Brentford 3-2 Nottingham Forest (Toney 19’, Mee 58’, Maupay 68’ | Danilo 3’, Wood 65’)
GTECH COMMUNITY STADIUM – Dim the lights. Hit play on the goal montage. Upon arriving at Brentford, they tell you straight away: “Everybody’s here to see one man.” Eight months on, here was Ivan Toney back on a football pitch, kneeling to touch the turf as he entered, eyes lit up with the “pure joy of an eight-year-old” Thomas Frank had promised.
The cameras honed in on the facial expressions – focused, hungry – and not the “Hollywood Bets” logo stamped on the front of his shirt. Within minutes of his return, “Betway” was emblazoned across the hoardings.
Brentford could have played it two ways – forgive, forget and quietly move on, or go hard. They went for the latter, Toney fever inescapably the dish of the day. This was not a player returning from a torn ACL, but one of the greatest victims of the game’s duplicitous stance on the gambling industry, charged with 232 breaches of the rules. That should make this a moment for uncomfortable conversations, if they can be heard over the staggering hypocrisy.
By the time he stood over the free-kick, it was not so much hushed anticipation but a sense of the inevitable. Questions should be asked of Nottingham Forest’s wall, with prone Danilo the human draft excluder as Toney struck it, with little bend, past Matt Turner. He held aloft a shirt, “For you, uncle Brian”, pointed to himself – and perhaps unavoidably, to the bookmakers’ name on his chest.
He stood inches from the dugout, where he had immediately rushed towards Frank, the manager who stood by him through what will surely prove the darkest period of his career.
The reliance has been mutual. So as Brentford were never just about Toney during the good times, the bad ones could never be attributed to his absence alone. They have been as weak at full-back as up front. Injuries have ripped through a threadbare squad.
For the foreseeable future, he will have to get used to the taunts: “Ivan Toney, you should have cashed out.” “He loves the bookies, Forest are massive”. The away end revelled in it, slinging verbal pelters from the third minute when, against the script, they had taken the lead. The ball continued to ping around after Vitaly Janelt’s botched clearance; Danilo brought it down onto his thigh to tee up a glorious deception of Mark Flekken.
There was something symbolic in Forest taking an early lead, believing themselves in the clear, only to be jerked backwards, looking over their shoulders. Nobody will really know how safe they are while the prospect of a catastrophic points deduction lingers.
It ought to have encouraged Nuno Espirito Santo that they were able to hit back after Ben Mee’s powerful header, Chris Wood providing the lightest of flicks in from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s cross. Yet they were level for just three minutes when Neal Maupay’s brilliant finish on the turn survived a VAR check for handball for Brentford’s third.
The mood at Brentford is ostensibly lighter. Things can only get better now the main man is back. Until Saturday, they had not won a game since 2 December (and that was against Luton Town), and in the intervening period they had lost three times to bottom half opposition and been knocked out the FA Cup.
At a club famously preoccupied with data, their woeful expected goals (xG) conversion may perversely have been reason for optimism – before today only Everton and Chelsea were ranking lower on that metric, but it at least implied they were creating the chances that Toney will now slot in.
The cogs were turning – they just needed a little oil. When Christian Eriksen left, many predicted that would be the end of what is a remarkable, and often underestimated, run in the Premier League for a club of this size. Somehow, the Bees always manage to stay afloat.
Keeping Toney is imperative if they are to survive, and all the indications are that Brentford will manage to bat away Arsenal (and the others) until the end of the season.
The only real blip in this week’s PR assault was an admission he would like to join a “big club” in the future. That has always been accepted; for now, Frank simply cannot afford to lose a striker who scored 20 goals in 33 league games last season, especially now that he is fitter than ever after months of strength and conditioning work.
In many ways, it was a joy to watch him play again. As the ball drafted in from Mads Roerslev, he launched himself mid-air into a scissor kick. It did not matter that it didn’t come off.
Here was the swagger and style we have come to expect from Toney and the first indications that, like Rio Ferdinand, his expulsion will eventually be a mere footnote on a long and distinguished career. Gareth Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland was in the stands, a sign perhaps that Toney is still in the reckoning for England’s Euro 2024 squad.
Indeed the only real conclusion to be drawn from a slightly disconcerting few days was that it was like he had never been away.
It is hardly revolutionary thinking to suggest that his case ought to have been a wake-up call, but in the intervening period Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali has also been banned for betting offences. Front-of-shirt betting sponsors are on the way out but only after significant and sustained pressure from charities. Those watching at home will have been subjected to an even more prolonged assault on the senses from bookmakers.
It all felt a sort of modern Gaslight, the 1944 film where a woman ends up questioning her perception of reality and eventually, her sanity. The last eight months a blur, more things change, the more they have ultimately stayed the same.