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When Harry Kane arrived at Bayern Munich, becoming the most expensive signing in Bundesliga history, few could have questioned his likely impact. Paul Simpson lines up what makes the England captain so unassumingly brilliant. 

“Who is that fat kid?” That blunt enquiry, by a youth coach at Tottenham Hotspur about a 11-year-old prospect called Harry Edward Kane, proves that in football, as in so many other walks of life, there is nothing inevitable about success. As Richard Allen, head of academy recruitment at Spurs at the time, admitted later: “The truth is that Harry would never have got in the building if we were using physical testing as a determinant.”

To become the all-time record goal scorer for Spurs and England, the 30-year-old Bayern striker had to overcome rejection (the academy at Arsenal, the club he and elder brother Charlie supported as boys, let him go because he wasn’t athletic enough), ignorance (he played in goal at first, and then as a holding midfielder), injury (a broken metatarsal bone while on loan to Norwich City), the verdict (tentatively reached by officials at Tottenham in 2013/14) that, he would never quite make it at the top level and should be sold) and the derision of Spurs fans who, according to his then manager Tim Sherwood, started singing for his fellow striker Robert Soldado when he didn’t score in 25 minutes during one early appearance for the first team.

So how exactly did Kane triumph in the face of such adversity? It helped that at the time – he played in Spurs’ youth system from 2004 to 2010 – the recruitment and development of players was not driven by data science. That meant coaches could apply more subjective criteria when assessing his potential. As Allen recalled: “His ball striking was good, and he always scored, so he was good technically.” Although Harry was a bit small – which made the chubbiness more obvious – his father Patrick wasn’t, leading coaches to anticipate a growth spurt (which actually happened when he was 14-15 and made him one of the tallest players in his age group). 

And the coaches liked the youngster’s attitude. As Allen recalled: “He was really committed, worked hard and was a quick learner.” The honour of ‘last player in training’ has been bestowed on so many players over the years, it’s a wonder that sessions ever finish. That said, in Kane’s case, the accolade would, by all accounts, seem thoroughly deserved.

 

 

Harry Kane climbs into his black (of-course it's black) Audi – Vorsprung durch Technik.

 

In the second half of 2011/2012, when he was 18, he was loaned to Millwall where his seven goals in 22 games effectively kept the Lions in the Championship and, remarkably, won him the club’s Young Player of the Year award. The only aspect of his play that irritated manager Kenny Jackett was that he wouldn’t stop training. As Millwall assistant manager Joe Gallen recalled: “Kenny would be watching from his office and he’d say: ‘Joe, you've got to come in, he’s going to pull his quad [quadricep muscle] here. I’d say to Harry: ‘Come on, we’ve got to go. Kenny’s going to kill me.’ And Harry would be annoyed, groaning at me saying ‘Come on, let’s do some more.’”

"The only aspect of his play that irritated manager Kenny Jacket was that he wouldn't stop training"

Gallen added: “In 20 years of training, I’ve never seen a player practise as much as Harry. He was always practising from the edge of the box. That was his thing.” Such commitment paid off when, in April 2012, he scored the only goal away to Portsmouth, convincing players and coaches that they would stay up. In Gallen’s words: “Harry’s goal was from the edge of the box, as usual. He was the best I’ve seen from the D area. It was like a six-yard tap in for him.”

The final factor that helped Kane break through was plain old luck. Manager Tim Sherwood, who had coached the player in Spurs’ academy brought him back from loan and, with Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor struggling, gave him his break in April 2014. As the England and Spurs talisman said in a 2015 interview: “If Tim hadn’t come in, who knows where I’d be now? I could have gone on another loan, ended up at another team. I took my chance, but I’m sure a lot of other players don’t even get that.”

In football, good luck can be very specific, but it can also be more generic and harder to define. Although Kane could not have known this at the time, he was immensely fortunate to have entered the youth development system back in 2004. The old scouting and coaching network had its flaws: like the talent spotters in Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball, baseball scouts were inherently biased in favour of prospects who reminded them of themselves (if they were a former player) or the last/most successful youngster they recruited, but the system left scope for pragmatic exceptions – as Spurs had done with Kane. With the data-driven transformation of sport that Moneyball helped to inspire, coaches like Allen fear that a gifted young player who doesn’t fit the stereotype, as defined by a spreadsheet, app or AI, may no longer get the benefit of the doubt.

Even when Kane made it to the first team, there were wrinkles in his game that needed ironing out. When he came off the bench, some Spurs fans sniggered at every clumsy touch and bemoaned his lack of pace. As Sherwood said later: “It wasn’t ‘He’s one of our own’ back then.” Indeed, in the summer of 2014/15, after 21 goals in 34 Premier League games, some journalists and fans were already writing him off as a one-season wonder. That probably helped motivate him to score 25, 29 and 30 league goals in his next three seasons.

At his lowest ebb, when he wasn’t even a first-team regular at Leicester City in the Championship towards the end of the 2012/13 season, he found solace and inspiration in a documentary called The Brady 6, about the American quarter-back Tom Brady. At the start of his career, back in 2000, Brady had been the 199th player to be selected in the NFL draft after the scouting committee report described him as “skinny”, with  “poor build” and lacking “great physical stamina and strength” – a shocking underestimation of a player who went on to win the Superbowl 7 times. That story resonated with Kane, as he told Men’s Health: “It was like, ‘OK, it’s not impossible, there are people who have done it. I just needed to do what he’d done: work harder, believe in myself more and hopefully, one day, become one of the best in the world. It sounds silly but it was a big moment in my life.” As if to remind himself of the lesson, he named a pet Labrador after Brady. There was nothing remotely silly about Kane’s subsequent improvement – on 19 March 2015, he made his full England debut, scoring with a header 80 seconds after coming off the bench in a 4-0 victory against Lithuania at Wembley in a Euro 2016 qualifier. 

The age-old advice to defenders aiming to contain a striker – “show him onto his weaker side” – isn’t much help when you’re facing Kane because it is not exactly clear that he has one. It’s true that he is strongest with his right foot, which supplied 130 of his 213 Premier League goals, but he also scored 41 with his left which, Opta estimates, makes him the most prolific scorer with his weaker foot in the competition’s history. (As a point of comparison, Alan Shearer only scored 20 of his record haul of 260 EPL goals with his left.) In other words, if as a defender, you steer Kane on to his left, you’re hardly safe. Even if he doesn’t score, there is a reasonable chance of an assist – he notched up 46 in the EPL. And he’s not bad in the air either: 40 of his EPL goals came from headers.

"He displays an uncanny knack for always appearing as if out of thin air"

Marking Kane is even harder because defenders don’t always know where to find him. Some strikers seldom stray too far from the penalty area in open play. During José Mourinho’s turbulent reign at Spurs, Kane flourished as a hybrid between a No.9 and No.10, sometimes dropping into his own half to gain possession and, when he did, often playing a long pass into the space he knew Son Heung-Min would run into. In 2020/21, the two combined for 14 goals, the highest tally for a partnership in a single Premier League season. (He has tried the same tactic for England, assisting 19 goals, but it hasn’t been as effective, largely because no one in the national side has the same intuitive understanding with him as Son.) 

Once a defender has found Kane, they then have to decide how best to manage him. He passes the ball so well, especially in crowded areas, that any centre-back who gets too close is very likely to stray out of position in pursuit of the ball or the player, creating space for him or a team-mate to shoot on goal. At Spurs, he learned, as Tony Hodson noted in a perceptive analysis for Coaches’ Voice, to ghost into the right space and vary his positioning according to the direction of attack: “If the play moves to the left, he tends to position himself between opposing defensive and midfield lines in the hope of receiving to feet and creating a scoring opportunity. If the play moves to the right, he usually places himself between the left-sided centre-back and left-back to attack a cross, giving himself an advantage over both opponents if a quality ball comes in.”

Kane was 30 when he signed a four-year contract with Bayern, one of the most storied clubs in European football and the most successful in Germany. By that point, he had become England’s all-time record goal scorer (62 goals and counting), the second highest scorer in Premier League history and smashed Jimmy Greaves’ long-standing record as Spurs’ record goal scorer. Bayern obviously believed they were buying the finished article but the player himself still felt, like his idol Brady, there was room for improvement, and began enthusing about watching videos of the great Gerd Müller’s goals. 

 

 

Gettin' down with the locals... Munich resident, Harry Kane plus pilsner plus pretzel.

 

It is tempting to interpret these remarks as a crafty PR ploy but Uli Hesse, author of Bayern Munich: Creating a Global Superclub, believes him: “He’s scored some fine goals – like that strike from behind the half-way line against Darmstadt – but the vast majority of his Bundesliga goals have been simple tap-ins. He displays an uncanny knack for always appearing, as if out of thin air, at the very spot where a rebound lands or a clearance comes down. That is truly Müller-esque – he didn’t score many beauties either, he just put them away. By comparison, Robert Lewandowski had to work really hard for most of his goals.”

Where Müller did have to work hard – like Kane – was to overcome those who said he was physically unsuited to professional football. When Bayern’s Croatian coach Zlatko Čajkovski got his first glimpse of the short, stocky 18-year-old striker in 1964, he asked the club president: “You want me to put a bear among my thoroughbred racehorses?” The new signing wasn’t much of a gamble – an apprentice weaver and part-time footballer, he had been bought for less than £2,000 from TSV Nördlingen – but Čajkovski still took against him, nicknaming him: “Kleines dickes Müller” which isn’t as rude as it sounds, roughly translating as “Short, fat, Müller.” 

It didn’t help that the young striker was impossible to coach – it was a matter, one manager said, of letting the player listen to the voice that told him “Gerd go that way, Gerd go this way” and leave well alone. Müller made up for being un-coachable by becoming un-droppable for Bayern’s first team. In 1964/65, when the Roten (Reds) were competing in a regional league, he put away 33 goals in 26 games and, after a season’s adjustment to life at the very top (as the club won promotion to the Bundesliga), he scored 30 goals or more for the club for ten campaigns in a row. His ‘annus mirabilis’ – indeed his ‘annus miraculum’ – came in 1972/73 when he scored 66 goals in 50 games for Bayern. A year later, ‘Der Bomber’ – a nickname he detested because it sounded so brutal – scored the winner for West Germany in the World Cup final.

"I don't find him boring, I find him steady, a steadying influence. You don't have to be sparkling, you don't have to be a pop star to be a footballer"

Kane has gone through a similar metamorphosis, one that has intrigued and impressed Zinedine Zidane who said: “He’s a complete player. [At first] he did not seem to be one but in the end he is.” Kane had never been one of the best players in the world – often not even the best player in his team – until suddenly he was. All of which makes his poor performance in the Ballon d’Or judging – he has never come higher than tenth in the polling, which he did in 2017 and 2018 – a bit mystifying.

You can blame this on Messi and Ronaldo, who have all but monopolised this trophy in recent years, and global resentment of the Premier League’s fame and fortune but does it also have something to do with Kane himself? Unlike Messi, he is unshowy on the pitch. Unlike Ronaldo, he is unshowy on the pitch – and off it. 

He is married to a girl he met at school, is a resolutely patriotic buyer of British cars (although his new company car in Munich is, by necessity, an Audi Q8 SUV), has a golf handicap of four and, as he doesn’t drink, likes to round off the day with a “cuppa – milk and two sugars” - before he goes to bed. Even his nickname isn’t ‘out there’: friends, family and team-mates call him H. (To be fair, it’s better than Kane-y.) And his Instagram account is said, by people who know about such things, to be thoroughly boring.

All of which has led many – including former footballers such as Craig Burley, Robbie Fowler, Roy Keane and Neil Ruddock – to interpret his dutifulness as proof of dullness. ITV football commentator Peter Drury disputes this assessment, saying once: “I don’t buy into that argument. I don’t find him boring, I find him steady, a steadying influence. You don’t have to be sparkling, you don’t have to be a pop star to be a footballer.”

Comfortable not to be cool, Kane is no pop star and reserves his sparkling for games. That is, officially, the kind of disciplined professionalism that we, as fans, always say we want – until we actually get it. 

 

Captain 'Steady the Ship' Kane scores a last minute winner for Bayern against RB Leipzig.

 

Although Pete Sampras won 14 tennis Grand Slams he has probably left a smaller footprint in our memories than John ‘Superbrat’ McEnroe, who only won eight and, for all his undoubted gifts, owes much of his global notoriety to his serial abuse of racquets and umpires. The difference being, as Martin Amis pointed out in an entertaining essay in New Yorker, that McEnroe was officially a ‘personality’ – one of those “big, brash, oft-gesticulating caricatures that please marketers” – a category that also included Ilie Nastase (an “embarrassing narcissist”) and Jimmy Connors (“such an out-and-out ‘personality’ that he got into a legal dispute with the president of his own fan club”). Amis suggested that when the media crowns sports stars a ‘personality’, it is code for ‘asshole’. 

Kane is not a ‘personality’. For a start, he has obviously memorised his media training courses. He knows what soundbites to deliver when and in what circumstances. Sampras’s recalcitrance was innate. His credo – and his favourite line in fiction, from JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye – was: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything.” What makes Sampras and Kane stand out, as Amis observed of such “dynamic and exemplary” tennis greats as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Arthur Ashe, is that “they didn’t need ‘personality’ because they had ‘character’.”

Even in Germany, where fans of other clubs have long regarded Bayern as the football equivalent of the evil empire in Star Wars, Kane’s character has come through. Hesse says: “Most people rather like him – despite who he plays for – because he comes across as a regular guy, without any airs and graces, a totally unassuming superstar.” So far, Bayern’s new goal machine has only been criticised once – for inadvertently referring to Manuel Neuer as “one of the best goalkeepers in the world” in a post-match interview rather than simply “the best”. (He quickly corrected himself.)

Kane’s image may also have been tarnished by his role as captain of, and principal striker for, Gareth Southgate’s England. In the euphoric early years, the Three Lions reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 (in which Kane won the Golden Boot with six goals) and three years later, almost (and probably should have) won the delayed Euro 2020 at Wembley, (with Kane scoring three times in that tournament). Yet after that, with mystifying speed, disillusion with Southgate’s England set in. 

"To be a successful footballer entails a lot of sacrifices: Harry Kane's Self-discipline is so fierce it's almost a superpower"

Fans, journalists and pundits began to question the team’s endless recycling of possession, lamented the side’s apparent inability to beat good teams in crunch games (a pattern which continued at the 2022 World Cup when Kane scored – and missed – a penalty in a 2-1 defeat to France in the quarter-finals) and criticised the manager’s loyalty to old faithfuls and reluctance to blood new talent. All this toxicity has clearly got to Southgate who cuts an increasingly grumpy figure in press conferences. 

Kane has, slightly unfairly, become collateral damage in this process. Apart from not missing from the spot against France in Qatar, it’s hard to know what more he could have done. He has single-handedly scored more than one in four goals - 53 out of 200 to be precise – on Southgate’s watch. And his penalty record is impressive, converting 21 out of 25. The industrial melodrama that surrounds England – especially at major tournaments – means that all will be forgiven if Southgate – and Kane – win Euro 2024 this summer.

The one thing that Kane does that definitely isn’t boring is score goals. And his critics ought to consider the alternative. He could be one of those players who, as Mauricio Pochettino says in his book with Guillem Balague, “use football as a way of achieving other things (money, being in the press, perks, millions of Twitter followers)” and enjoy that more than “training or sharing moments with your teammates.” To be a successful footballer, the Argentine continues, isn’t just to work hard in training or at the gym, it also entails “taking care of what you eat and the amount you sleep”. In that respect, Kane is exemplary, his self-discipline so fierce it’s almost a superpower. His attention to detail is evidenced by an online clip of him querying his ratings on FIFA 17, insisting that his passing was “way better than 71” (out of a possible 99) before reluctantly admitting that his overall score 84 was “half-decent”.

He may also be a victim of an inherent bias, within the game, the media and supporters, against goalscorers and in favour of playmakers like Maradona, Cruyff and Messi (whose genius defies categorisation). It’s almost as if we admire the end product – goals – more than the producer. Just before the 1974 World Cup, football writer Rob Hughes sat down with Johan Cruyff to identify the outstanding player in each of the 16 finalists. The cryptic Dutch genius had previously said “Müller isn’t a footballer, only a goal scorer.” Yet the more he pored over the videos, on a prototype Sony Betamax recorder, the more convinced Cruyff became that Franz Beckenbauer wasn’t the key to West Germany’s success but Müller was, concluding: “How he scores is unbelievable. Always from 11 yards. He has something other players don’t.” 

Even Müller himself couldn't explain his success, telling Hughes: “I have an instinct. The ball is coming and I score. I don’t know what it is.” Maybe that is the secret Kane is hoping to discover as he rewatches all those videos. In the meantime, he’ll just have to be content with a strike rate of 1.21 goals a game – 23 goals in 19 matches at the time of writing, which, barring injury or a proper loss of form by Bayern, puts him on track to match or break Lewandowski’s record tally of 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season.

“The first thing you learn when you start your football education in Germany is that Gerd Müller was the greatest striker who ever lived. And that no one will be ever as good as him,” says Hesse. “That was the law in this country until Lewandowski appeared.” Although Kane is a relatively late starter in Germany, he has a good chance of changing that law again.

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