Harry Kane has proven himself in the Premier League, but the World Cup is another level entirely. (ABC News: Tim Madden)
Harry Kane is the sort of footballer the modern game is supposed to have left behind.
With no discernible physical advantages and five clubs to his name before his 21st birthday, his story is far removed from that of your typical starlet, manicured and mollycoddled into the big league before their time.
In an age of analytics and primary school talent identification, Kane had to go the long way round, only to emerge as a complete striker, a goal-feasting juggernaut that has the world’s biggest clubs licking their lips and England fans dreaming of breaking a 52-year trophy drought.
Famously, the Harry Kane story begins with rejection at Arsenal at age eight. The relatively chubby London lad with an obvious love of the game was released from the Gunners’ academy after just one year — an oversight that still frustrates youth coaches and left Arsene Wenger “a bit angry” when he found out more than a decade later.
But the boy clearly had talent, and after a brief stint on trial at Watford, Tottenham would move to give an 11-year-old Kane a chance.
Even at this age, and right through his youth career, Kane compensated for his lack of size, strength and speed with an insatiable work ethic, on and off the pitch.
It was enough to see him rise above the kind of young players the scouts would have considered more talented, and eventually secure a professional contract at Spurs at 17.
In Kane’s eyes, the path was clear for him to take his place at the top of Tottenham’s attack. But Spurs had other ideas.
Kane moved through the youth ranks with Spurs, but found a first team breakthrough hard to come by. (Reuters/Action Images: Paul Thomas)
The next four years would see Kane face the toughest tests of his young career, succumb to uncharacteristic bouts of self-doubt and contemplate walking away.
His long loan voyage began at Leyton Orient in England’s third division, training on Sunday League pitches and plying his trade miles away from the bright lights of White Hart Lane or Wembley.
Next up would be Millwall, the destination that — at least in Kane’s own telling of his story — appeared to be the making of the man.
Seven goals in 22 appearances was a fine if unspectacular return, but it was The Den where Kane learned what football meant to the people — to the journeyman players battling relegation at a financially-deprived club and to the infamously fanatic Millwall supporters on the terraces.
Still, Spurs weren’t convinced, and the loan market again beckoned. A brief, goalless spell at Norwich was followed by a stint on the bench at Leicester, at the time still a Championship team.
Alone in the midlands, struggling for game time in the second division, Kane felt for the first time he might not be up to Premier League standard — or, as he described his own thought process at the time, “if I can’t play for Leicester in the Championship, how am I supposed to play for Spurs in the Premier League?”.
So at the start of the 2013-14 season, Kane made a decisive move. When manager Andre Villas-Boas revealed plans for yet another loan move, Kane refused.
He was going to crack the first team, Kane told his boss, and he would stay at Tottenham and train until he did.
Villas-Boas may not have fancied the still slightly overweight (by professional football standards, of course) striker, but when he was let go late in the season and Tim Sherwood took over, Kane got his chance.
And he hasn’t looked back since.
One hundred Premer League goals later, Kane is England’s best striker and is fast moving his way up the list of the world’s very best footballers.
He’s called an “old-fashioned striker”, whatever that means, and has honed his craft to become an art form. But what makes him so good?
Scorned as an eight-year-old, Kane has taken that frustration out on Arsenal time and again. (AP: Matt Dunham)
Even still, Kane is not particularly quick or strong.
He’s tall and agile, but no more so than any number of athletically-gifted but far less successful players.
What Kane possesses is an innate ability to read the play, react to opportunities before they have even begun to form and finish them with clinical accuracy.
He’s one of those players that casual observers would say “is always in the right place at the right time”, a tag that is often cast off as good fortune, but is really a rare and nearly unteachable skill.
Note the timing of his runs the next time Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen picks up the ball in Spurs’ midfield, and see how they often come before the midfielder has even settled on the ball, and long before a defender is anticipating movement.
He creates chances with his movement alone, something only the very best strikers can do, and finishes them with deadly precision.
These are attributes which England desperately hopes can translate to the international stage, and Gareth Southgate will give Kane the best chance possible to thrive by loading the side with his Spurs teammates.
Twelve goals in his first 23 England appearances is a terrific start, but a poor showing at Euro 2016 — where Kane made more headlines for his woefully taken corners than his work in front of goal — proves there are no guarantees club form will be seamlessly taken to an international tournament.
Harry Kane tweet: 2017 has been good to me. Bring on 2018! #Hattrickballs #Goldenboot #HappyNewYear
If the Harry Kane of Tottenham turns up and dominates at this World Cup in Russia, his reputation would skyrocket to the point few could argue his standing in the global game, and England could well pull off a surprise.
But if he flounders, those same doubters who have followed him through his whole career will again have something to crow about.
It’s all in Harry’s hands.
Can Harry Kane do what Lineker, Shearer and Owen before him failed to do, and lead England to silverware? (Reuters: Fabrizio Bensch)