One highlight among many for Harry Kane in 2017 came on 17 October. He had just led the line for Tottenham Hotspur at the Santiago Bernabeu, forcing the own goal that put Spurs ahead in a match they drew 1-1. Afterwards he swapped shirts with Cristiano Ronaldo, a role model of his growing up, and took Ronaldo’s shirt home with him to frame.
It was not quite a meeting of equals: Ronaldo has won the lot as a player and Kane has yet to win anything. But only Ronaldo’s penalty that night gave him the edge on Kane for goals that year. It was his 44th of 2017 and Kane was stuck on 43. Just over two months on, with their football years done, Kane has finished on 56, Ronaldo left behind on 52.
Ronaldo is a unique player in football history but Kane might be as close as this country will get to our own version of his self-built excellence. Ronaldo’s achievements over the last 12 years or so are a monument to what a supremely dedicated footballer can do if he tries to maximise every single aspect of his game. No one else will be born as gifted as Lionel Messi, but anyone, at least in theory, can work as hard as Ronaldo.
Kane loves watching elite players to model himself on and Ronaldo’s work ethic has always appealed to him. And in his own ludicrous productivity, his reliability, his athleticism, his futuristic completeness, he deserves comparison with the man with four Champions League medals and five Ballon d’Ors.
Going back to the very start of the year shows what has made Kane so successful. He decided last December that he needed to improve his diet in 2017, to make himself fitter and stronger. So on 1 January he appointed a personal nutritionist and cook, a man who spends six days a week at the Kane family home, preparing all the right food to keep Kane in peak condition.
Kane knew that this is a short career and he wanted to make the most of it. So he focused on recovering better between games too, to give his body the best possible chance. He does not drink alcohol during the season either, another personal sacrifice that Ronaldo himself made to reach the top.
That is why Gareth Southgate said Kane was “absolutely the kind of role model you want”. “You are talking about a player trying to maximise his ability and finding every edge.”
The results are obvious. Kane is stronger, sharper and better at holding off defenders than ever before. Look at his best goals this season, exploding away from Mathias Jorgensen at Huddersfield, bulldozing three Borussia Dortmund players at Wembley in September, or Southampton’s Maya Yoshida on Boxing Day.
Yes, he has been fortunate with injury this season, but it is not just luck. His most serious injury came when he turned ankle ligaments against Millwall on 12 March. It was feared he would be out for six to eight weeks. He was back within four. He missed the game at Old Trafford on 28 October with hamstring tightness but has otherwise always been available.
The added athleticism has improved Kane’s game, but he is far more than that. Beyond everything else he is a finisher and that is where his hard work is most obvious. Kane is not the most gifted English player of his generation, certainly less talented than Wayne Rooney, our last great striker. But while Rooney emerged into senior football almost fully-formed, Kane, more like Frank Lampard or David Beckham, is a product of relentless self-improvement on the training pitch.
Throughout his time at Spurs Kane has worked on his finishing, never trying to score the perfect goal – “that’s not important to me” - but just trying to beat the goalkeeper. Low, hard, and into the bottom corner, “the worst for the keeper to save”.
Kane still leads extra shooting sessions whenever he has an afternoon off, replicating match shooting situations over and over again. He has now effectively mastered that finish with his right foot, which is why he is so good at scoring what look like half-chances from the edge of the box. Like his goal away at Borussia Dortmund in November, a classic Kane finish.
But last year Bradley Allen, the Spurs under-15 coach and a big inspiration, asked Kane why he kept cutting back onto his right foot instead of taking it on his left. Kane knew Allen was onto something, so he went to work. Now some of his best strikes this year were with his left: the volley from Christian Eriksen’s corner against Stoke, the top-corner curler at Huddersfield, the dink against Saints. After Spurs won at West Ham in September, Mark Noble observed that Kane is now just as dangerous on his left as on his right.
The improvement never stops and Kane is not the perfect player, not yet. He will find other aspects of his game to work on in 2018, 2019 and beyond. He arguably does not score enough headers for a player of his size. Mauricio Pochettino will continue to bombard him on Whatsapp with technical pointers to other strikers he could learn from.
All of this works because of what Kane has inside him, that insatiable desire to maximise every aspect of his game. That is why he is driven by all the criticism, the doubters, the people who thought that his 21 Premier League goals in 2014-15 were a one-off, rather than a platform.
It is why his hero is Tom Brady, written off as too slow and weak to be a top quarterback and only picked by the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. Kane draws inspiration from how Brady proved everyone wrong and has now won five Super Bowls.
“He worked hard, believed in himself and that is what I have tried to take in my career,” he told The Independent earlier this year. “Maybe when I was younger people didn’t always believe in me. It is that self-belief, that self-drive, that has got me to where I am now.”
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