Ivan Toney took the road less traveled to the top but ‘never doubted’ his opportunity in England would come, with the Brentford striker vowing to seize his chance to make the World Cup.
A Northampton youth product, Toney spent loan spells at Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Scunthorpe and Wigan, having failed to make the breakthrough after joining Newcastle.
He left St James’ Park permanently for Peterborough in 2018 and a goal-laden spell saw him join Brentford two years later – a move that went better than either side would have could have dreamed then that he would become the club’s first England international since. Leslie Smith in 1939.
The 26-year-old helped the Bees promote themselves in his debut campaign and five league goals at the start of this season led Gareth Southgate to include the uncapped leader in England’s final side ahead of Qatar.
“It’s so surreal to be sitting here in an English top,” said Toney, who was still playing in Ligue 1 just over two years ago. “It’s such a privilege and it’s huge for me and my family, as well as for my club.
“I don’t think anyone has been called up (from Brentford) since 1939 or something, so it’s a great achievement and I’m very proud of it and hope I can make the most of it.”
When asked if he could have planned to play for England during his time in the Football League, he replied: “I never doubted it. I feel like I have full confidence in myself.
“I feel like you have to keep working hard and that makes it even more enjoyable when you get the chance.
“I’ve never played for any of the other age groups, so going straight into the senior team is a big achievement and I’m very proud of that. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way.”
Toney could have represented Jamaica if things had gone differently 18 months ago – a time when the striker’s focus on Brentford’s play-off hopes meant he was putting his international future on the back burner.
That conversation “sort of died down” as his dreams of representing England grew after promotion, leading to a potentially timely run down the line given the World Cup looms in November.
“Now is my chance,” Toney said. “I have to take it with both hands and I’m excited. I am confident and very hungry.
“I’ve been working since then and here it is now so I’m not going to let it pass by any means. So, I’m going to take it with both hands and hopefully I can make the most of this opportunity that comes my way.”
Toney hopes to make his international debut in the Nations League matches against Italy or Germany and provide a special moment for his friends and family.
“The sacrifices that my mom made, my dad and my sisters — everyone around me from the start,” Toney said.
“My sister went to college, she used to take me to football and do her college work while she waited for me, then brought me home, while my dad and mom worked.
“My mum played a huge role, cooking me dinner and making sure I was eating and not her.
“She played her role massively and also my dad taking me all over the country whether it was to trials here or there. My other sister came to football all the time and the fact that everyone played his role makes him a little nicer here now in an English top representing my country.
“It’s not just me who did this. Everyone around me played a huge role and I really can’t thank them enough.
Toney’s father, Ivan Sr, “has been honking the horn for ages” to celebrate his son’s first call, with mum Lisa shouting at the phone she normally sends words of encouragement to.
“She sends me a message before every game, ‘be a beast on the pitch, put your body around, be a presence on the pitch’ – and I certainly did that,” Toney added.
“They say leave the ref alone because I like to put myself in their ear and give them a bit.