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How Harry Kane Became the Leading Light of English and European Football

·14-min read

There’s an online video, posted in September 2016, of Harry Kane reacting to his rating on the computer game Fifa 17. Just in case you don't know, the digitised footballers are given marks out of 99 in six categories – pace, shooting, passing, dribbling, defending and “physical” – based on their real-life qualities. They’re also awarded an overall rating. It’s a bit like Top Trumps.

In the video, the Tottenham Hotspur and England striker sucks his teeth when he sees the stats. He’s not happy. “I think shooting’s definitely got to be in the 90s,” he says, quibbling with his score of 84. He insists that his passing is “better than 71”. In the end, however, he grudgingly concedes – though only when prompted by his interviewer – that his overall rating of 84 is “half-decent”.

More recently, in January 2018, the Fifa Team of the Year was unveiled, voted for by a panel of footballers, journalists and gamers, with stats updated to reflect the performances of the players in 2017. Leading the line in the 4-3-3, flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo (99) and Lionel Messi (98), is Harry Kane (96). His shooting had been upgraded to the maximum 99 and his passing to 93.

“That’s closer to the mark,” says Kane, laughing, in the dressing room of the north London photo studio where he's meeting Men’s Health. “There’s always room for improvement, of course. I’ll just have to keep scoring the goals and they’ll have to keep rating me higher.”

The occasion for today’s shoot is Kane’s signing for United: not Manchester United, who are rumoured to be one of the teams considering a record-breaking bid for the striker this summer, but Boss Bottled United, the sporty fragrance from Hugo Boss, for which Kane is a brand ambassador. Fielding questions while he changes looks between set-ups, he gamely plays conversational one-twos wearing nothing more than a spray of eau de toilette and his underwear. “It breaks the ice,” he says, shrugging.

By most measures, Kane is now one of the world’s best players. In 49 games for Spurs last year, he scored 33 goals and still found time to contribute 17 assists. His goal contributions over the past five seasons have led an increasing number of admiring pundits and supporters to argue that he is every bit an equal of Messi and Ronaldo, but Kane is cautious not to anoint himself too quickly.

“I think what they’ve done over the past 10 years has been incredible, and they’ll go down as two of the best players ever,” he says. “That’s where I want to get to. I’m on the right track – I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully, one day, I’ll be up there with the greats.”

Golden Touch

Kane is certainly on the right track, and he’s moving fast. He collected his third Golden Boot during the 2020-21 season, and you wouldn't bet against him winning the same award for Euro 2020 either, no matter what odds Ray Winstone might growl at you during an ad break.

Not bad for a “one-season wonder”, as Kane was called in the newspaper sports pages after his breakthrough year of 2014-15 – a campaign that he finished with 31 goals, despite a late start. Such criticisms sound risible now, but they underscore the reality that, not very long ago, Kane wasn’t so much setting the world on fire as barely warming the White Hart Lane bench. What is his secret? Magic boots? Golden ones?

“Hard work,” Kane explains, rather prosaically. “I think the manager [Mauricio Pochettino] has helped me to become better as a player. Obviously I’ve improved physically, too. I’ve got bigger, stronger and faster.”

Everyday Hero

Pochettino arrived at Spurs at the start of the 2014-15 season from Southampton, where he had earned a reputation for developing players. His staff designed a “power programme” for Kane, consisting of hamstring, glute and single-leg exercises to improve his acceleration and pace, as well as core work for strength and stability. Kane also consulted a sports scientist on the mechanics of sprinting, looking particularly at his arm movement.

Kane’s physical development can partly be attributed to his age – he is still only 27, a fact that is often obscured by his mature demeanour. Though he is clearly in decent nick, as Men’s Health can confirm, he is no Hulk. Nor is he, to use Fifa parlance, a “pace abuser” who relies on speed to beat defenders. “My finishing is probably my best attribute,” Kane agrees. “But I like to think that my all-round game is what makes me who I am: passing, moving, holding it up.” Deceptively strong, he frequently surprises markers when he receives the ball with his back to the goal by playing a one-touch pass around the corner that is difficult to see, let alone execute.

Kane is a remarkably unselfish striker. “I always do what’s best for the team,” he says. “So if I think there’s an option that’s better than shooting, I’ll do that.” He calls to mind another Spurs No10, who happens to be Kane’s childhood hero: Teddy Sheringham. While not the quickest, he was considered by many to be among the cleverest – Alex Ferguson claimed that the first yard was in his head. Kane was the one to break Sheringham’s club record of 97 Premier League goals.

By comparison with Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, Kane is resolutely unshowy. He doesn’t deal in tricks and flicks – with, perhaps, the exception of the Cruyff turn and strike in March 2016 against the world champions Germany in Berlin, launching a memorable 3-2 comeback from 2-0 down. Kane just scores, and then scores some more.

In terms of personality, he is similarly low key. Chrome-painted Porsches are conspicuously absent from his garage. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves: he is just too normal to be superhuman. And it’s why, even as an Arsenal fan, I find him annoyingly hard to dislike.

Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths - Getty Images
Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths - Getty Images

Field of Vision

The most curious thing about Kane’s success is that he initially seemed to come from nowhere. In the modern game, any teenage prodigy who can do a decent step-over will be on the radar of every self-respecting football manager before he has even started shaving. He will invariably be feted for his “tekkers” in techno-soundtracked YouTube compilations and snapped up by a super-club for an exorbitant sum. It’s probably safe to wager that
few videos of Kane’s unglamorous loan spells at Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester City went viral – after all, this was back when the Foxes were still in the Championship, not yet storming the Premier League.

“He is a complete player,” said, Real Madrid’s former manager and France legend, Zinedine Zidane of Kane. “[At first], he did not seem to be one, but in the end he is.”

Zidane’s words hint at the essential mystery of Kane’s ascendance. He wasn’t one of the best players in the world. He wasn’t even one of the best players on the bench. And then he was. When the Spurs fans chant, “He’s one of our own!” it’s as if they can’t quite believe their luck.

He might be one of their own, but he nearly wasn’t. While playing for David Beckham’s former youth club Ridgeway Rovers at the age of eight, Kane was scouted by Arsenal and he spent a year at the academy of Spurs’ bitter rivals.

In 2015, a picture of Kane wearing an Arsenal shirt and celebrating their 2003-04 title win did the rounds on social media. Coincidentally, the image emerged after Kane had just scored a brace in a 2-1 north London derby win.

Neither big nor quick for his age, Kane was picked up and promptly released by Watford before finally joining the Spurs youth set-up aged 11. He initially played as a holding midfielder, moving further forward as he matured. What he lacked in pace and power, he made up for in vision and intelligence. Even so, his path to first-team football was neither direct nor smooth. He made his professional debut on what was, in effect, a bog at Rochdale while on loan at Orient in League One – a world away from White Hart Lane and the Premiership.

Kane would have been forgiven for thinking he might never make it, especially after being farmed out by his parent club for the fourth time. “I think the one moment [I doubted myself] was when I was on loan at Norwich and at Leicester,” he admits now. “When
I was at Leicester, I wasn’t playing – I was on the bench. In my head at that time was: ‘If I can’t play for Leicester in the Championship, how am I going to play for Tottenham in the Premier League?’

“I think that was my lowest point. But then, it was also kind of my strongest point as well, because that’s the time I had to believe in myself more than ever, work harder than ever, and go on to achieve what I did.”

Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths - Getty Images
Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths - Getty Images

Keeping It Simple

Kane received inspiration from the story of an American football player – the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. “I watched a documentary about him around the time I was struggling, called The Brady 6,” he recalls. “It showed how he made it to where he is now, and how much he believed in himself.”

Brady was picked 199th in the 2000 draft and wasn’t expected to go on to great things, much less become the greatest of all time. His report from the NFL scouting combine was unfavourable: “poor build”, “skinny”, “lacks great physical stature and strength”.

“At that time, I remember watching the film and it was, like, ‘OK, it’s not impossible. There are people who have done it,’” says Kane. “I just needed to do what he’d done: work harder, believe in myself more, and hopefully, one day, become one of the best. It sounds silly, but it was a big moment in my life.” As an NFL fan, Kane supports the Patriots mainly because of Brady, which is also the name he gave to one of his two Labradors. The other, Wilson – after the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson – was named by Kane’s fiancée, Kate Goodland, a fitness instructor he met at school. The pair now have three children together.

Tom Brady is well known for his commitment to fitness, which has enabled him to play at the age of 40 in a sport where the average career length for quarterbacks is four years. While some of his practices border on pseudoscience, if there’s an edge to be gained, Brady’s not sleeping on it. He goes to bed every night at 8.30pm wearing bioceramic-infused Under Armour pyjamas, which reflect back something called “far-infrared energy”. He doesn’t consume alcohol, caffeine, dairy or “nightshades” (tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and aubergines), which he believes cause inflammation. All of this is outlined in his TB12 Nutrition Manual, available from his website for $200.

If Brady’s theories sound far-fetched, Kane isn’t one to criticise. “It’s worth it,” he says. “I’ve got it at home. I haven’t read it all yet, but when you look at his dedication, there are always little percentages [to gain], whether it’s training, diet or recovery. They’re the big differences, because in our football, the margins of error are so small.”

Kane partly credits his improved form and skills of recovery to a personal chef with expertise in sports nutrition, who, among other things, tailored his carb intake for training and games. Kane also refrains from drinking during the season – it just isn’t worth it.

He keeps himself on ice as much as he can. “My schedule is all about recovery,” he tells me. If he’s not soaking, stretching or having a deep-tissue massage, he’ll chill at home, which is an important part of the process. Nothing more strenuous than some golf or walking the dogs? “Right. I think that’s where a lot of footballers maybe get it a bit wrong. They try to do too much, especially at a young age,” says Kane.

When he mentions that Boss Bottled United is “good to have whenever I’m out”, I ask him whether his strict regimen allows him to go out very often. “Not really, no,” he says, with a somewhat rueful smile. “Now and then, with the missus. More for meals.”

It’s a mental image that sits well with the perception of him as a player from a more wholesome, bygone era. With his old-fashioned name and haircut, Kane gives the impression that he would be more at home on a cigarette card next to Stanley Matthews than on a Milan catwalk. “I’m fine with that,” he says. “My style is quite simple, quite plain. It’d be great to be a fashion icon, but I think it comes with being one of the best players. In his prime, that’s how it worked for Beckham.”

Kane is too modest to say so, but with a Hugo Boss campaign under his belt, it’s how it seems to be working out for him, too. And it’s clear that he is playing it down – it’s not lost on the Men’s Health stylist that the footballer has a keen eye for when his suit trousers don’t fit properly, or don’t match the jacket that they come with.

A recurring theme in Brave New World, Mauricio Pochettino’s 2017 book with the Spanish football journalist Guillem Balagué, is that too many footballers lack motivation – at least, of the right kind. “If as a player you lose your passion for the game or your love for being in contact with the ball,” Pochettino writes, “if you use football as a way of achieving other things (money, being in the press, enjoying perks, millions of Twitter followers…), if you like all that more than training or sharing moments with your team-mates, if running or going to the gym bores you, if you don’t fancy taking care about what you eat or the amount you rest or if you don’t keep yourself in good shape, you should revisit your targets.”

There is an exception. “I believe Harry Kane is the best player in the world in terms of mental strength, willpower and endeavour,” writes Pochettino. “He is completely focused on his football. He has a house in Essex but spends the week at another one that he owns closer to the training ground. He’s the first person to arrive and the last to leave.”

Kane regularly sets himself “little targets”, such as the number of goals he wants to score, keeping them to himself while reviewing the results and revising his strategy. Trite as it might sound, his loans out were the making of him – but only because of his self-belief and a competitiveness that goes back to his relationship with his elder brother, Charlie. “As a kid, I hated losing,” says Kane. “I used to cry a lot.”

If Kane misses a chance today, he doesn’t cry; instead, he tells himself that his likelihood of missing another is reduced – a hack he learned from the former Spurs striker Jermain Defoe. It’s questionable as an analysis of probability, yet smart in terms of psychology. Against Liverpool at Anfield in February 2018, Kane missed an 87th-minute penalty, which would have made it 2-1 to Spurs and marked his 100th Premier League goal. When Liverpool’s Mo Salah scored a 91st-minute wonder goal, the camera zoomed in on Kane’s anguished face. Then Spurs were given a 94th-minute penalty. Rather than hide, Kane decisively equalised. At full time, he turned to the camera and said: “You can’t give me two tries.” If the Fifa video games had a stat for “mentality”, he’d have a perfect 99.

“I’ve got to where I am by working hard. But now I have to work even harder to stay here,” says Kane, “because there’s that next person who wants to take my position. That’s my mindset: someone is always trying to be better than me, so I’ve got to make sure I work harder than anyone else.” Right now, it seems inconceivable that he’ll be usurped any time soon. But then, if anyone could believe that another unassuming young journeyman could rise from obscurity to become the leading light of English and European football, it’s Harry Kane.

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