Hull City

What’s In A Name: Jon Toral

06 May 2020
Jon Toral is the first player to feature in our new What’s In A Name feature. Read on to find out more about his time at Barcelona’s Academy, his one and only career hat-trick – and his favourite cartoon.

After embarking on a series of loan moves during his time at Arsenal, Toral finally left the Emirates Stadium on a permanent basis when flying the nest to join Hull City in August 2017 during Leonid Slutsky’s short spell in charge at the KCOM Stadium. The Spaniard arrived for an undisclosed fee, penning a three-year deal which also included a club option of a further 12 months.

Speaking after his unveiling at the Club’s Cottingham training ground, Toral said: “This is a key moment for me and it just felt like the time was right to make that permanent move. I’ve had a few loan moves over the last couple of years but now I want to settle somewhere and be there for the long term, and I’m really looking forward to getting started here now.

“I’m sure coming here will improve me as a player, especially with the Head Coach and staff that are here, and of course I want to help this club to get back to the Premier League. This is a massive move for me, certainly the biggest in my career so far, and one that can kick-start things for me.”

It’s been almost three years since the 25-year-old made the switch, in which time he has made 50 appearances in all competitions, scoring four goals. He opened his account in a Hull City shirt when heading home the opening goal in a 2-0 win away at Nottingham Forest in February 2018 – just moments after he had seen his penalty kick saved by Forest keeper Costel Pantilimon. He struck twice the following season (2018/19), both of which came in cup competitions against Sheffield United (Carabao Cup) and Millwall (FA Cup), with his last goal as a Tiger coming against Tranmere Rovers in the Carabao Cup back in August earlier this season. He has also chipped in with ten assists during his time in East Yorkshire.

Toral was one of the stars of Barcelona’s U16s team that won the global Nike Cup at Old Trafford in 2010 and it was at the tournament that the youngster’s performances first attracted the interest of scouts from Arsenal. Cesc Fabregas, Fran Merida and Ignasi Miquel had all made the same journey from the Catalan outfit to North London and Toral followed suit when joining the Gunners in the summer of 2011 for a fee of £300,000 when just 16 years-of-age.

“It was a very, very difficult decision to make,” Toral said when reflecting on his switch to Arsenal. “It was the place that I’d spent the last eight years of my life and they gave me everything. But, I thought it was the right time for me to move on. Playing in England had always appealed to me as a kid and that desire never went away. The chance came along when Arsenal made me an offer at the age of 16 and it was one that I took. I don’t know why it appealed so much.

“My mum is English and hails from Doncaster but I don’t think that was a major reason. I watched a lot of football as a kid and always enjoyed watching English football. Barcelona is a massive club, but they do not tend to give young players a chance in the first team. I saw Cesc Fabregas move to Arsenal and other players from Spain going to clubs like Liverpool and it was clear that if I were to progress as a player I would most likely need to come to England. I enjoy the game here and the Premier League is the best in the world in my opinion. When Arsenal expressed an interest in me it was a dream come true. I think I always knew that if I had the chance to move to England, it was an opportunity that I should take.

“I was a big fan of the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard – Paul Scholes as well. They were three hugely talented and wonderful footballers. But it wasn’t just the players that made it appeal – it’s the type of football played here in England. It’s quick, fast-paced and very entertaining. It’s probably one of the most entertaining leagues in the world to watch and I think that was a key factor in my desire to come to England.”

More than six years after leaving boyhood club Barcelona, Toral finally made his first appearance at the Catalan giants’ home ground whilst on loan at Granada in the first half of the 2016/17 La Liga season. In what was only his second appearance for his temporary side, the then 22-year-old played 77 minutes in a central midfield role in the clash and was booked in what ended in a 1-0 defeat. Reflecting on the experience, Toral said: “Playing against the best player in the world, (Lionel) Messi, and playing in the stadium where I grew up in Barcelona, was one of the highlights (of my career).”

Toral netted the first – and only – hat-trick of his career to-date on what was a memorable night in the capital for the Spaniard during a loan spell at Brentford in February 2015. It was a game that saw the Bees register an unbelievable 42 shots on goal. Fourteen of them were on target and four of those found the back of the net – with Toral bagging three.

Mark Warburton’s side opened the scoring after 16 minutes of constant pressure at Griffin Park. A slick passing move – one of many that February evening – ended with Jonathan Douglas in plenty of space inside the box on the left and he could have shot himself only to find Toral in space, who poked in. Two minutes later and Brentford were two ahead. This time they found space down the right and Andre Gray crossed deep where Toral was completely free and perfectly placed to head in his second of the night.

Blackpool were reduced to ten men when Charles Dunne saw red for a late lunging tackle on Jota and, from that point onwards, the Championship clash became more like a training ground affair; an attack versus defence drill. Andre Gray made it 3-0 seven minutes into the second half and Warburton threw on two more forwards – Tommy Smith and Chris Long – for shooting practice. But it was Toral who completed the rout, and his treble, with a close-range finish in the 89th minute.

After walking off the pitch with the match ball, Toral said: “It means so much to me to score my first hat-trick. I was told it was the first scored by any player for the club in three years as well, so I’m delighted with that as well. All the lads have signed the ball and I have to thank them for their part in the achievement as well because they all helped me to score the three goals.”

In an interview with back in February 2012, Toral revealed that his favourite TV show as a kid was Campeones: Oliver i Benji – a Spanish language version of a hugely popular Japanese comic-style cartoon series about the adventures of a Japanese youth football team.

It featured super striker Tsubasa Ozora (known in Spanish by the English-style name of Oliver Atoon) and invincible goalkeeper Genzo Wakabayashi (Benji Price in the Spanish version). It tells the story of these two friends from their childhood to becoming professional footballers and, eventually, being called up to the Japanese national side. Their adventures took in their team-mates, training, matches and tournaments, as well as spectacular moves and action that would be impossible to perform in real life.

Written by Yōichi Takahashi, Oliver – or Tsubasa as he is known in his homeland – has become an iconic character in Japan and worldwide because of the impact he had on real-life events. Three statues of him have been erected in Katsushika, Japan, while readers from the manga and anime series have given him support in popularity polls. His image has been used by real players – including the likes of Fernando Torres, Hidetoshi Nakata, Alessandro Del Piero, Alexis Sánchez and Toral – some of whom have imitated the character’s playing techniques. Critical reception has acknowledged how popular and appealing the character became because of his personality, playing talent and inspirational dreams.

Toral was born in the Spanish city of Reus on 5th February 1995. Located in the heart of the Costa Daurada, Reus is recognized as a tourist city for shopping, as well as for its modernist style heritage and close links with the universal architect Antoni Gaudí.

Of medieval origin and with almost a thousand years of history, the city lived its heyday from the 18th century, thanks to the export of brandy that was produced in the city. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the great modernist style buildings were built in Reus and, today, the city has one of the most important sets of modernist style buildings in Europe, amongst which are the works of the great architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner (the Pere Mata Institute, the Navàs house, the Rull house and the Gasull house).

The area has always been an important producer of wines and spirits. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Reus became known as one of the world’s major centres of liquor production, and was home to over 30 producers of vermouth. Nowadays it is known for its commercial activity, for being a centre for rock-climbing and as the birthplace of Gaudí.

According to recent figures, Reus is the 10th most populated city in Catalonia and the 85th in Spain. A bustling city of honey stone boulevards lined with shops, it’s also a gateway to the Roman ruins in Tarragona, glorious beaches in Salou and the cultural banquet that is Barcelona.

From the age of eight through to 16, Toral was educated at Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia after being discovered by youth football coordinator Albert Puig. A vision of the late Johan Cruyff, the fabled training complex has become known as a breeding ground and finishing school for some of the world’s finest footballers. Toral only left when prised away by Arsenal – along with Hector Bellerin – in the summer of 2011 but the playmaker will always cherish the lessons he learned during his time with the Catalan giants.

“It was a great time of my life,” the Spaniard admitted. “I joined Barcelona’s Academy when I was just eight years of age and stayed there until I was 16. At that age, you just want to enjoy playing football and nothing else. You don’t think about a career in the game at the age of eight, nine or ten. You just want to have the ball at your feet and have a smile on your face as you play with your mates.

“Barcelona teaches not only teach you the way of playing football but also how to behave on and off the pitch as well. You gain a sense of responsibility and a work ethic. They help you grow as a person as well as a footballer. As a young kid, they make sure you keep your feet on the ground and work hard to be the best you can possibly be.

“Being there at the age of eight, nine and ten doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to be a professional footballer, but it does give you a better chance. I’m so thankful for everything the Club and my coaches did for me and all the help and advice they gave me and always will be.

“It’s a special, special place – not only because of what I learnt as a footballer but also because of what they taught me as a person – life lessons. They are always hammering home how important it is to focus on your studies as well as football. They also make the point that however good you are on the pitch, you have to be even better off it. It’s definitely more than a club.

“To learn my trade at such a fantastic club and train in their Academy for so long was amazing for me. It was a great experience from start to finish and something that provides me with so many happy memories even now. I think I learnt to play football in the best Academy in the world. As I say, it was a great time for me and enjoyed every year I was part of it. The things I was taught and the lessons that I learnt continue to help me now.”

Toral enjoyed four loan spells during his time in North London with Arsenal. A first loan away from the Gunners saw Toral thrive under Mark Warburton at Brentford during the 2014/15 campaign, scoring six goals in 37 games which included just ten starts in all competitions.

But, it was the form he showed whilst at Birmingham in 2015/16 that showcased the best of his talents and ability. Eight goals came in 36 appearances for Blues, including one deflected strike in a 1-0 win over the Tigers at St Andrew’s. Unanimously, Toral was named Player of the Season by both supporters and team-mates – whilst his effort in 3-0 home win over Ipswich Town – a dipping 25-yard volley – in January 2016 saw him claim the Blues’ Goal of the Season award.

His next temporary switch saw him return to Spanish football with La Liga outfit Granada ahead of the 2016/17 season. However, a frustrating spell saw him score just once in six appearances before being recalled by Arsenal in January 2017. Just two days later, he was reunited with Warburton at Rangers in the Scottish Premiership, where he made an impact scoring three goals in 15 league and cup appearances.

“I always knew playing for Arsenal was going to be very hard and that loans would be a step forward to show that I could make it to the first-team,” Toral said in a Life on Loan feature with Arsenal’s YouTube channel back in June 2017. “I really enjoyed my time on loan at Birmingham and I think that was the spell where I played my best football. It’s where I enjoyed it most as well because of the games I played and the constant of being in the team.

“I chose to go back to Spain in the summer of 2017 and play in the first division back there. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out and I had to look for something else in the January transfer window.

“The option to come to Rangers came up and it was a good one for me. I knew the manager having worked with Mark Warburton before at Brentford and he told me all about Scottish football and Rangers. Obviously, I knew a lot about Rangers already though because it’s a massive club. I enjoyed my time there and to be part of and play for such a massive club was a real honour.

“It’s not easy to move around and live in different cities, countries and get used different leagues but, everywhere I’ve been, Rangers, Granada, Brentford, Birmingham, Arsenal U23s, I’ve learned a lot and always taken the positives.”