Ivan Toney shone in his Euros audition – but eclipsing Ollie Watkins will be no small feat

Ivan Toney had to wait exactly a year between his first and second England caps. He made his debut as a substitute in a 2-0 victory over Ukraine on March 26, 2023, in a European Championship qualifier. Toney barely touched the ball in a forgettable nine-minute cameo.

A full year later, Gareth Southgate trusted him to start against Belgium at Wembley on Tuesday night with Harry Kane injured. After Ollie Watkins featured up front in last week’s 1-0 defeat to Brazil, it was Toney’s turn to audition for the role of Kane’s backup. The stakes were as high as they come in the last game before Southgate chooses his squad for the Euros.

Watkins struggled to impress against Brazil but Toney had the perfect evening and looked like he belongs at this level as he helped England fight back to draw 2-2. There were only 30 seconds on the clock when he ran in front of Jan Vertonghen and made contact with Jarrod Bowen’s cross. Toney’s strike bizarrely bounced off his own hand but it was an early signal of intent.

Before Toney made his comeback for Brentford in January from serving an eight-month ban for breaching the Football Association’s betting rules, he talked in multiple interviews about his ambition of playing in Germany this summer — especially after he narrowly missed out on the World Cup in Qatar.

The moment he would have been dreaming about while he served that ban arrived in the 17th minute. Following a slick turn from Kobbie Mainoo, Jude Bellingham slipped a pass into the box. Toney cleverly positioned his body in front of Vertonghen and was brought down by the former Tottenham Hotspur defender.

Nobody should be surprised Toney scored from the spot — he has converted 29 of his 31 penalty attempts during his career. What speaks volumes about the respect he commands from his team-mates is that Bellingham immediately threw the ball to Toney when the referee awarded the penalty. Toney is 28 but he does not have a lot of top-level experience. He has never played in a European club competition and this was his first start for England. Bellingham’s gesture, and the fact nobody questioned it, is a promising sign and shows the faith they have in him.

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Toney brings England level from the penalty spot (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Southgate will be pleased with the forward’s all-round display. Toney linked up effortlessly with Bellingham, Mainoo and Phil Foden throughout as they all showed a natural understanding of each others’ styles. In the 21st minute, Toney chested the ball down to Mainoo, received it back, and then played a perfectly weighted pass into space for the midfielder. The move ended with Bellingham firing a shot from the edge of the box.

A few minutes later, Declan Rice whipped a ball into Toney’s feet and he cheekily dummied it to release Bowen on the right wing. Toney’s ability to bring others into play means that even when he is struggling for chances, he still positively impacts the game.

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In the second half, Mainoo and Foden picked out Toney with passes when he was running on the shoulder of Vertonghen and Zeno Debast. Matz Sels made a strong save to deny Toney’s right-footed shot when Foden set him up.

“With them top-class players around me, it is always going to be easier,” Toney told Sky Sports at full time. “Like you see for the penalty: Jude sliding the ball around the corner and Phil playing into my feet and off me. It’s a joy to play with these players and hopefully, I will play with them a lot more.”

Toney was an asset out of possession, too. He stood on the edge of Belgium’s box from goal kicks and was tasked with charging down defenders when they tried to play out from the back. In the 32nd minute, Toney’s pressure helped to create a chance for Bellingham, which the Real Madrid midfielder should have scored.

In the second half, Toney cleared a corner from the front post and produced a slide tackle seconds later which nearly led to Bowen initiating a counter-attack. It was a committed performance from Toney in all areas.

For the second time in the striker’s career, his job is to make people forget about Watkins.

In September 2020, when Brentford were still reeling from losing the Championship play-off final to Fulham, Watkins left and moved to Aston Villa for £33million ($41.6m at today’s rates) including add-ons. Brentford signed Toney for £5m from Peterborough United as his replacement.

Watkins scored 25 league goals in his final season with Brentford and Toney had to try to match that while making the step up from League One. Toney surpassed Watkins’ achievements by breaking the Championship goalscoring record, finding the net 31 times, helping Brentford achieve promotion and then keeping them in the top flight after that.

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Toney and Watkins both hope to make Gareth Southgate’s Euros squad (Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Four years after taking over from Watkins at Brentford, Toney is now in competition with him for a place in England’s squad.

“I always try to work hard and, even when I’m not playing, I’m supporting the boys and supporting Ollie,” he said. “That is my competition but like I say all the time, it is friendly competition. I wish him all the best every time he goes on the pitch. I felt like I did well. Hopefully, I have given myself a good chance and put my name forward to be there for the Euros.”

Watkins has been directly involved in 26 goals in 29 top-flight appearances for Villa this season. Toney scored four times in his first five appearances following his comeback but has failed to find the back of the net since Brentford’s 4-1 defeat to Liverpool on February 17. It is important to point out, though, that Brentford have been struggling with an injury crisis and Toney has been without his usual strike partner Bryan Mbeumo.

Toney and Watkins have nine club games left to convince Southgate they should be Kane’s deputy. Toney shares more of Kane’s qualities but depending on Southgate’s preferences, that could work in his favour or something different might be required. It is going to be a difficult decision for the England manager but, for now, Toney holds the advantage.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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