It was approaching injury time in Brentford’s Championship match against Blackpool. Jon Toral’s legs were becoming tired and he thought that his chance had gone. In a season full of new experiences - be it making his senior debut or scoring his maiden professional goal - it appeared as though his opportunity to score a first career hat-trick had disappeared.
But then Jonathan Douglas floated over a corner and James Tarkowski nodded it on towards the back post. The Arsenal loanee, who had scored twice in the first half, reacted quickest, anticipating the flick before stabbing the ball past Blackpool goalkeeper Joe Lewis with his left foot.
“We were 3-0 up and I wasn’t really expecting it anymore,” Jon, speaking exclusively to the Arsenal Magazine at Brentford’s Osterley training ground, recalls. “I’d had the chances in the first half to score my third goal but I thought maybe the opportunity had gone. I was lucky enough to push that one in so late on. It was a great experience for me. I’ve got the ball at home, my team-mates have signed it and it’s a match I really have good memories from. When I have kids, I’ll show them the ball. I really enjoyed that game - everything went right for me.”
Jon’s treble was to date his crowning performance of what has been an impressive season both individually and collectively. Brentford, promoted after finishing as League One runners-up in 2013/14, have excelled this season and still harbour very realistic chances of reaching the Championship play-offs. It speaks for the character of the team that results have remained consistent, even when it was announced in February that manager Mark Warburton will leave the club at the end of the season.
“When the news went out, he told us to stay focused,” Jon remembers. “We had lots of matches left when everything came out and we’ve just stuck to what we can do on the pitch this season. He told us to relax, to forget about everything off the pitch and keep going. It’s been a great season so far and we can still make it an unbelievable one.
“The manager has been great since the first day. He told me I was going to be involved and that it’s not about the age. Having a manager who wants his team to play and express itself is great for a footballer. The manager knows that we can play so there’s no pressure, which is beneficial for the team.”
It’s clear that Brentford and Jon are a good fit. Warburton was pleased to sign the youngster at the start of the season, describing Jon as “an excellent addition to our group”. More plaudits followed after the Blackpool hat-trick, with Jon’s goals helping to sustain what to some observers is an unlikely promotion push.
“No one expected us to be fighting for a Premier League place after coming from League One,” he says. “I think we’ve played good football and we deserve to be where we are. We’ve still got a lot more to show in the closing weeks of the season, and we’re really going to fight for it.”
Jon is not the first promising Arsenal player to have joined Brentford on loan in recent years. Wojciech Szczesny was voted the club’s best goalkeeper of the last decade in February, while Chuba Akpom has also had a short spell with the Bees. It was a former team-mate who helped convince Jon to make the move to Griffin Park last summer. The Catalonia-born midfielder listened to the advice and is delighted with the choice he made.
“Nico Yennaris had talked to me about Brentford,” Jon explains. “He told me it was very good here and that because the club are based in London, I wouldn’t be changing cities, so I wasn’t going to lose contact with Arsenal, team-mates or friends. People here spoke so highly of Brentford that coming here was an easy decision.
“I’m happy with myself, with the choice I made at the beginning of the season and also how the season’s gone for me. I’m enjoying it a lot and I’m learning too, from the games, from the league, from the staff and from my team-mates. It’s been really good for me to come here.
“This is my first taste of senior football and the Championship is a tough division to play in. You have to adapt quickly to get used to the pace and the strength. It’s a big difference from under-21 level to come and play in the Championship. But I still play my way, the same type of game that I played at Arsenal. It suits me the way we play here. We keep the ball, press high and attack with the ball.
“I understand the game and my team-mates, so it’s easy for me. I’ve learnt a lot about the defensive side of the game too and that’s important because I have to work hard and with intensity with the intensity to help my team-mates. I’m learning to do that and I’m improving on things like knowing when to press, when to shield, when to stop balls going forward.”
It’s clear that Jon is loving his first season of senior football. Having missed much of the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons due to serious knee problems, he has stayed injury free since returning in November 2013, and says he is completely focused on making up for lost time.
“I’ve forgotten about the injuries,” he says firmly. “I’ve always said that if you think about injuries when you step on a football pitch, you’re more likely to get injured again. I don’t think about them, I feel fine physically and my knees are alright.
“I’m learning a lot from experienced players in the dressing room. They’re the ones who have to keep the team mentally ready because they’ve been through these situations and played in these leagues before. They help my understanding of the game. They’ve got more experience than me and have been the young players of a team before, so they can help you a lot. They can explain, give you some advice on players you’re playing against or movements you can improve on.”
Jon is not Arsenal’s only young Spaniard making his mark this season. Having been inseparable ever since they moved to England together in 2011, it’s apt to see his best friend Hector Bellerin coming of age now too - albeit in different surroundings.
“I’m really proud and happy for Hector,” Jon says with a beaming grin. “I knew when he got the chance that he would take it and he’s done that. He’s enjoying it and showing everyone what a great player he is. We still see each other a lot. Thankfully we’re both in London so we often go for dinner together or to each other’s houses.
“He’s still got a lot to improve but the good thing is that he knows that and is mentally ready to keep on getting better. He’s got the quality to keep growing as a player. He’s doing great now. Offensively he’s always been really good and defensively he’s always getting better in every game while still getting used to the Premier League.
"That’s been really important for him - to get used to playing in the Premier League, in the Champions League and in these massive games. He’s got the quality and the mentality to deal with the pressure that comes with that and to become a great player in the future. You can tell that he is becoming more confident and comfortable in every game that he plays.
“He’s watched a couple of Brentford games too. He was at my debut against Fulham in the Capital One Cup, where Thomas Eisfeld played too. It’s good to see your friends on the pitch, even if they’re on the opposition team and it’s great to have that support from Hector.”
There can be no doubting that the future promises much for the 20 year old. Warburton says he has “no doubt that Jon will play in the Premier League”, but for now, the midfielder is concentrating solely on capping what has been a valuable loan spell in the best possible way.
“My future ambition? It’s just to get promoted with Brentford this season,” he smiles. “That’s all I’m thinking about, it’s all I’m focused on. I’m not thinking about next season. This season is too good and too important to think about the future. I want to enjoy this moment and try to get promoted with Brentford. That’s my main focus.
“It would be great to achieve promotion in my first professional season. I’m here to help the team achieve that - we believe in it and everyone’s ready for it.”
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