Captain had laboured in the first half but emerged from the peripheries at the vital moment to ensure the Three Lions of a place in the quarter-finals
If you have ever been at the bottom of a pile-on, you’ll know the anxiety.
The darkness. The claustrophobia. The fear of not knowing how long you will be there for. parfois, as the weight of everyone else’s body presses longer against yours, you doubt if you will even come out at all.
But in one corner of Wembley just off the marked pitch, the man at the bottom found only relief. The darkness was welcomed, nothing but love and warmth from the bodies above as the density of mass distorts the eruption of noise raining down from the stands.
Pour terminer, Harry Kane has his goal. The currency of his craft, his raison d’être. Elusive for the first few weeks of this tournament, through awkward, heavy-legged displays. Just five attempts on goal across all three Group D matches. Only one of those on target. A shooter not shooting, as counter-intuitive as a fighter not fighting.
It was here with only his second effort within the frame of the goal that the duck was broken. A tired core contorted, neck strained further as he headed Jack Grealish’s cross past Manuel Neuer in the 86e minute. England two, Germany nil, et, most importantly, a spot in the quarter-finals of what over the last couple of days has become one of the most opening international tournaments in memory.
The celebration was pure ecstasy in that Kane forgot what to do with himself. The usual jump and pulled uppercut were nowhere to be seen. Au lieu, a run and jump, legs and body parallel to the ground, as if trying to physically exorcise a bad spirit from himself by flicking himself like a duvet. He had already taken plenty of punishment from Antonio Rudiger and Mats Hummels before crashing to the more forgiving Wembley turf.
In both ways, this was what we have come to expect from Kane. Long term, it’s been goals, this being his 35trh for England. But the short term of positional discomfort and just plain lethargy were evident, trop. And the relief contained within his bedlam was 40,000-fold in the stands, spiked with copious amounts of goodwill from them and the bodies on top of him.
There was a moment at the end of the first half that spoke of both the Kane England fans know and the Kane we were all reluctantly getting used to.
Dans le 42nd minute, he received the ball about 35 yards out, turning to run at the German defence for the first time. Maybe turning to run at any defence for the first time over the last few weeks.
You could sense the fear in the opposition backline as he held off two defenders, directly a rise of concern proportional to the encouraging roar as England fans recognised a moment Tottenham fans have been well accustomed to. But Matthias Ginter knew it too, well enough to opt for the foul rather than legal means of stopping Kane.
It was still there. That drive, that desire to go searching for the thing that brings him joy. But only briefly – like a flutter of the heart or turn of the stomach of love or anxiety for someone or something. Not much, but enough to know the residues of emotion are still there, even if faint.
The applause at the referee’s whistle gave an indication of where we are at with the England captain. Some will have cheered the free-kick in a promising position. But more used it as a mean to encourage. The forced kind you might reserve for an ageing rockstar who can’t quite access that old juice anymore, even when everything else looks and feels the same. But heck, once those opening chords to Satisfaction hit, you’d be a fool not to pop.
But Harry Kane is only 27 years into a life spent largely on the straight and narrow, off the back of a 2020/21 season with 35 goals for club and country, along with a career-best 14 Premier League assists
The vices non-existent, the spirit and mind still willing. Football has been his only excess, which may be the problem. Very few have racked up more minutes than him, and even fewer will have approached each one with the same kind of vigour. Kane might rank as one of football’s worst coasters.
Who knows whether he’s injured or just knackered. But either is a problem, as revealed themselves in patches that did not just pertain to his productivity in front of goal. Timo Werner’s one-on-one chance in the first-half came through Kane’s inability to match Mats Hummel’s leap for a header he needed to win. His hold-up play generally has been poor. His distribution, while still sound, lacks the cutting edge of the recent league campaign.
The opening period ended with the striker snatching at a ball that broke in his path, chasing it for a second touch in the six-yard box. That was one of his nine touches in the opening 45 minutes, and his first in the box.
At times, the game was happening around him. Once in a while, he acted as a bounce-board for Raheem Sterling or Bukayo Saka’s bursts in-field. Yet he was mostly on the periphery of it all. An observer in parts of the field where he is usually the headline act. Adjacent to play when he used to be the play itself.
As with all pile-ons, the end comes with a return to the light. As the players peel themselves away one by one, Kane was revealed at the bottom to receive a pure, undiluted dose of acclaim.
Kane got to his feet, free from the weight of his teammates, the scrutiny of his lack of goals and the burden of responsibility, if only for a few days.
England have their knockout win over Germany and a quarter-final to look forward to. Peut-être, they also have their Kane back.