It was the perfect hat-trick in his imperfect season. Harry Kane’s first-half treble in England’s 5-0 thrashing of Albania came with his head, his left foot and his right, courtesy of a spectacular bicycle kick. It was the restoration of normal service after he drew a blank against Hungary.
That was the first time in 15 qualifiers when he failed to find the net. This was the Kane who, in Jordan Henderson’s words, is “one of the best strikers in the world,” rather than the out-of-form, out-of-sorts presence labouring in an underachieving Tottenham team. Kane had three times as many goals before the break against Albania as he has managed in the 2021/22 Premier League.
While Antonio Conte’s appointment offers the potential that he can be rejuvenated at club level, Kane admitted this week that the summer saga of the transfer that wasn’t took its toll mentally. He had looked drained physically, too. Now he has drawn level with Jimmy Greaves on 44 England goals while the probability that he is stuck at Spurs suggests he will overhaul the late great as the club’s record scorer.
But, in personal quest for fulfilment, England could define him and motivate him. He may be unlikely to win the major honours with Spurs but he feels destined to retire as his country’s most prolific goalscorer. He is only nine behind Wayne Rooney’s record, with a trip to San Marino on Monday and after overhauling the former captain’s total in competitive games. The fundamental difference, has come, when it has mattered: Kane has 10 goals in his last two tournaments, whereas Rooney got three in his final five.
Kane can be a symbol of a modern-day golden age for England, albeit one not yet garnished by silverware. With 39 goals in his last 49 games under Gareth Southgate, no one has more goals for one England manager. Since the 1950s, only Greaves can rival his goal-per-game ratio.
And yet when Kane said the team had a point to prove, perhaps that applied more to him than most. International football comes in the context of the domestic game. As Henderson reflected: “You’re going to get criticism at times, when your club form is not as great, probably at Spurs, as what he would want.”
Southgate can be steadfast in his backing of his stalwarts. In Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire and Kane, he had three enduring difficult campaigns at club level. Each has retained his importance for his country. Southgate stuck with Kane when he was mediocre in the Euro 2020 group stages and was rewarded with four goals in the knockout phase. Southgate stuck with his captain again.
England v Albania ratings
“Form is always temporary,” he said. “What pleased me most was his all-round performance. We know he’s going to score goals. I liked the way he was aggressive in his hold-up play and running in behind. His link play was on song.”
If the sense is that Conte will also want Kane to run in behind defences, rather than forever dropping deep, there is a deeper question if he is entering decline. He can look an extraordinary finisher and a fine passer or tired as he toils. But given England’s host of gifted wingers, with the sight of the debutant Emile Smith Rowe meaning yet more options to Sterling are emerging, all the alternatives to Kane have looked back-ups, lacking his full range of attributes.
As it seems Southgate may extend his contract to include Euro 2024, the presumption must be that he hopes Kane remains pivotal for a tournament that takes place just before his skipper’s 31st birthday. And if so, Kane will have left Rooney’s record far behind him.