Ivan Toney facing Euro 2024 audition – with Gareth Southgate looking to his ‘underestimated’ traits

Harry Kane’s injury gives the Brentford striker a chance to show his worth to the Three Lions

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 25 March 2024 07:17 GMT
Toney’s international experience is limited to nine minutes of play in England’s Euro 2024 qualifying match against Ukraine
Toney’s international experience is limited to nine minutes of play in England’s Euro 2024 qualifying match against Ukraine (Action Images via Reuters)

Ivan Toney has played in the top four divisions and in League One for four different clubs. He has played nine minutes of international football and been suspended for eight months in the last year. A season that began with him banned could end him with as England’s Plan B in attack in Germany. A CV with a difference may soon require a new section to incorporate Euro 2024.

Tuesday against Belgium will bring his second appearance for England; a first start, Gareth Southgate suggested. It brings a prime chance to stake his claim. If Toney is in a shootout with Ollie Watkins to be Harry Kane’s understudy, a rare injury for England’s record scorer has afforded him more of an opportunity than he was otherwise likely to be granted. Were the captain fit, he would surely have started at least one friendly this week and perhaps both. Instead, Watkins got Saturday’s defeat to Brazil and, while Southgate praised him, scarcely seemed to book his place on the plane.

Now it is Toney’s time. His international experience has been limited to the last few minutes against Ukraine last March.

That was in a season when the Brentford centre-forward finished as the third-highest scorer in the Premier League. Now Watkins is second only to Erling Haaland in the race for the Golden Boot. Toney, though, could leapfrog the Aston Villa forward in the international pecking order.

As Southgate suggested, he is more of a conventional No 9, more of a focal point in attack. “I think sometimes the quality of his football can be underestimated,” he said. “His passing, his link play. We’re still getting to know all of those strengths because until you work with a player more regularly you don’t know them inside out. You look at him being a big guy but he’s not just a target man. His quality in link play is very good as well.”

Gareth Southgate says of Toney ‘that swagger, that self-belief is crucial. All of the top forward players have it’ (Reuters)

Were those references to Toney’s ability to bring others into play particularly relevant? After all, Watkins is arguably more of a channel runner than someone who holds the ball up and links play.

The rest of the England attack can consist of quick runners, whether Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka or Anthony Gordon. Toney’s skillset may suit them.

He has another attribute, one that, from personal experience, Southgate knows England often lacks. He has a superb record with spot kicks, scoring 29 of 31 in his career. “It’s definitely a great asset to have,” said the England manager. It offers reasons to take Toney as a substitute alone.

It helps that Toney seems to have the confidence. He does not have the feel of a player who could be intimidated by the occasion. “It’s crucial, especially for forward players,” Southgate said. “That swagger, that self-belief is crucial. All of the top forward players have it.”

Nevertheless, if Toney seems to have the big-match temperament, the fact remains that, barring four outings for Newcastle near the start of his career, he has played for smaller clubs. England brings an added scrutiny. Nor, unlike Brentford, does it afford him the time to settle into a team.

Tuesday has the feel of an audition. Succeed and he may get a ticket for Germany. Fail and he probably won’t. Southgate accepts it is huge for Toney. “You can’t hide that fact,” he said. “He knows. It would be his first start so you’ve got to bear that in mind as well. But with England that’s the landscape, you don’t get hundreds of opportunities. I think every player recognises that’s the world we live in. But he’s a confident guy, he comes in on the back of a good run of form with his club. He’s going to be on the field on Tuesday – no question.”

For eight months, as he served his ban for betting, Toney was not permitted on a first-team field for anyone. Now, two months into his comeback, he prepares for the biggest game of his life.

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