One of the striking things about Harry Kane’s missed penalty against France at last year’s World Cup is that he nailed the one he took earlier in the game. England’s captain stayed calm during a brief delay and a fascinating quarter-final was level at 1-1 after he blasted a nerveless spot-kick past Hugo Lloris.
It felt so straightforward as Lloris dived to his left and the ball flew to his right. Kane did what he does best and it seemed inevitable he would do so again when England, trailing 2-1 after Olivier Giroud headed France back ahead, were awarded another penalty with six minutes left at the Al Bayt Stadium.
This time, though, there was a glitch in the system. Kane’s second penalty of the night flew over, England went out and the inquest began. Had Kane overthought it because he was teammates with Lloris at Tottenham? Had the pressure of needing one more goal to become England’s record scorer fried his composure?
It is speculative and the man himself has tried not to think too much about the worst moment of his career. “You are never going to go through a career with a perfect game every game,” Kane says. “There are always going to be things that test your character and mentality, but I love this game and I want to play for as long as possible.
“I’ve never let anything like that knock me. When you have disappointing moments it just makes me ready for another challenge. After the World Cup it has felt like a time to show even more that I can improve and get better – and I think my form since then has shown that.”
There has been no mental hangover from the World Cup. Kane continued to perform for club and country last season, belatedly breaking England’s goalscoring record when he converted a penalty against Italy in March, and has had an instant impact since leaving Spurs for Bayern Munich.
Yet it is interesting that Gareth Southgate, England’s manager, thinks that it would help Kane if he finally lifts some silverware this season. Viewed through a harsh lens, there is an argument that Kane lacks a signature moment in the truly big games. He has still not won a trophy and has tasted defeat in major finals with England and Spurs.
In that context there is a temptation for the amateur psychologist to wonder if the penalty against France would have played out differently if, say, Kane had moved to Manchester City in 2021. Would winning trophies for Pep Guardiola have made him more of a killer?
For his part, Kane does not intend to dwell on the penalty. “I have a routine,” he says, speaking at St George’s Park during this past week. “The same steps, the same breathing, the same mindset. Before every game I choose where I’m going to go, what I’ll do if we get two penalties. I had it all clear in my head, but sometimes you just don’t execute. It’s not like I underprepared, which maybe would have been the worst feeling.”
Still the 30-year-old accepts that moving to Bayern could put him in a better place at next summer’s European Championship. “There’s a lot of talk about trophies but that wasn’t the only reason I went to Bayern Munich,” he says. “I needed to be playing at the highest level if I ultimately wanted to improve.
“If I want to be around the best strikers and best players in the world then I need to be playing in the Champions League and fighting for titles. Last season went well for me personally, but not for Spurs as a team. It was time to take another step.”
The next step for England is clear: win Euro 2024. England, who faced Ukraine in Poland on Saturday night, are in a strong position in their qualifying group. The vibes are positive and Southgate has a chance to experiment when his side meet Scotland in a friendly on Tuesday.
The trip to Hampden Park will bring back good memories for Kane. His first game as England captain came when he scored a last-minute equaliser in a World Cup qualifier away to Scotland in June 2017. “As captain, losing to Scotland in your first game is not something you want on your résumé,” Kane says. “Even though we drew it felt a bit like a win.”
It was also evidence of Kane’s ability to lead by example. While he is not the type to rant and rave, there is a precedent to strikers wearing the armband at international level. When Glenn Hoddle became England manager in 1996 the reason he made Alan Shearer captain was because of the former Newcastle striker’s reputation as one of the best players in the world.
Equally Southgate saw something in Kane’s personality when England conducted a bonding exercise with the Royal Marines a week before the Scotland game. “I remember that trip,” Kane says. “I think Gareth did use that to see who stood out in terms of leadership. Leadership comes in many ways. It isn’t just the guy in the front shooting the paintball.
“Maybe the way I got on with the Marines and the way I handled certain situations [helped]. I know that Gareth asked some of the Marines afterwards who they thought were natural leaders, who were approachable and who other players were leaning towards to talk to. That might have helped in me becoming captain.”
It was a good decision from Southgate. Kane has repaid him with goals but has also played a key role in improving the squad’s culture and unity away from the pitch. He has been a strong leader, a standard bearer, and has responded to adversity throughout his career.
Kane has silenced those who doubted him when he was a youngster, battled through the difficult loans and repeatedly come back stronger from injury. The next challenge, keeping in mind what happened against France, is for Kane to develop a more ruthless edge before the Euros. A year at Bayern could make the difference.