The ones that got away?

Former Newcastle United striker Ivan Toney has been called up to the England squad for the first time after scoring five goals in Brentford's opening six Premier League games this season. Because of this, I'm going to look at players that left us at a young age and have done well ever since and my opinions on them.

James Milner

James Milner joined from Leeds United at the age of 18 after his hometown club suffered relegation to the Championship in 2004 and were in a financial mess. Four years later, Aston Villa made a £12,000,000 bid for him, which was accepted despite manager Kevin Keegan not wanting to sell him and he eventually walked out as Ignacio González was signed on loan from Valencia as his replacement despite the signing being against his wishes.

After two 6th place finishes at Villa Park, Milner joined Manchester City for £26,000,000 in August 2010, five days before Villa's 6-0 loss at St James' Park. His five seasons in Manchester saw him win two Premier League titles, one FA Cup and one Capital One Cup before he joined Liverpool, where he is currently in his eighth season at the age of 36, having won the Champions League, Club World Cup, Premier League, Carabao Cup and FA Cup once each and played 298 competitive games for the Reds so far. He also won 61 caps for England before retiring from international football in 2016 and will be glad to have left given how toxic things got that season after Keegan's departure and in general throughout the Mike Ashley era.

Florian Thauvin

Florian Thauvin had played thirty times for the France youth teams by the time he arrived at St James' Park from Marseille for around £12,000,000 in August 2015 with Remy Cabella going the other way on loan after a disappointing first season on Tyneside following his move from Montpellier in July 2014. His first two games for us saw the winger come close to scoring a winner in a 0-0 draw away to Manchester United as he just failed to connect with a Papiss Cissé cross in stoppage time then score his first goal and assist the other three as we beat Northampton Town 4-1 in the Capital One Cup second round. That was as good as it got for the Frenchman, who failed to register a single or assist in the league before going back to Marseille on loan in January as Andros Townsend came in from Tottenham Hotspur and proved to be a much better player for us, even if he did leave after just half a season as Crystal Palace activated his £13,000,000 relegation release clause.

Under new manager Rafael Benítez, Thauvin did score in a 6-0 win away to Bohemian in our first pre-season game of 2016 but went back to Marseille for another loan spell, this time with the Ligue 1 outfit having an option to buy him, which they did after he scored fifteen league goals in the 2016/17 season, including a hat-trick against Caen. He found his feet again back in his home country and made his senior debut for France in June 2017 before being selected for their 2018 World Cup squad, which won the tournament, although he only made one cameo appearance, which came in their round of 16 win over Argentina. For me, he definitely suffered under Steve McClaren's coaching and admitted that Alan Shearer's criticism of him wearing a tuxedo affected his performances but whilst Benítez didn't want to let him go, he just didn't settle in England and was adamant that he wanted to go back to his former club. He also wouldn't have helped by fans booing him when he came off the bench in a 1-0 loss at Watford in the FA Cup third round.

Kevin Mbabu

Kevin Mbabu was signed from Servette at the age of 17 in January 2013 for the U21 side. He got his first team debut in an embarassing 1-0 loss at home to Championship side Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup third round in September 2015 but three days later, his first start saw the Swiss full-back really impress in a 2-2 draw against reigning champions Chelsea as he won eight tackles and kept former Barcelona winger Pedro in his back pocket. Unfortunately, he picked up a hamstring injury the following month and despite our relegation, he was loaned out to Young Boys by Rafael Benítez and he joined them permanently the following summer.

The 2017/18 season saw him win the Swiss Super League title with Young Boys and he was voted the league's player of the month for February 2018. After winning another league title and featuring against Juventus and Manchester United in the Champions League group stages, Mbabu earned a move to Wolfsburg the following summer and seemed to do well in his three years in Germany before returning to the Premier League with Fulham in July as he had a year left on his deal and wasn't in new manager Niko Kovač's plans.

Mikel Merino

Following promotion in 2017, Spain U21s midfielder Mikel Merino was brought in on loan from Borussia Dortmund. He struggled in a 1-0 loss at fellow newly promoted side Huddersfield Town on his first start but soon started to show fans why Rafael Benítez brought him in and was signed permanently after seven games, scoring his first goal in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace eight days later. However, he suffered a back injury, which coincided with the start of a run which saw pick up just one point in nine games (he missed the first three games of that run and we were 3-0 down at home to Watford by the time he came on as a substitute in the fourth game of the run) as we slipped from 7th to 18th in the table. He couldn't produce the same performance levels in the second half of the season, having only made one start after January as he fell behind as Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diamé's improved performances left him down the pecking order.

This led to him wanting a move away after just one season on Tyneside and he had a £10,000,000 release clause, which was activated by Real Sociedad and he made a return to the Basque Country, where he grew up and started his senior career at Osasuna before joining Borussia Dortmund in 2016. This was a player I didn't want to lose but he seemed to give fans the impression that he wasn't willing to fight for his place in the side, it is no surprise that he has done so well back in Spain and earned his first cap for the Spanish senior side in September 2020. He wasn't selected for their Euro 2020 squad but did feature in the squad that were runners-up at the Olympic Games in the same summer, having also won the Copa Del Rey with Real Sociedad earlier in the year (although the final, like the Euros and Olympics, was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Despite such a good start to his time here, it just wasn't to be for him as he lost his starting XI place, which made him decide it was time for a new challenge and he'll probably be happy he didn't have to play under Steve Bruce when he replaced Benítez as manager a year later.

Chancel Mbemba

Another summer 2018 departure, DR Congo centre-back Chancel Mbemba was like a breath of fresh air when he arrived from Anderlecht in July 2015 after the performances of the aging Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson towards the end of 2014/15 season. As Coloccini continued to struggle along with fellow long serving centre-back Steven Taylor, Mbemba and fellow youngster Jamaal Lascelles, who had been loaned out to Nottingham Forest along with Karl Darlow for the previous season as part of the deal to sign them from the East Midlanders, clearly outshone the experienced pair, who both left following relegation. Mbemba started six of our first eight league games of the following season but after an own goal in a 2-0 loss at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, he lost his place to summer signing Ciaran Clark and only played another seven games in all competitions although he did score in a 3-0 win over Barnsley, which clinched us the Championship title on the final day. He started the 2017/18 season well, even filling in at left-back when Paul Dummett and Massadio Haïdara were injured whilst the transfer listed Achraf Lazaar was loaned out to Benevento and we failed to sign anyone for that position but lost his place again and didn't play another league game after 27 December so it was no surprise to see him join Porto for around £7,140,000 in July 2018.

Like Merino, Mbemba didn't do much wrong in his time at the club but fell down the pecking order, unlike Merino, it was a case of Benítez not seeming to rate him as much as the fans did despite such a good start. He only played three league games in his first season at Porto but scored both goals as they beat rivals Benfica 2-1 to win the 2020 Taça de Portugal final to clinch a domestic double. They also managed to win both their league and cup again in his final season in Portugal last season before he joined Marseille after his contract expired but was sent off in a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur in their opening Champions League group game last week.

Aleksandar Mitrović

Like Mbemba, Aleksandar Mitrović was signed from Anderlecht in July 2015 and left three years later as Benítez didn't seem to rate him. The Serbian striker showed promise in his first season but it was probably too early for him to be our main striker and whilst nine goals in his first season wasn't a bad return for a 21 year old, it wasn't enough to save us from relegation and his lack of experience showed at times. He became the sixth player to get a goal, assist and red card in a Premier League game when we hammered Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 on the final day after relegation was confirmed and was suspended for our first four games of the following season. Despite scoring three goals in his first two league starts in wins away to Queens Park Rangers and Preston North End and also bagging a brace against Preston in the EFL Cup four days before our league win against them, he would only net one more goal that season and put in one of the worst ever individual displays by a Magpies striker in a 3-0 loss at League One Oxford United in the FA Cup fourth round, which included seeing a tame penalty saved by Simon Eastwood. Early on in the 2017/18 season, he scored against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup and West Ham United in the Premier League but an elbow on Hammers midfielder Manuel Lanzini saw him suspended for three games, which was a good example of why Benítez didn't trust him and after only five more substitute appearances, he was loaned out to Fulham in January before joining them permanently six months later after scoring twelve goals in seventeen league games to help them win promotion.

He scored eleven goals in Fulham's first season back in the top flight but like his nine goals in his season here, it wasn't enough to avoid relegation. I'd have thought he'd then leave Craven Cottage but he stayed and scored twenty-six league goals as they were once again promoted via the play-offs only to score only three league goals as they suffered relegation once again the following season. When Marco Silva came in as manager, he was back in the starting XI and broke Guy Whittingham's record for the most league goals in a forty-six game season in England by netting forty-three as they won the Championship title before starting the current season with six goals in six league games. To me, Mitrović is the type of player who can thrive when the manager trusts him and unfortunately, it didn't happen for him under Benítez and despite some fans assuming he wouldn't be any better than the Serb, Salomón Rondón was definitely an upgrade when he replaced him but it was only a season long loan and once Benítez left, he was never coming back.

Ivan Toney

Onto the player that has inspired this article, Ivan Toney also joined in the summer of 2015 and left three years later (almost as if they were destined to only be here whilst I was at college). After joining from Northampton Town, he made his debut in a 4-1 win against his hometown club in the Capital One Cup second round before having two seperate loan spells at Barnsley in his first season with us, the second of which saw them win both the Johnstone's Paints Trophy and League One play-off finals at Wembley but he only netted twice in twenty-one games for the Tykes. He netted a total of fourteen goals in forty-three games in all competitions on loan at Shrewsbury Town and Scunthorpe United the following season before his loan spell at Wigan Athletic the following season was ended early after only scoring six goals in twenty-eight games but he fared better with eight goals in eighteen games in another loan spell at Scunthorpe United.

When he left for Peterborough United, I felt he hadn't done enough to convince fans he would ever be good enough but after a successful two years at London Road, he was signed by Brentford and broke the record for the most goals in a Championship season with thirty-one before netting in their 2-0 win over Swansea City in the play-off final. After only playing twice for us in the Premier League, he currently has seventeen goals in thirty-nine games for the Bees, including scoring in front of the Gallowgate for Thomas Frank's side in a thrilling 3-3 on his return to St James' Park. After starting this season with five goals in six league games, including a hat-trick in a 5-2 win over Leeds United in their last game, he has been called up to the England squad for the upcoming Nations League matches against Italy and Germany and will be hoping to get into the squad for the World Cup in November.

So that's my list of players that fans may well wish had never left. I didn't include Obafemi Martins or Georginio Wijnaldum as they left after suffering relegation with us. During his first season, I wondered if Jamal Lewis would be another one to add to the list in the future as he struggled with his lack of experience and playing under Steve Bruce but hopefully he'll do well if he gets a chance after recently being added back to the Premier League squad.

Overall, it's often a difficult one when it comes to thinking which young players will be good enough as you'll look silly if you let someone go because you don't believe they'll be good enough and they do well (like Chelsea did with Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah) or keep a player that you believe will come good but doesn't. Sometimes, players need permanent moves away so they can get the game time they they're not getting at their current clubs (or under their manager like what happened with Mitrović) or feel settled, which I feel was the case for Toney.