October 2013 and Gareth Southgate’s England Under 21s beat Lithuania 5-0. Saido Berahino is the team’s main striker and scores twice while Nick Powell, now at Wigan, comes off the bench. Harry Kane, 20 and still awaiting his first Premier League goal for Spurs, is an unused substitute.
Roll forward four years and Kane is England’s stand-out talisman and favourite to score the goal against Slovenia on Thursday that would book his country’s place at next summer’s World Cup.
The 24-year-old striker has been the Premier League’s top scorer for the past two seasons while his record of six hat-tricks in 2017 is in the Messi and Ronaldo realm of statistics. This season he has scored 11 goals in nine games for his club.
Gareth Southgate has praised the Tottenham coaching staff for bringing out Harry Kane’s best
Under Mauricio Pochettino (centre) and Jesus Perez (left), Kane has become a leading striker
Southgate will rely on Kane to bag the goals needed to fire England to the 2018 World Cup
Southgate, his international manager then and now, is uniquely qualified to assess Kane’s remarkable progress. He acknowledges England owe a huge debt to an Argentine and a Spaniard, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino and his assistant Jesus Perez, a physical conditioning specialist.
‘You could see from the start that Harry was deadly,’ recalled Southgate. ‘The quality of finishing in training took me back to watching Alan Shearer and Robbie Fowler. It was a case of, “OK, can he transfer that into the matches?”
‘The biggest change has been physical. Since Mauricio has been at Spurs, their conditioning work has improved the team and Harry has benefited from that as much as anyone.
‘He looks strong, lean, a little bit quicker and sharper. When you know you’re in good physical condition, it has an effect on your mentality. You are in a better place.’
Southgate and Kane have a close relationship having worked together for the Under 21s
It’s not just Kane. Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker have also worked under the Pochettino-Perez axis at Spurs.
‘I know Jesus is in charge of that area of their training. We noticed a difference that allowed his players to play the pressing game. That club training had a definite impact on all the Spurs players,’ says Southgate.
With Kane’s new status comes pressure. He went into Euro 2016 with the Golden Boot but failed to score in four matches. Beating Slovenia will guarantee England a place in Russia and Southgate hopes this time Kane will benefit from the arrival of Fernando Llorente at Spurs. Pochettino has already been able to take Kane off in five of Tottenham’s past six matches.
‘Kane looked tired last summer. I think signing Llorente might help that,’ said Southgate. ‘Those latter stages of games are the ones that have a real physical impact. I’m not a huge believer in burn-out if you do things right.
Kane’s double against Huddersfield on Saturday means he has 11 goals in his last six games
‘There needs to be some mental switch-off at the end of the season but the danger there is that you tail off too much and then can’t get back.
‘It requires all the players to be looking after themselves right. Somebody like Harry will do that. He does whatever it takes to give himself the best chance, he’s meticulous about his diet, meticulous about the way he recovers from games.’
England also face Lithuania away next Sunday. After that, barring two disastrous results, Southgate should be able to focus entirely on next summer.
A year into the job, his main concerns will be familiar to all England managers. The first is the injury list, with Adam Lallana, Danny Welbeck, Danny Rose and Nathaniel Clyne among a dozen out now.
Also, many of those selected aren’t guaranteed starters for their clubs, including big hitters Raheem Sterling, Gary Cahill and Marcus Rashford.
Southgate is without Dele Alli for the qualifier against Slovenia due to his middle finger gesture
Another potential problem is over-reliance on Kane for goals. Dele Alli’s record of two in 21 games isn’t good enough for someone of his ability but Southgate insists: ‘I’m not concerned about it. He smells the right areas to move into and if you’re doing that and you’re in the right positions the goals will follow.’
England are set to reach the World Cup at a canter as usual. Improving on tournament form — they failed to get out of the group stages in 2014 and were knocked out by Iceland at Euro 2016 — is another matter.
‘We’re a long way from where we want to be,’ said Southgate. ‘We see loads of opportunities to improve individuals and the team, but we’re short of time.’
At least he’s got Kane in his pomp. Once behind Berahino in the pecking order, he has now eclipsed the likes of Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku. England are lucky to have him. Thank Jesus.