Harry Kane reels in Rooney for England goals record like a hunter with its prey
It is one of Harry Kane’s most treasured possessions: the shirt he wore for his England debut. The European Championship qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley; 27 March 2015. The centre-forward’s script writers had been busy that season, the one in which he broke through so suddenly at Tottenham, and they were never going to disappoint.
On as a 71st-minute substitute for Wayne Rooney, Kane took only 79 seconds to score, a far-post header from Raheem Sterling’s cross. The TV cameras cut to Rooney on the bench, smiling broadly and applauding. Afterwards, he would sign Kane’s shirt along with the rest of the team. “Well done mate, 1st of many,” he wrote. Rooney knew that there would be many, many more.
Spool forward to Kane’s fourth cap, the qualifier against Switzerland in September of that year when he scored his third England goal. He was on the pitch when Rooney made it 2-0 from the penalty spot to reach 50 for the nation and break Sir Bobby Charlton’s record. In fact, Kane was the first player over to celebrate with Rooney, whispering something in his ear before embracing him. What did he say? Congratulations, surely. Or perhaps: “I’m coming for you.”
It is fun to imagine. Kane’s chase to overhaul Rooney’s eventual tally of 53 has been marked by everything that defines him: dedication, determination, composure under pressure, self-belief. There have been memorable high points – along with the lows – and the overall sense of a hunter reeling in its prey; inexorably, inevitably. For some time, it has come to be a question of where and when. Now we have the answer: Kane getting there with a penalty of almost implausibly rich narrative strands in Thursday night’s Euro 2024 qualifying win over Italy in Naples.
The 29-year-old faces a struggle to process the magnitude of what he has achieved – Harry Kane, England’s all-time leading scorer, shudder – but the first thing to say is that it truly is the fulfilment of a dream. With all the love and respect for Spurs, Kane has always considered England as his No 1 priority and he has never hidden that.
He loves to look back on the photos of himself and his elder brother, Charlie, in their England shirts as kids or remember how they would go with their parents, Pat and Kim, to the Sirloin pub in Chingford, east London, to watch the major tournament ties.
Kane saw almost all of England’s games at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup in the Sirloin’s huge beer garden and he would imagine when he was older that he could become one of the players on the big screen, maybe the captain like his idol, David Beckham.
“We’ve always been England fans,” Kane’s mum, Kim, has said. “Whenever England were playing when the boys were younger, we would always dress up, do face painting and go to the local pub to watch games. It was always special to celebrate England games with friends and family. There were also many tears, too!”
Kane has had the old place jumping with his tournament goals, which have accounted for a healthy proportion of his record return – 12, to be precise, beginning with the six that swept him to the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup, taking in the four at Euro 2020, all of which came in the knockout rounds, and then the two at the 2022 World Cup, also during the knockout phase.
It is interesting to note that 33 of Kane’s goals have been in qualification ties and only six in friendlies, with the other three in the Nations League. Or that 49 have come with him as the captain. When Gareth Southgate first gave him the armband in a friendly against Scotland in June 2017, he responded by volleying a 93rd-minute equaliser. How he has thrived on the responsibility.
Kane cites the last-gasp headed winner against Tunisia in the opening group tie of the 2018 World Cup as one of his favourites. When Harry Maguire flicked on a Kieran Trippier corner, Southgate was seen to shout: “Where’s Harry?” Up popped Kane, generating the power on the ball with a whip of his neck muscles. Oh, there’s Harry.
It was surely bettered by the goal against Germany in the last 16 of the Euros, the clinching second in the 2-0 win – a seismic triumph given the background. Since England beat West Germany at Wembley in the 1966 World Cup final, they had won only eight knockout ties at major tournaments and only one had been against a major football power – the penalty shootout victory over Spain at Euro 96.
Since 1966, England had also lost on all four occasions they had faced Germany in knockout football; a deeply painful sequence. Here was a dose of redemption, Kane a prominent redeemer.
Kane’s story has been heavy on proving people wrong, on overcoming setbacks – his infamous release by Arsenal as an eight-year-old, the difficult loans at Norwich and especially Leicester, the one-season wonder jibes in 2014-15. Even before his show-stopper against Germany, he had been widely questioned after three group-stage blanks.
It has been a triumph of mentality as well as ability, of hard work and remorseless focus. Watch him in a pre-match warm-up, picking out the top corner in shooting drills again and again. Listen to what his teammates say about him in training, how he picks out the top corner again and again. How he stays behind to keep on doing it.
Kane’s qualities seem to be distilled when he stands over a penalty. Eighteen of his England goals have come from the spot; he has missed four although when he did so against Denmark in the Euro semi-final, he scored on the rebound. There was no such reprieve when he lifted high against France in the World Cup quarter-final last December – the lowest moment of his career.
The next most successful England penalty converter has been Frank Lampard with nine. Rooney got seven from the spot; Charlton three. And, given what Kane went through against France, there was an inevitability about his record-breaking goal being a penalty.
There are those who are a little bit sniffy about the number of penalties that Kane has scored, as if they carry a lower value rather than representing the acid test of nerve. But did they complain, for example, when Kane scored from the spot against Colombia in the last 16 at the 2018 World Cup to put England 1-0 up?
Kane fluffed his lines against France, a miss – as he has suggested – that will haunt him forever. Only a tournament win with England, you suspect, would put that right. The individual history can stand apart.