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Harry Kane has a chance to vault to the highest possible level of English football heroism

The player has developed new ways to serve England and help his team-mates while still contributing a lot of goals himself

“I think Harry Kane’s got ambition to go and win trophies. He’s clearly not gonna win trophies playing at Spurs is he? Whether that’s for four, five, six years... he’s not though, is he, let’s be honest? No, he’s not, clearly. Any chance I can have to have a pop at Spurs I will. But let’s be honest with ourself. He’s one of the best number nines in probably THE world at the moment. He wants to win trophies, he wants to play for the best and biggest teams. Spurs are not that, Spurs are not gonna give him the trophies, what he wants. He wants to finish his career with some trophies that he can look back and say, I’m proud of that.”

Everyone has experienced feelings of mental numbness watching ex-players talk football, but John Terry took things to the next level on Bein Sport last week by saying “trophies” so many times that the word itself began to lose its meaning in the mind of the listener, like a mantra in transcendental meditation. Psychologists call the phenomenon semantic satiation and you will also feel it starting to happen if you stare at a printed word for long enough.

In case you too are experiencing sudden doubt about what that odd little word even means: when Terry talks about “trophies” he means that he and other elite ex-players can look down on Harry Kane forever if he ends his career without winning one of the big ones, which in English football usually means the Premier League and the Champions League.

At England’s Al Wakrah base just south of Doha, the 29-year-old Kane is preparing for the most important week of his career. Could he, over the next eight days, help England to win the World Cup, and so vault instantly onto the highest possible level of English football heroism, above any of his recent predecessors – above Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, above David Beckham, above Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer and Michael Owen – and far, far above John Terry?


Spend long enough listening to JT and you’d almost find yourself willing it to happen.

Kane has won a few boot-shaped individual trophies along the way, one of those being the Golden Boot for scoring six goals at the 2018 World Cup. While Kane must be proud to have his name on that honour roll, that particular trophy is a reminder that the prizes you win don’t always represent your highest peaks of performance. After scoring five in the first two games against Tunisia and Panama, Kane fizzled out on the way to the semis and scored only one more goal: a second-round penalty against Colombia.

June 2018, the month when he scored most of those Golden Boot goals, was also the month when he made the biggest mistake of his career. That was the decision, made in conjunction with his agent/brother Charlie, to sign a new six-year contract at Spurs. If that deal had been for a more conventional four years he would probably have become a Manchester City player in 2020 or 2021, with at least one Premier League medal now in the bag, and Terry would have to find some other thing to one-up him about.

Kane has also done some important things right since then, and maybe the most important was to keep believing in a vision of his potential as a footballer that many others insisted was a mirage.

Kane’s former manager at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino, told the Athletic last week that he saw Kane as a pure centre forward when he arrived into the team, and that this opinion had not really changed. At Spurs Pochettino regularly urged Kane to stay up front and not come deep looking for touches of the ball.

Kane ignored that advice. As he has got older he has become more of an all-round scorer-creator and less of a finisher. The change of emphasis can be seen in his numbers. In 72 league games over the two seasons from 2016 to 2018 he got 69 goals and seven assists. In 69 games over the seasons 2020 to 2022, he scored 40 and assisted 23.

You’re probably thinking that if those numbers are any guide the 2016-18 version of Kane was clearly better – what you might call the goal-a-game, Alan Shearer edition. But that version disappeared a few ankle injuries ago, and he’s not coming back. Kane is now more like a 21st century Teddy Sheringham, which is good news both for his career and for England.

There are few sadder sights in football than the once-legendary number 9 who can’t accept that the dream is over. A player deprived of his old explosiveness by age or injury, who can no longer get to every ball ahead of the defender, but still feels the public pressure to live up to his own historic scoring stats. When he doesn’t score he takes it out on everyone else for not “providing the service”, which means setting him up with easy chances, as though scoring easy chances was the hard part.

The fading legend is like a misfiring old artillery piece that needs a team of strong horses to drag it around: the entire team ends up serving this player at the expense of all the other things they could be doing to win the game. Shearer ended up like this in his last few seasons at Newcastle, still grimly scoring a goal every two matches as the team got worse. Latterly so has Cristiano Ronaldo.

But not Kane. Instead he has developed new ways to serve the team, to help his team-mates, while still contributing a lot of goals himself. He turns out to be a better player than Pochettino gave him credit for.

His ability to see the game and break it open with quick accurate passes is especially useful in the context of an England squad full of mobile, intelligent forwards who can get behind defences: Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, and now also Jude Bellingham, the 19-year-old prodigy who is playing with a confidence reminiscent of Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney in their first tournaments.

Gareth Southgate has based his England team on the French tournament model, seeking to emulate the principles Didier Deschamps used to win the 2018 World Cup. Tonight Southgate’s creation comes face to face with its prototype.

The recent indications from England’s camp were that Southgate, so often criticised for a perceived belt-braces-and-hands-in-pockets approach, will resist the temptation to switch to a five-man defence and instead pick the same 4-3-3 he used against Senegal. He seems to have concluded that if this is to be the end, he might as well die with his boots on: let’s go man-for-man and see who’s better.

Jordan Henderson will surely be told to support Kyle Walker against the raids of Kylian Mbappé on France’s left. Kane’s habit of dropping into midfield could help England avoid their traditional World Cup weakness: the tendency to get outnumbered and outplayed in the centre of the pitch. Just as well he refused to listen to Pochettino.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer