Kane: Captain, heartbeat, headmaster, leader

Standing outside the England team hotel in Dortmund on the morning of the historic Euro 2024 semi-final victory over the Netherlands, I watched Harry Kane for what felt like the thousandth time, leading all the players out for their next activity.

If you slow-mo’d the pictures and shot them in black and white, it would have looked exactly like that opening scene in Reservoir Dogs. With Kane up front and central, and a bigger cast of characters walking in his shadow.

On this occasion, Kane was directing the players for England’s morning walkabout. It was exactly 11.30am. I timed how long they were out. It was precisely a six-minute stroll in the sunshine.

And instead of a picturesque walk through the leafy grounds and manicured lawns of their luxury spa resort, it circuited the featureless, high-hedged gravel drive of the car park where the England team bus was parked.

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Harry Kane feels England are improving after every game and the victory over Netherlands is the ‘best performance by far’.

Why? It had been decided it was too risky to walk on the slightly dewy, undulating grass, just in case one of the players slipped, and tweaked a muscle or strained a ligament on the morning of the game. Extreme caution, for sure. But such is the level of detail in everything this England squad does. And it is Kane who always leads the way and sets the standards.

It is one of the biggest miscarriages of footballing justice, the fact that Kane has never won any silverware in an otherwise glittering career. By Sunday night, his first-ever senior trophy at the age of 30, may well be the biggest prize in European football.

England's Harry Kane is set to lead his team out at the Euro 2024 final
England’s Harry Kane is set to lead his team out at the Euro 2024 final.

Alongside him in this England team, he sees the Manchester City treble-winning trio of John Stones, Kyle Walker and Phil Foden; he sees 21-year-old Jude Bellingham, who has just done a treble which includes the Champions League, in his first season in Spain.

And yet this England generation is shaped in the likeness of the captain. He is their heartbeat, their headmaster, their counsellor. Gareth Southgate has built this squad and created a unique environment, but Kane is his enforcer; the one who dictates the levels of excellence, and ensures the bonds – player-to-player – are unbroken.

Wherever Kane leads, the rest of the squad follows – without question – however big their reputation is. Whatever they may have won at club level.

Following the drab 1-1 draw with Denmark in the second group game three weeks ago, the England fans and national media were frothing with criticism. Gary Lineker had used an expletive to describe the performance and Alan Shearer had pointedly criticised Kane himself.

Harry Kane levels for England from the penalty spot
Harry Kane levels for England from the penalty spot.

These were two men who had trodden in exactly the same footsteps of expectation in which Kane now walks. I know Kane was hurt by those comments. He felt it had got personal. That the criticism was too pointed and unwarranted. His response? Well, it was comprehensively pre-planned, of course.

“We haven’t won anything as a nation for a long, long time and a lot of these players were part of that. All I would say is – remember what it is like to wear the shirt, and that your words are listened to.” No slagging match. No tit-for-tat. Just a clever little put-down, and a plea for perspective.

Some of the headlines, of course, shouted that Kane had “sniped back” at his illustrious critics. But in truth, he had chosen his words very carefully, to be respectful but strong. To end the perceived row there and then.

He spoke for over 45 minutes – the longest news conference that any player has given throughout this entire tournament. It was his idea. He told the FA media team he wanted to step up and be the voice piece of the England squad, face down the critics eye-to-eye.

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Harry Kane answered his critics in a lengthy press conference earlier in the tournament.

The rabid media were becalmed, myself included. I asked why he thought England had been so below their usual performance levels. He told me that it was important England grew into the tournament, that – like a golfer – they didn’t play themselves out of contention in the first round, improve throughout the tournament and peak at the business end.

Now, that feels very prophetic, after England delivered far and away their best performance of the tournament, against their toughest opposition so far, in the semi-final.

After Kane’s monster news conference, I said on Sky Sports News: “The captain has spoken, and suddenly everything seems better in the world.” That is the power Kane has. And nowhere is it more evident than within the England camp.

Harry Kane and Stefan de Vrij fight for the ball
Harry Kane and Stefan de Vrij fight for the ball in the semi-final.

On the pitch, he has struggled in Germany. After his back injury, Kane simply doesn’t have the fitness or energy levels to impact the game as he normally would. That was the case in the semi-final too. To me – like Jude Bellingham – he looks utterly drained.

He is desperately trying to make his body move around the pitch, but he is clearly labouring – much more than may appear at first sight on the TV screens. He can’t get up the pitch as quickly as usual, he has often been yards outside the box when Bukayo Saka in particular, has delivered dangerous crosses. In six matches in this tournament, he has only completed 90 minutes twice. That speaks volumes.

And yet he won and scored the crucial, slightly generous penalty that brought England back into the game against the Netherlands. And yet with that goal, he is now leading the chase for the Golden Boot. It is sheer willpower that is dragging Kane forward. And it is his influence that is propelling the team to new heights.

Denzel Dumfries fouls Harry Kane to concede a penalty
Denzel Dumfries fouls Harry Kane to concede a penalty.

Only Spain’s Dani Olmo is left in this tournament who is level on goals with Kane. They have three apiece. Realistically, only he or his compatriot Fabian Ruiz, or England’s Jude Bellingham, both on two goals, can now pip Kane to the crown.

It is an honour that really matters to Kane. He has measured himself in numbers against the very best and tried to compete with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for goals and assists.

But if it were to be Kane who symbolically ends 58 years of hurt; if it is he who is the first Englishman to ever lift the Henry Delauney Trophy – that would be a fitting first piece of silverware for Kane’s criminally bereft trophy cabinet.

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