Harry Kane emerges from periphery to send England into ecstasy

Captain had laboured in the first half but emerged from the peripheries at the vital moment to ensure the Three Lions of a place in the quarter-finals

Vithushan Ehantharajah
At Wembley
Tuesday 29 June 2021 21:37
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Euro2020: England fans sing Three Lions following Germany victory

If you have ever been at the bottom of a pile-on, you’ll know the anxiety.

The darkness. The claustrophobia. The fear of not knowing how long you will be there for. Sometimes, as the weight of everyone else’s bodies presses longer against yours, you doubt if you will even come out at all. For a situation that emanates from glory, it can be a scary place.

But in one corner of Wembley just off the marked pitch, the man at the bottom found relief. The darkness was welcomed, nothing but love and warmth from the bodies above as the dense of mass of flesh and sweat distorted the eruption from the surrounding stands.

Finally, Harry Kane has his goal. The currency of his craft, his raison d’être. Elusive for the first few weeks of this tournament, through awkward, heavy-legged displays. Just five attempts on goal across all three Group D matches. Only one of those asking anything of a goalkeeper. A shooter not just shooting poorly, but barely shooting at all.

Or to frame it another way – and there has been a lot of scratching around for silver-linings – Kane scored with only his second effort on target. A tired core contorted, neck strained further as he headed Jack Grealish’s cross past Manuel Neuer in the 86th minute. England two, Germany nil, and, most importantly, a spot in the quarter-finals of what over the last couple of days has become one of the most open international tournaments in memory.

The celebration was pure ecstasy in that Kane forgot what to do with himself. The usual jump and pulled uppercut were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a run and jump, legs and body parallel to the ground, as if trying to physically exorcise a bad spirit from himself by flicking himself like a duvet. He had already taken plenty of punishment from Antonio Rudiger and Mats Hummels before crashing to the more forgiving Wembley turf.

In both ways, this was what we have come to expect from Kane. Long term, it’s been goals, this being his 35th for England. But the short term of positional discomfort and just plain lethargy were evident, too. And the relief contained within the bedlam was 40,000-fold in the stands, spiked with copious amounts of goodwill from them and the bodies on top of him.

There was a moment at the end of the first half that spoke of both the Kane that England fans know and the Kane we were all reluctantly getting used to.

In the 42nd minute, he received the ball about 35 yards out, turning to run at the German defence for the first time. Maybe turning to run at any defence for the first time over the last few weeks.

You could sense the fear in the opposition backline as he held off two defenders, directly a rise of concern proportional to the encouraging roar as England fans recognised a moment Tottenham fans have been well accustomed to. But Matthias Ginter knew it too, well enough to opt for the foul rather than legal means of stopping Kane.

It was still there. That drive, that desire to go searching for the thing that brings him joy and meaning. But only briefly: like a flutter of the heart or turn of the stomach of love or pain for someone or something. Not much, but enough to know the residues of emotion are still there, even if faint.

Harry Kane celebrates his goal for England

The applause at the referee’s whistle gave an indication of where we are at with the England captain. Some will have cheered the free-kick in a promising position. But it felt like encouragement. The forced kind you might reserve for an ageing rock star who can’t quite access that old juice anymore, even when everything else looks and feels the same. But heck, once those opening chords to Satisfaction hit, you’d be a fool not to pop.

But Harry Kane is only 27 years into a life spent exclusively on the straight and narrow, off the back of a 2020/21 season with 35 goals for club and country, along with a career-best 14 Premier League assists.

The vices non-existent, the spirit and mind still willing. Football has been his only excess, which may be the problem. Very few have racked up more minutes than him, and even fewer will have approached each one with the same kind of vigour. Kane might rank as one of football’s worst coasters.

Who knows whether he’s injured or just knackered. But either is a problem, as revealed in patches that did not just pertain to his productivity in front of goal. Timo Werner’s one-on-one chance in the first half came through Kane’s inability to match Hummels’s leap for a header he needed to win. His hold-up play generally has been poor. His distribution, while still sound, lacks the cutting edge of the recent league campaign.

The opening period ended with the striker snatching at a ball that broke in his path, chasing it for a second touch in the six-yard box. That was one of his nine touches in the opening 45 minutes, and his first in the box.

At times, the game was happening around him. Once in a while, he acted as a bounce-board for Raheem Sterling or Bukayo Saka’s bursts in-field. Yet he was mostly on the periphery of it all. An observer in parts of the field where he is usually the headline act. Adjacent to play when he used to be the play itself.

As with all pile-ons, the end marked a literal and figurative return to the light. As the players peeled themselves away one by one, Kane was revealed at the bottom to receive a pure, undiluted dose of acclaim.

Kane got to his feet, free from the weight of his teammates, the scrutiny of his lack of goals and the burden of responsibility, if only for a few days. Walking back to the halfway line, he gazed up at the scoreboard bearing his name, that 2-0 scoreline and only a few more minutes to go.

England have their knockout win over Germany and a quarter-final berth. Perhaps they are also that little bit closer to getting their old Harry Kane back.

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