The Evolution Of Ivan Toney: Campaigner, Game-Changer & Hometown Hero
Photography: Elliott Wilcox / Styling: Robbie Canale / Interview & Words: Daniel-Yaw Miller
GAFFER explores the community spirit of Northampton with Dr.Martens to find out how the threads of resilience, fearlessness and self-expression tie two of the town’s greatest exports closer together. As we travel through the streets to chart and champion the renaissance of a man who has climbed the footballing pyramid to get back to where he always knew he belonged — the Premier League.
Ivan Toney cuts a relaxed figure as we walk out through the gates of his old secondary school, leaving behind the hundreds of kids who were allowed out of lessons to get a glimpse of the local hero who once stood in their shoes.
“This is literally where I’m from. My Mum still lives two minutes away. The sports cage across the road in Eastfield Park is where I was always playing from morning until night,” recalls Ivan. “I was out there with anyone and everyone. That’s the spot everyone goes to and plays football for as long as they can before they get called in by their parents.”
Today is a special day for Ivan, his debut editorial campaign which is taking place in his hometown. “This is the first time I’m doing something like this. Obviously, fashion is a big part of who I am, so when the opportunity came along to shoot and return home I was 100% up for doing it,” says Ivan.
Just this week Ivan was recognised for his services to the community in the annual Football Black List which celebrates positive influencers from the Black community across the sport. Ivan was recognised as a ‘Player Off The Pitch,’ not only for partaking in local initiatives in Northampton and his new home of Brentford, but for also setting up his own fund-raising campaign for the people affected by a volcanic eruption on the island of St Vincent, in the Caribbean, earlier this year. Ivan’s grandparents and a multitude of friends live on the island and, alongside setting up the relief fundraiser, he promised to donate an extra £1,000 for every goal he scored until the end of the season. Which, after breaking the all-time Championship goal-scoring record, was a fair few quid.
The stories of both Ivan Toney and Dr. Martens are deeply rooted within the community of Northampton. Ivan still holds the record as the youngest ever debutant for Northampton Town, his boyhood club. Meanwhile, Dr. Martens was founded in Northamptonshire and still retains its factory in the town, employing local workers. “My Dad is actually a massive fan of Dr. Martens, and when we were younger he would always come home and show us the new pairs he’d bought. Now I can finally show him mine too.” The iconic British footwear brand also holds a special place in English footballing history, having sponsored West Ham from 1998 to 2003, funding an expansion of the club’s former home, Upton Park, which at the time was the largest stadium grandstand in London.
With little prior warning of Ivan’s arrival this morning, news spread like wildfire amongst the children and teachers alike. Within minutes, the sports hall was packed with kids all around the perimeter. Ivan took the time to walk around, shaking hands, sharing jokes and every so often some advice, before posing for a group photo.
Outside, on the 3G turf pitch, Ivan challenged a student to do 50 kick-ups. Each one was counted aloud by the crowd that had gathered around. When the ball dropped to the floor after the 39th kick-up, Ivan walked over to tell the boy to get in touch for a free ticket to a Brentford game. It was clear to all present that this visit would last long in the memory, both for Ivan and for everyone he met at the school.
“Different people, different backgrounds, but everyone’s the same when they’re playing football”
Ivan is an open book, discussing everything from his family life and son, Ivan Jr, to his plans of entering into the fashion industry with the creation of his own ready-to-wear label. “Before Brentford, I’d never had any kind of media training,” he admits. “Sometimes I watch the interviews that I did [as a teenager at Northampton FC] and have a laugh. Now I have the confidence and experience, thanks to my journey, to be more expressive.”
Following his breakthrough at Northampton, netting 13 goals in 60 appearances, Ivan made the move to the North-East of England to sign for Newcastle United, making the unprecedented switch from League Two to The Premier League. After a three year spell between 2015-18 that bore only two Premier League appearances, he would have been forgiven for shelving any future top-flight ambitions. But, as far as he sees it, Newcastle was a case of “too much too soon.”
“Newcastle was my first time living away from home. I was living on my own pretty much, with two teammates. It was alright friends-wise but they’re not your family. As close as you may be to them, you ultimately want to take each other’s position in the team,” Ivan explains. Being a family man, close with his parents – and now a father himself, to Ivan Jr – he feels he was not prepared for the separation. “You don’t realise how close you should be with your family until you move away. Being so close to my Mum, when I moved away I realised that a phone call or FaceTime is not really enough. It can never replace being physically there. I also had to cook and clean for myself for the first time, things like that I wasn’t really prepared for.”
His rise since his move away from Newcastle and joining Peterborough in 2018 is testament to his determination and perseverance. “Since leaving Newcastle, my journey has become a lot smoother. I deserve this. I made it happen in the sense that it’s all been planned out, taken step by step rather than being thrown in at the deep end as a teenager.”
When the pandemic hit the UK in 2020, Ivan was still playing for Peterborough United in League Two, where his goal-scoring exploits had caught the eye of then-Championship club, Brentford. Ivan repaid Brentford’s trust of a £5million fee tenfold, by bagging the club Championship glory at the second time of asking, securing a play-off final victory in a season that saw him break the league’s scoring record, notching 31 goals in 45 games. Fast forward a year-and-a-half and Ivan led the Brentford attack in a 2-0 win against Arsenal on the opening weekend of the Premier League season. “To be playing and to win against a team like Arsenal, I can’t even explain the feeling, it was just surreal at the time. I don’t like to let people see that I’m excited to play in these games, I just try to take it all in my stride.”
There is a clear sense of vindication as we discuss his career in the car on the way to the final shoot location — his youth football club — a feeling that his hard work and self-belief has led him back to exactly where he knew he would end up.
It is for this reason that the Brentford striker has incredible self-belief and sees himself as a complete forward. “I feel no pressure. When I start scoring [in the Premier League], people will soon know my name,” says Ivan with a glint of steely determination in his eyes. He acknowledges that his resilience grew from his various spells on loan from Newcastle, lower down in the footballing pyramid at clubs such as Barnsley, Shrewsbury Town, Wigan and Scunthorpe United. “Playing first-team football for different managers in different settings [at a young age] definitely made me who I am today. I can receive the ball and play in front, with my back to goal and be dominant in the air, I’m comfortable with it all.” Ivan explains, revealing the advantage he has over many of his counterparts who lacked such experiences having come through polished academy systems at top clubs.
As we finally arrived at our final location, his very first youth club, we carried on the conversation to find out more about Ivan’s England ambitions, his growing love of fashion and why he believes he can go shoulder to shoulder with Lukaku and Ronaldo for the golden boot.
How does it feel to be returning home to Northampton and wearing Dr. Martens?
You know what, it’s a brand that’s always been popular in my family because of my Dad. They’re actually so comfortable. I know exactly which clothes of mine I’m going to style these with too. I’m going to have to keep all three pairs!
So, what was it like growing up in Northampton?
It was a good area to come up in. There was a mix of so many different cultures and types of people and I also come from a really close-knit family so it was a good upbringing for sure.
How did it feel visiting your old school?
It was crazy. Being a student there once upon a time and then coming back as someone that they look up to. Hopefully, in years to come, there will be other people like me, coming out of a school like this and doing well in life.
Who were the players you modelled your game on growing up when playing on these pitches?
I was a Liverpool fan as a boy, so Steven Gerrard was someone I always looked up to. But when you’re young, most of the time everyone wants to be a striker and start screaming their favourite strikers’ names when they score. But for me, Gerrard was still the player I had in mind when I was playing in the cage.
Who in your family gets the credit for your athletic abilities?
Definitely not my Dad! My Mum always says she had great hand-eye coordination back in the day when she was a kid, so she probably gets the credit for this one. When I was younger I used to play with my cousin a lot. He used to play for Leicester as a kid, so I’d be out from early doors playing with him, so we can give him a bit of credit too.
You speak so proudly of your relationship with your parents and rightly so. What impact have they had on your achievements to date?
Both my Mum and my Dad have given and continue to give such great advice. They’ve really helped to keep me on the right path through tough times, keep me grounded when things have been going well and make sure I never get too big for my boots. It’s given me the strength and belief to believe that I can achieve anything. But they still see me as the same old little Ivan I once was.
I think a lot of people forget that before Brentford, you had already appeared in the Premier League for Newcastle. Can you tell me about your journey between Newcastle and now?
I think it was all kind of forced… It was a little fast. It was like, you’re moving to the Premier League and you need to be performing [at such a young age]. You have to ask yourself, was I ready, was it too soon? I was thrown in at the deep end for sure, I didn’t really get the opportunity for it to work for me. The only times I came on in the Premier League at Newcastle was when the games were pretty much over, and I was getting told to just see the game out.
You’ve come so far in your career in such a short space of time. It seems that the next big milestone is breaking into the England squad. When do you think that will come?
Firstly, it’s crazy that my name is even mentioned in relation to being an international player, whether that’s Jamaica or England. I’m just going to keep doing well, keep doing me and when my time comes to get called up for whichever country it is, it will be my time to shine and I will be ready. Until then, I’m going to keep grafting, keep doing well for Brentford and hopefully, the opportunity will come.
You are a very confident person. Where does that come from?
I’m very self-confident, for sure. If you met my family you would soon see why, they’re all very confident and outgoing so it just rubbed off on me. It’s so important to carry yourself well, be confident but be humble at the same time.
There was a lot of talk about you coming into the Premier League before the season started. Do you feel that Lukaku coming to Chelsea and Ronaldo to United relatively late in the window took a lot of the pressure away from you as a forward?
I never felt any pressure. I’m sure people will soon realise who I am. Obviously, when you have big names like Lukaku and Ronaldo, they’re going to take the limelight. But when I start scoring and my name starts ringing bells and people start asking “who’s this Ivan Toney guy who’s scoring goals and getting assists?” they will soon know my name, who I am and what I am about.
Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with fashion?
I’ve been interested in fashion for a while, for a few years, but I’ve really been taking it forward in the sense that soon I want to create my own clothing brand and design my own clothes. It will definitely be centered around clean, street-style looks.
Do you have a personal stylist?
No, not at all. It’s just me doing my own thing, so if there are any stylists out there who want to work with me, then hit me up.
Where does your fashion sense rank in the Premier League?
That’s tough. I’d say top three, for sure. Champions League.
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