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Does Kane’s role as captain place too much pressure on England’s star man?

27 June 2018


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Harry Kane has been English football’s greatest success story of recent times. There was a spell where the Tottenham youngster was trapped in a kind of footballing limbo, being thrust from club to club in a series of uninspiring loan moves. Apart from a smattering of Europa League appearances, Kane had rarely threatened Spurs’ starting eleven, and it seemed as though he would join the long list of young players whose potential is never fully realised, whose dreams drift away through the breeze like a stray free-kick.

But Kane’s explosion into the player we see today is unprecedented; as if one day he woke up and decided he was going to be a world class striker. He seemed to grow in size and stature overnight, starting off by firing in goals in the Europa League, before setting his sights on the English top flight. Chelsea and Arsenal crumbled at his newfound power and prowess in the 2014/15 season, and any suggestions that Kane was a one-season wonder were quelled as the Englishman won two successive golden boots in the following two campaigns.

This meteoric rise has now culminated in arguably the greatest honour with which an English footballer can be bestowed, to captain his country at a World Cup. With World Cup 2018 odds suggesting that England pose little threat to the main favourites in Russia, Kane’s role as captain entails a number of challenges in terms of motivating his peers, leading by example, and of course scoring goals as England’s star striker. The question lies in whether or not this added pressure of the captain’s armband could stifle Kane’s natural talents in pure footballing terms.

This World Cup is perhaps the first in a long time where there was no obvious choice for the England captaincy. In tournaments gone by, the likes of Rooney, Gerrard and Beckham were always natural selections, with a number of deputies who could ably assist. This year however, Gareth Southgate was left with a decision to make. Most of the so-called golden generation have either retired or called a day on their international careers. Wayne Rooney captained the side at Euro 2016, but he, the last embodiment of England’s shattered dreams and expectations over the last 10-15 years, has since stepped down from the international setup, paving the way for a new leader to step up.

Kane has emerged as England’s new talisman and so, in one sense, appointing him captain makes sense, to have the team’s star player at the forefront, the leading face on every poster. On the other hand, there is a unique set of pressures involved in captaining a national side, and to pin these on the player on which the team is most dependent is a massive gamble.

This is why many touted Jordan Henderson as the ideal candidate for the captaincy. As well as already being the skipper at Liverpool, and having led his club to a Champions League final last season, Henderson’s tactical role within the England team is under much less scrutiny than that of Kane. Expected to play as a lone striker, Kane’s chief responsibility has to be to score goals, and so it could be argued that he should focus on that task alone, and that awarding him the captaincy is placing an extra millstone around his neck to add to the already weighty burden of expectation. Wayne Rooney famously found it difficult to recreate his goal scoring form at World Cup finals, and that was without the captain’s armband, so how much more difficult will it be for Kane?

By contrast, Henderson’s role within the team is to merely pass and hold in the midfield areas, to keep the team ticking over as it were. His understated playing style is reflective of Southgate’s whole approach, and so he seemed a natural selection. Also, while Rooney, Gerrard and Beckham were all natural selections in the past, it could be argued that none of them produced their best form for England when they were captain. A large part of the job is to unite a group of players for whom most of the time is spent competing against one another in the Premier League — an unenviable task. Is Kane the right man to do this, a player whose sheer competitive nature saw him lobby to be awarded a goal instead of his teammate Christian Eriksen last season?

With the English media ever circulating like a school of sharks frenzied by the chum of prospective failure at another major tournament, the captain can often be made the scapegoat. If England are to suffer yet more humiliation in Russia, the aftermath could be damaging to Kane as the player upon whose shoulders so much responsibility lies as England’s chief goal scorer. This is where someone of the ilk of Henderson or even Eric Dier might have been a superior choice, players for whom criticism seems to roll off their backs. It must be remembered that this is Kane’s first World Cup, and only his second major tournament in total, and so the potential for embarrassment and reproach is huge considering these are still the nascent years of Kane’s career.

Then again, some players feed off such pressure. Kane’s fierce determination is undoubtedly what led Southgate to name his as skipper, and of course the England manager knows his players better than the rest of us. Southgate’s gamble has so far paid off, with Kane topping the scoring charts with five goals, one more than both Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku. Against Belgium, Kane has the opportunity to prove that he can do it against the top teams, as Panama and Tunisia didn’t present the type of challenge which proves a top talent.

While the pressure on Kane is huge at these World Cup finals, the potential spoils are the adulation of an entire nation, and with tips on the world cup 2018 placing England as dark horses at best, perhaps Kane possesses the impetus needed to lead this latest charge for glory.

Author: Simon Cromie