When Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin left Barcelona for Arsenal in May 2011, the Nou Camp club fumed at having had two major young talents effectively pinched from them. It seemed then that the two 16-year-old boys from Catalonia would grow up and spread their wings at the elite level of English football shoulder to shoulder.
Five years on, only one of them can boast that career trajectory. The fact that Toral sat before us at Ibrox yesterday, full of anticipation at his fourth loan spell in three years, told it isn’t him. Toral, indeed, has yet to play a game in Enland’s top-flight. He did play half a dozen times in La Liga for Granada this season – but it was the fact that total was so meagre that has resulted in him looking for better at Rangers. In contrast, Bellerin is only five games away from 100 appearances in Arsenal colours, and has long been Arsene Wenger’s first pick for the right-back slot.
Toral was always going to find the going tough as a playmaking midfielder. These seem to fall out of the cupboards at Arsenal. Adept defenders, such as Bellerin, are altogether rarer. Toral takes only pride and inspiration from the meteoric rise of his “best friend”.
“He is one of the best right backs in the Premiership in my opinion so I couldn’t be happier for him,” the Rangers loanee said. “I would love one day to play alongside him for Arsenal. Playing well for Rangers can help me prove to the boss at Arsenal that I am ready for the first team. You have to be mentally strong, it’s not easy changing clubs. But I am sure it will benefit me in the long run.”
Despite the fact that he was players’ player and fans’ player of the year after impressing on loan at Birmingham City last season he didn’t see an Arsenal befenit. Birmingham followed him helping manager-once-more Mark Warburton push modest Brentford up to giddy heights in the Championship across 2014-15, having only been promoted to the set-up.
“I enjoyed working with Mark at Brentford, he did a great job there. We knew how good that team was, we had a lot of young, hungry players. Not a lot was expected of us but we reached the play-off semi-finals which was a great achievement,” said Toral.
“I know how much faith the manager has in me. He believes I will play in the Premiership one day. That gives me so much confidence and makes me want to get started right away. The manager has told me what he expects from me. This will be a challenge for me. There’s not many clubs in the world where you play in front of 50,000 fans every week. But that’s a massive part of why I am here. I want to test myself and better myself. I think I am going to enjoy it .”
Toral is awaiting the international clearance that is required for him to feature in Rangers’ friendly in Leipzig on Sunday night. The game he needs to make his presence felt in, though, comes as early as next Saturday. That’s when the club’s only chance this season to end six years without a major trophy making its way to Ibrox goes on the line with the Scottish Cup tie that sees Warburton’s side entertain Motherwell. In terms of his hopes for the season, Toral doesn’t offer up anything daft about a title Celtic have in the bag in already establishing a whopping 19-point lead.
“It will be difficult to catch Celtic so we want to finish as high as we can in the league. The cup is obviously massive for us and we want to win that too, I want to help my team-mates win that.
“I believe I can get my career back on track at Rangers because ultimately I want to go back to Arsenal and play for the first team there. That, obviously, is my long-term ambition.” Helping Rangers back on the track they want to be in the short term, might be as arduous as achieving his long-term aim.