Friday 20 July 2018

Jonathan Liew: Kane continues to write his own history as England skipper defuses the bomb just in time

England's forward Harry Kane celebrates his second against Tunisia Photo: AFP/Getty
England's forward Harry Kane celebrates his second against Tunisia Photo: AFP/Getty

Jonathan Liew

On Sunday, during England's final press conference ahead of the Tunisia game, Harry Kane and Gareth Southgate (right, below) were asked about the significance of playing in Volgograd, the city formerly known as Stalingrad, and the site of such trauma and devastation during World War II. Southgate gave a neat, unspectacular answer about it putting things in perspective. Kane, by contrast, could scarcely be less interested in the question. "History," he replied, "is what it is."

Kane got a mild coating on social media for his lack of engagement, but actually here he deserved a little credit.

Gareth Southgate, Manager of England Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Gareth Southgate, Manager of England Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Often we contort ourselves into all sorts of undignified postures trying to chain football to the real world - the relevant and the irrelevant, and you can decide for yourself which is which. But Kane wasn't going to do that. The siege had long since been lifted. The battle had been won and lost. The dead were dead, the rubble was rubble, and nothing Harry Kane of Walthamstow could say in a windowless press conference room in 2018 was going to change that.

History, though, has a funny way of creeping up on you, and especially at a World Cup.

England were at least able to beat a more dignified retreat out of town than the Germans were in 1942 (see how blisteringly, irresponsibly easy it is?).

And even as they returned to St Petersburg late last night under cover of darkness, three points in the bag, history's background music was being deployed with abandon.

Harry Kane is mobbed by his England team-mates – (from top) Jesse Lingard, Jordan
Henderson and John Stones – after heading home a late winner in his team’s World
Cup Group G opener against Tunisia last night Photo: Reuters
Harry Kane is mobbed by his England team-mates – (from top) Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson and John Stones – after heading home a late winner in his team’s World Cup Group G opener against Tunisia last night Photo: Reuters

It's the first time England have won their opening game of a tournament since 2006. The first brace since Gary Lineker against Cameroon. And - most importantly - the first time in many years that England have come to a major tournament, glimpsed the script written for them, read it all the way to the end, and then ripped it up.

There's an unwritten rule in screenwriting that if, at any point of the film, you show a bomb on screen, then at some point it has to go off. It may not go off exactly as intended - in fact, it hardly ever does. But the theory goes that as soon as the audience sees the bomb, it is already imagining and anticipating the subsequent explosion. Denying it to them thus violates their expectations, leaving them feeling incomplete, irritated, unsated.

Those three words would have been a pretty good summation of the mood of most England fans at 90 minutes during this game, and probably a lot earlier than that.

For followers of England, after all, tournament disappointment is like an unexploded movie bomb: the moment you glimpse it, it's there, lodged in the back of your mind, too painful to grasp, too alluring to cast aside.

Long before Ferjani Sassi had equalised for Tunisia, cancelling out Kane's early goal, the sensory cues of another England tournament calamity were beginning to mass.

Trained England followers can now pick up on these tics like a genius physician. The slightly panicky way in which Kyle Walker tried to pass his way out of defence on the half-hour. The missed chances - so, so many missed chances. And as Walker wrapped his tricep around the cheeks of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef - the sort of pre-emptive challenge that defenders at all levels make and get away with - and as Sassi's penalty hit the net, you could feel the cloud descending.

As the penalty was put away, the first player to touch it was not Jordan Pickford, but Jordan Henderson, sprinting into the back of the net to retrieve it. It was the first sign. The next was minutes later, during England's next attack, when Raheem Sterling looked up to discover that the guy making the turbo-boosted run into the left channel ahead of him was not Jesse Lingard or Dele Alli, but Walker, trying to expiate himself.

England emerged for the second half with their composure more or less intact, still passing it around, still trying things, still believing, even as a million snarky tweets and sardonic memes were pinging across the internet.

And so, in the 91st minute, as Kieran Trippier swung in a corner from the right, it could easily have been too weak or too strong. A Tunisian defender could easily have knocked it away. Harry Maguire's header could easily have sailed harmlessly over the bar. Kane could have been grappled to the ground, just as he had been all night. Nothing could easily have happened. History, in many ways, would have dictated it.

Instead, Kane put the pin back in the bomb, and before he was pinned to the turf by Ashley Young, and then by eight of his team-mates, before Southgate offered up his own exultant prayer of salvation on the touchline, England felt something even more transcendent than relief. They felt purgation. They had defused the bomb in the nick of time. They had kept the show on the road. They had shown that maybe - just maybe - this England team will be different from all the others.

You'd be mad to ignore the warning signs, of course. You worry where the goals are going to come from. You worry about what happens if Kane twists an ankle or gets marked out of the game.

You worry if England's concussive, physical Premier League-style tackling will get them into trouble. You worry if England have expended the emotional energy they were intending to husband for a whole month in a single rollocking night.

But they're on the board. They're in the game, and they're off to Nizhny Novogorod on Sunday, and for now all is well. The history? Well, as Kane might say: it is what it is. (© Independent News Service)

Independent News Service

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