As England’s players wander out at the Estadi Nacional on Saturday night, frown down at the plastic and rubber-crumb pitch, and steel themselves for 90 minutes of heavily weighted professional sport, there will be an urge to take out the low-key international week bingo card.
We know how these occasions play out. Echoey, somnolent national anthems. An early reference from the TV commentator to the opposition centre-forward’s day job as an abattoir superintendent. Gareth Southgate frowning on his touchline, just about lending a due sense of gravity to a competitive engagement with the 156th-ranked team in the world (Andorra are three spots below Afghanistan). And overall one of those strange collisions of attack versus mob-handed defence, when it feels like the whole occasion is being sucked, grudgingly, down the plughole behind one of the goals.
It would be incorrect to suggest the Road to Qatar has been entirely without bumps. England went into their last game against Poland on the back of five straight wins with one goal conceded. In the event a fraught 1-1 draw in Warsaw was a reminder of the jeopardy, the basic fun of qualification before tournament expansion drained away much of the dramatic tension.
England’s Group I campaign will conclude with a supremely nihilistic final fixture away to San Marino, a team that have lost 48 of their past 50 games, the exception being 0-0 draws with Gibraltar and Liechtenstein. And yet such is the varied palette of international football there are still notes of tension here, even if these tend to revolve around details, selection politics and personal landmarks.
Right now the chief note of human interest revolves around the captain. In need of a little light relief? Thank the footballing gods for Harry Kane and his undeniably energetic pursuit of the England goal record. At times during these minnow-chasings there has been something endearingly comic about the urgency with which Kane will hurl himself into the fray in the final quarter. He is unlikely to start against Andorra, but he will get his chance at some point. He remains a predator and a numbers man, intensely focused on that record. So where are we with this?
Kane has 41 England goals. A dry patch has been followed by a mini-run of nine in 14. He needs 11 more to equal Wayne Rooney’s all-time mark. Kane is level with Michael Owen but got there in 25 fewer games while also doing more for the team: captaining, creating, playing late-stage tournament games.
Overall Kane has a goal every 123 minutes for England, bettered only by the late Jimmy Greaves among those above him on the top-scorers list. A quarter of his goals have come in tournament football, four in knockout games. And while there is also a lot of churn in there, a lot of treadmill-goals, this is always the case (check out Bobby Charlton’s 15 goals against Luxembourg, the USA and Northern Ireland). Overall it is a brilliant record, a six-year purple patch that puts him right up there, like it or not – and people are strangely hard on Kane – as one of England’s greatest post-war attackers.
And now on to that ultimate destination, the reeling in of the great white Wayne. Starting, as it happens, with Andorra, Hungary and Albania at home and then San Marino away in the next month.
There are two clouds in all this. Firstly, Kane is not the player he once was. His mobility has clearly been diminished. In his early peak he was a whirl of pressing and constant attacking runs. Some will point to those repeated ankle sprains. But whatever the reason, he just can’t move like that any more.
At times it can be painful to watch – L’Équipe labelled him “Le Fantome Kane” during the Euros group stages – with a sense of another England centre-forward setting off down the same path as Rooney, Owen and Alan Shearer before him, a starburst of brilliance followed by steady physical decline. The difference with Kane is that he has found another way to play.
This is the key component of his habit of dropping deep that many pundits seem to miss. There is a reason why Kane isn’t “lurking on the last man”. He knows he won’t be as effective there. But he has had the tactical smarts to invent another role, to find space by going the other way, without diminishing his goal return. It is a seriously underrated feat, a rare case of tactical progression in an English footballer in the “mature” stage of their career. Kane deserves credit for finding a way.
Not least when the second point is that there is still no great competition with England, and no obvious successor in that dwindling specialist role of centre-forward. The next top scorer in the current squad is Raheem Sterling with 18 in 70 games. Southgate is a big fan of Ollie Watkins’s high-energy pressing game. Tammy Abraham is a reliable finisher. Marcus Rashford has 12 goals aged 23, but plays better in wide areas and lacks the dead-eye quality to become the next link in that unbroken chain, the Lineker-Shearer-Owen-Rooney-Kane dynamic.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin has the basic goods, but it seems likely Kane will stand in front of him for a few years to come. Mason Greenwood is clearly a rare talent, but the relationship with Southgate and England is yet to settle. Aged 20, he has one cap. And so here we are, still firmly tied to the Kane Supremacy.
Andorra has been dismissed a little lightly as a glorified ski resort. Unfairly so: it’s also a tax haven and a hill-walking hub. But even room-temperature dates such as these carry their own significance. Any real hopes of success at the Qatar World Cup, which is just over a year away now, will rest on the general state of happiness of England’s dogged, adaptable, record-chasing captain.