve done.
Blackburn striker Adam Armstrong has also scored loads of goals in the Championship this season, after not quite making it at St James’ Park at the same time as you...
Adam’s been doing very well. I always check if he’s scored again, and not just because he’s chasing me for the Golden Boot! I’m proud of every young player who does well after being pied off. They kept the faith and kept fighting.
Having completed League One, how far are you from completing the Championship?
[Laughs] I’ll let everybody else decide that. But I think I’m on the way to completing it!
It was flattering, but I’m a Brentford player. You read things, but I don’t look too deeply into it. I have to keep doing what I can to get Brentford promoted, and then I won’t have to worry about other clubs so-called buying me.
Who did you support when you were a kid, and who was your hero?
Liverpool, and it’s got to be Steven Gerrard – as a Liverpool fan, he was the guy.
Do you hope to play for England, as he did?
Of course, you have to be ambitious. I want to play at the highest level possible, which is in the Premier League and at international level.
You said at the start of our chat that you want to be the best player in the Premier League. Is that a genuine ambition?
Definitely. I want to be the best player in the world! [Laughs] I want to be the player that everyone talks about, but one step at a time. Hopefully, within two or three years, I’ll be an established Premier League player.
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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering the World Cup, Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.