From a sweaty, buggy night in Volgograd emerged a real indication of just how suited to the England captaincy Harry Kane is. In other countries, the native belief in the primacy of the armband is seen as an anachronism, but in Britain it retains its worth. A captain is still a leader, and still carries the privilege of setting an example.
Kane did just that. His first goal on Monday night gave his team the World Cup start they were chasing and his second, in the game’s twilight, stole the points from an obdurate opponent and dissolved the nagging sense of injustice which had been growing by the minute.
He is a centre-forward and his currency is goals. In a sense, then, his performance in Volgograd can be discussed within the constrains of his job description, but in this context – with England, with all that emotional baggage from their past – it seemed to amount to more.
It’s worth dwelling on just what England are at the moment. They are likeable and refreshing, also not without talent, but they remain right at the beginning of their growth stage. They are vulnerable and inexperienced and, at this tournament at least, desperate for whatever reassurance they can find.
In essence, that’s true of any teams. All the successful sides of that past have had the luxury of knowing that certain players or departments will always provide performances of a particular standard. Many years after his retirment, Brian Clough would often describe Peter Shilton as the best signing he ever made at Nottingham Forest; he reasoned that if a centre-forward ever got beyond Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd (two “hard bastards” by his own description), the chances of him finding a way beyond “the big gorilla” were remote. Shilton’s literal worth during his prime was clearly enormous, he was absurdly reliable, but Clough was really referring to the effect that such security had on the players further forward.
Shilton would always, always do his job. In football, as in civilian working life, that brings reassurance.
The Kane principle is much the same. He will hammer home that loose ball, steer in that critical header; perhaps the knowledge that he will even alleviates the fear of making a bad mistake or suffering a refereeing injustice. On Monday night then, he set a very powerful precedent. Obviously he had two chances and he scored two goals, but he also created the perception that he is big enough for the most important moments. His second goal was not easy. Harry Maguire did fantastically well to overpower his markers and Kane was alone by the time the ball reached him, but he was still left with an awkward header. There was little pace on the ball and the players on the line actually had to be beaten by direction. He needed to generate the power and the precision.
In those seconds, the game was won and lost – and Kane’s shoulders were broad enough.
Imagine the power of that moment. This morning, England’s players will have re-watched the game and analysed their performance. They will also have reflected on their winning goal and recognised within it that they have a captain who, without shouting or screaming, always provides a theoretical route back into a game. Or even a chance to win it. His is a back they can climb onto.
In a more seasoned side, that would be little more than the assumed luxury which comes with fielding an elite centre-forward. For England, who have so often tried to lean on the illusory worth of Premier League reputations and celebrity, it is invaluable. Kane is real. Kane has substance. Here is a captain who is more than just shouted platitudes and hand-claps in the tunnel.
For a long time, England have been little more than bluster on the international stage. They have been talkers rather than doers, and the kind of team shown to be little more the hot air within days of a tournament beginning. Kane’s opening night in Russia 2018 has challenged that past in a forceful way and, when a captain’s armband is teathered around that new reality, it becomes very significant indeed.