As fans, we’ve all experienced the sense of dread that precedes a penalty kick.
That feeling in the pit of your stomach. Watching through the cracks between your fingers. Perhaps not watching at all.
For those of us in the stands, it’s difficult – perhaps impossible – to empathise with the player stood over the ball. One man who can relate is Kevin O’Connor.
Kevin was Brentford’s penalty taker for most of his career. His last kick in professional football was the winning penalty in a shootout victory over Dagenham & Redbridge in August 2014. He understands the pressure involved.
When I asked Kevin to name the best penalty taker he’d ever seen during an interview late last year, he didn’t hesitate for a second.
“Ivan Toney,” he said. “He’s developed a technique where he doesn’t need to look at the ball. He looks at the goalkeeper and, with an open foot, can shoot either way with pace.
“I had a favourite way to shoot. The problem with that, given the level of analysis nowadays, is that goalkeepers will know exactly where you’ve aimed before.”
The numbers add weight to Kevin’s words: Ivan has converted 23 of the 24 penalties he’s taken during his career.
As a Brentford player, his record is unblemished. He’s scored from the spot on 17 occasions since arriving from Peterborough United in August 2020. It’s a significant sample size. Such a record can’t be reduced to luck; this is technique, self-belief and practice.
It’s a beautiful Spring afternoon at Brentford’s training ground and the double doors at the end of the media cabin are flung wide open, providing a clear view of the training pitches. Ivan, having wandered over from the canteen, takes a seat in front of me.
A trawl through YouTube shows that Ivan’s now-renowned approach to penalties – a slow walk-up with his eyes fixed upon the goalkeeper – was not used during his time at London Road. I kick things off by asking him what prompted his change in strategy.
“I started practicing this technique in training after the rule came out that keepers have to stay on the line,” he explains.
“Without giving too much away, the closer you are to the ball, the less time the goalkeeper has to react. When the keeper does react, it’s too late.
“You have to wait for the last step. If the keeper makes a move, you know where to put it; if he doesn’t move you have to pick a corner.
“Most penalties are missed as soon as the referee blows the whistle. People think, because the ref’s blown the whistle, the taker has to move quickly; the whistle being blown just means that you can take the penalty when you’re ready.
“I take a penalty when I’m ready, on my terms. Before, it was ‘hear the whistle, go!’ Now, I take longer.
“People think, because the ref’s blown the whistle, the taker has to move quickly. I take a penalty when I’m ready, on my terms”
“I think probably the only way I could miss is if I kick it wide. I don’t look at the ball, I just keep my eyes on the keeper. It is risky! Sometimes I think I’m going to hit it with my standing foot!” [Laughs]
Ivan is a player for the big occasion – he has a catalogue of iconic Brentford goals. He converted from 12 yards during our Play-Off Semi-Final against Bournemouth, and again during the Final at Wembley Stadium.
‘He was the coolest man in the stadium’ is a cliché so often peddled by pundits after a successful spot-kick. In Ivan’s case, they’d probably be right.
Our conversation turns to his final two goals of last season.
“You say it was intense [the penalty against Bournemouth], but I thought of it as more of a relief,” says Ivan.
“We had a great opportunity to get back into the game. I didn’t see it as ‘Well, if I miss this then it could be game over.’ I knew it was a chance to get us going. Before I even took the penalty, I knew it was 1-1 - I was that confident and that excited to get the chance to score.
Never in doubt: Ivan converts from the spot during our Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg against AFC Bournemouth
“It was the same in the Final. It was a chance to give us a boost on the day and help us get to the Premier League. There were no thoughts of ‘don’t mess this up’ or ‘I could miss this.’ I just knew that if I did what I normally do – as I had done throughout the season – I’d put the ball in the back of the net.”
Fast forwarding to more recent events, two of Ivan’s 17 penalties in a Brentford shirt came at Carrow Road last month.
The first, shortly after half-time, was given during a pivotal moment in the game.
Ivan had already put us one goal ahead and, after Norwich’s Ben Gibson had fouled Pontus Jansson in the area, he had a chance to double our lead.
Standing in his way was Tim Krul, a goalkeeper famous for earning the Netherlands a place in the 2014 World Cup Semi-Finals thanks to his penalty shootout heroics. True to character, despite the Dutchman’s best efforts to unnerve him, Ivan wasn’t fazed in the slightest.
“I’d trained with him [Krul] at Newcastle, so I know that he likes to gamble on penalties,” says Ivan.
“Everyone knows that he tries to get into players’ heads. I’ve seen him do that so many times. But I don’t take any notice of that. I get the ball, go away and wait for everyone to get in their place.
“Everybody waits on me, not the other way around. I make it that way. He tried to come out and wind me up, I just looked the other way and waited for him to get back on his line. Then he did the same thing again. Once he was back on his line, I composed myself and put it in the corner.
“Keepers can keep me waiting, but then I keep them waiting when the referee blows the whistle.”
Ivan’s first penalty against The Canaries – his second of three goals that afternoon – was made sweeter by an exchange he’d had with a Norwich fan during the pre-match warm-up.
“We were doing a finishing drill and one of the balls dropped near a fan in the stand,” Ivan laughs.
“He jumped out of his seat and slapped the ball away, so I had to walk further to get it. I turned to him and said, ‘For that, when I score, I’m going to come over here. Remember that.’
“He started giving it the ‘Ah whatever, you’re s**t, you’re s**t.’ I just thought, ‘Alright, not a problem.’ When I scored the second goal, I picked him out in the crowd but he didn’t want to look at me – he was sinking into his chair!
“I was smiling, he was livid. The guy next to him got up and starting screaming at me. ‘Told ya,’ I said.”
Match ball and 3 points. Enjoy your weekend ❤️⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/mlS2D5XfuE— Ivan Toney (@ivantoney24) March 5, 2022
Ivan continues with a smile: “I feed off the fans getting on to me. It was the same in League One – people would say that I had a pineapple on my head. Every set of away fans would say it. That just gave me more motivation to score and point to my head!
“All the people out there saying ‘he only scores penalties’ helps as well; I just have another chance to pee them off! People making those comments, trying to bring me down, actually give me a little boost.
“I missed those moments when games were played behind closed doors. I love interacting with the fans.”
To measure Ivan’s contribution to this Brentford team by his goalscoring abilities – even given his exceptional record – would be to ignore his all-round contribution.
The recently turned 26-year-old isn’t just an important presence inside the opposition area. He has won 120 aerial duels in the Premier League this season – a figure only bettered by Chris Wood (190), team-mate Ethan Pinnock (143) and James Tarkowski (129).
Ivan’s ability to protect the ball and draw fouls has been crucial in winning us set-pieces high up the pitch, providing additional opportunities to score and reliving pressure when going toe-to-toe with teams who like to dominate the ball. On average, he is fouled 2.4 times per game – only Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha (3) earns more free-kicks for his team.
Ivan’s average of 1.3 key passes per game further illustrates his ability to connect with his team-mates and bring them into play.
Despite the above, a striker’s impact is often judged solely by their ability to get on the scoresheet. I ask Ivan whether that’s a source of frustration.
“It does annoy me in a way,” he admits. “[Karim] Benzema said it recently, everybody these days is judged on stats alone.
“To be honest, against Burnley, I wasn’t the best, but then I scored two goals and everyone thought I’d done unbelievably well. My overall game that day wasn’t up to my usual level.
“Rather than judging a striker just on goals, it’s important to look at their overall play. I can have the best game, but if I don’t score there will always be someone who puts me down because of that. If you want a striker who just scores goals then so be it, but a striker can offer more than that.
“I do all the tackling, kicking and heading for everyone! Leave the dirty work to me! [Laughs]
"If you want a striker who just scores goals then so be it, but a striker can offer more than that. Leave the dirty work to me!"
“The home game against Arsenal is a good example of that. I didn’t score, but I played alright. An old-fashioned centre-forward should bully the centre-backs, and I don’t think they got the better of me.
“You’ve got to put yourself about and run. The tone is set by the attacking players, that’s my role to play.
“If I’m not leading with my performance, I lead with my words. Even without the armband, I can still be a leader.”
Leading from the front against first-class opposition can sometimes be a thankless task. After our 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in December, Ivan tweeted:
Not the best kick about year 11s Stole our ball. But we go again next year. Fans were behind us right till the end.— Ivan Toney (@ivantoney24) December 29, 2021
Happy new year everyone stay safe. 🐝 ❤️ @BrentfordFC
When playing against the best the Premier League has to offer – particularly a Man City side who average more than 68 per cent possession per game – it isn’t just chances that come at more of a premium; every touch of the ball in the opposition’s half has more significance attached to it.
Ivan thinks back to our first meeting with the champions.
“It’s different gameplay depending on the opposition. The quality that Man City have got throughout their team is frightening – I think Ederson could play centre-mid – so you have to take care of the ball.
“If you lose it, you might not see it again for another ten minutes. It’s our job as forwards to hold the ball up as best as we can and look after it for the others. It’s tough, but you have to keep working hard and believe that you’ll get that one chance. You get out what you put in.”
One man who is helping significantly when it comes to chance creation is Christian Eriksen. The Denmark international signed for Brentford in January and has already shown the quality he was so renowned for during his first spell in England. Ivan has been a direct beneficiary on more than one occasion.
“Everyone knew about Christian’s quality before he came here,” he says. “When a player of his quality comes into the team you know the runs that you need to make.
“Left foot or right foot, the balls that he can put into the box are a dream for any striker. The opposition might try and show him on to his left foot, but it’s just as good as his right!
“For my first goal against Burnley, I knew he had the quality to put it right on my head, then it’s up to me to put it in the back of the net. I have to be in the right place at the right time.
“It was my first shot of the game! It was crazy, and a bit of a relief as well because of where we are in the table. It was a good feeling to get an assist from the big man. Hopefully there’s plenty more to come.”
Silver service: Ivan celebrates his first goal against Burnley with provider Christian Eriksen
I usually conclude my conversations with Brentford’s players by looking ahead, but with Ivan it felt more fitting to focus on legacy.
With 47 goals in 81 appearances, he is already the Club’s 30th all-time highest goalscorer.
His 31 goals last season (not counting his two in the Play-Offs) were instrumental to our first-ever promotion to the Premier League and broke the Championship record held by Glen Murray (30). Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović has since surpassed Ivan’s total from last term.
Ivan is keen to leave a lasting impression: “I want to create a legacy. Wherever I play, I want to leave something in people’s minds. I want to be known for something and I want to leave something behind.”
And as for that Championship record…
“It’s just my luck that he’s broken it so quickly,” Ivan laughs. “I know Mitro from my Newcastle days, he’s a good guy. What he’s doing is crazy. I hope he keeps scoring and smashes the record.
“Fair play to him, but I don’t want to return to the Championship to try and beat it.”
Follow Ivan on Instagram @ivantoney1 and Twitter @ivantoney24