When Brentford went shopping for a striker to replace Ollie Watkins, there was only one player who topped the recruitmet metrics they regularly check.
Ivan Toney, the Peterborough forward scoring freely in League One, ticked so many boxes. The scouting reports noted his strength, his finishing and – most importantly – leadership qualities.
The Championship promotion hopefuls were 90 minutes from the top flight in 2019/20 and felt the team had been “a bit too nice”. Toney, who – scouts noted – ‘managed’ referees in games and had the edge they were missing, might just change that.
Fourteen goals into the season, it looks like the right call. But his emergence as the top English goalscorer underneath the Premier League, at the same time as Blackburn’s Adam Armstrong, poses questions about Newcastle’s youth development.
Both players were on United’s books: a case of the club being asleep at the wheel or understandable reticence to play players who were never going to be good enough?
Toney’s arrival at Newcastle as a 19-year-old owed much to former Chief Scout Graham Carr’s personal links to Northampton Town.
Carr, Newcastle-born but based in the town after a short stint as manager at Sixfields, had been tipped off that the raw but promising forward was available for around £250,000 owing to the Cobblers’ financial pressures.
He advised a move on the basis it was a low risk gamble and the player moved into the under-23 squad under the tutelage of Peter Beardsley.
It was a five year deal but there was no five year plan for Toney’s career progression. The fact that there were two managers, a relegation and a changing of the guard at the club in his first year highlighted the problems that any young player signing for Newcastle at the time faced.
Add to that the fact United have lacked a pathway for under-23 signings to progress and it always felt like a curious signing. Toney, like so many before him, arrived at Newcastle with potential but no clear route to make it.
At a time when Newcastle fans hold understandable concerns about progression – or lack of it – in the first team and the Steve Bruce question continues to dominate conversation, it’s difficult to see the bigger picture.
But those with knowledge of the situation believe a repeat of the Toney situation would not happen in 2020 thanks to the changes in the Academy structure were made a year ago.
The appointment of Steve Harper to manage the pathway from under-23s to first team has won approval from some of those in the underage group. It’s understood that several who were questioning their futures at the club can now see more potential for first team opportunities.
The elevation of Elliot Anderson – who might have left a year ago – is proof there is more talent identification going on at Newcastle these days.
Rodrigo Vilca was signed after Newcastle put together a detailed plan for what might come next for a player who was dropping out of the Peruvian top flight to join United’s under-23s. He clearly believed in the approach.
And the way Freddie Woodman is being allowed to develop at Swansea with an eye on a long-term future at Newcastle suggests there is more coherent strategy – even if its benefits are yet to be tested by a genuine first team regular emerging.
For all the rightful criticism aimed at the club, in the world of agents and advisors there’s a belief that Newcastle are doing more than just paying lip service at the moment.
It came too late for Toney.
The forward – like fellow Championship top scorer Adam Armstrong – found opportunities hard to come by under Rafa Benitez, whose managerial philosophy is more about immediate results than necessarily developing talent from the Academy.
True, he wanted widescale changes in Newcastle’s youth system. And it felt like there was a disconnect at the club at the time: the geography of the club having an Academy base and training ground in two different locations symbolic for the huge chasm between first team and under-23s.
But he also preferred to pick up senior professionals whose limitations were clear (Joselu springs to mind) but he trusted to do what was required than hand opportunities to the likes of Armstrong or Toney, possibly with more potential but also much less likely to do the job required without error.
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Benitez’s CV and his excellent record at Newcastle illustrate that this is an approach that bears fruit and with time and the scope, he may have started to remodel the Academy. But Toney was one of the victims of a philosophy which was unlikely to see a player clearly not yet ready for the top flight offered opportunities.
Many will say he wasn’t ready – like Armstrong – but he was offered so few opportunities that a move through the divisions was the only route available.
And if it is the case that 19-year-olds aren’t ever going to be considered ready for progresion, what is the point in any club buying them? The fact that others do – and develop them – suggests it is worth scouting the lower leagues.
It has cost Newcastle – Toney is now a £30million player being tracked by England scouts – but whether they made the wrong call is another matter, more open to debate.
His move to Peterborough and then Brentford has seen a steadier path but those same Bees scouts who saw such rich potential believe he will score goals in the Premier League if they are promoted.
He is no Watkins – don’t expect Toney to play in behind defences or press from the front – but he is in the Andy Carroll mould. And for any team that would look for a target man, he would be a good option.
With Carroll out of contract at the end of the season, Toney would be high on the list of equivalent players who can do the same job.