Harry Kane has eclipsed Wayne Rooney to become England’s all-time top goal scorer but he is still battling to avoid the same fate as his predecessor.
Rooney was among the first to congratulate the 29-year-old striker after his record-breaking 54th goal in Thursday’s 2-1 win over Italy, a moment which has been inevitable for some time given Kane’s potency yet no less historic when it finally arrived.
The chase further intertwined two players whose connection dates back to March 2015, when Kane replaced Rooney for his debut in a European Championship qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley. Rooney had already scored; Kane took 79 seconds to hit the net himself. Later that year, Rooney beat Sir Bobby Charlton’s 45-year record (49 goals) and was presented with a golden boot by Charlton. Afterwards, he gave a speech in the dressing room.
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“I said that I hoped the young players in the squad would come close to the record themselves and even be able to surpass me.” Rooney told The Times on Friday. “Harry had scored only three England goals at that point, but I said those words because I knew he could do it. Even then, with only four caps under his belt, I knew he could become England’s greatest scorer if he kept going the way he was and I wanted to give him encouragement.”
Rooney has been on hand ever since to offer Kane guidance and advice, but his England career also serves as a warning. He scored his record-setting 53rd and final international goal in England’s humiliating Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland — the chasm between individual and collective achievement never wider in the striker’s lifetime.
Rooney scored just once in three World Cups, never able to produce his devastating best on the biggest stage and forever living in the shadow of his teenage self who burst onto the scene at Euro 2004 with such force before his metatarsal injury and a penalty shootout ended England’s hopes in the quarterfinals against Portugal.
His regret over never winning anything with his country is replicated by many of the so-called “Golden Generation” of which he is a part. Kane will recognise that pain, too, especially having also been on the pitch when England lost to Iceland seven years ago. He already holds the record for most England goals at a tournament finals (12) but what drives him now is silverware.
At least Rooney had an illustrious club career at Manchester United to console him, ending his career with five Premier League titles, three League Cups and one FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League and FIFA Club World Cup. As well as the all-time scoring record for United (253 goals in 559 games). Kane is now the all-time top goal scorer for Tottenham (recently surpassing Jimmy Greaves with 267 goals in 416 games) and England, but while he is a World Cup Golden Boot winner he does not possess a solitary team trophy to show for it.
England’s palpable progress under Gareth Southgate — reaching the 2018 World Cup semifinals and Euro 2020 final — has created a sense that they have never been closer to ending a 57-year wait for a major honour, even accounting for the fine margins of tournament football. But they have to take those last steps to realise that potential at Euro 2024.
That task is obviously not solely within Kane’s grasp so, for now, all he can do is keep leading by example. He would, of course, have preferred to break Rooney’s record by converting that now-infamous second penalty in England’s 2022 World Cup quarterfinal defeat to France but there was at least some poetic justice in achieving the milestone from another spot-kick in Naples on Thursday.
Nobody can seriously question his mentality these days but Kane’s determination to set the tone at the start of Euro 2024 qualification led to a superb all-round display against Italy and a fillip for Southgate as he looks to rally the troops for his fourth tournament cycle. Beating their Euro-2020 conquerors Italy away from home for the first time since 1961 is another step towards England breaking down the long-standing inferiority complex that has inhibited them against top opposition.
Kane is a complete centre-forward and with 19-year-old Jude Bellingham making exciting strides to inject much-needed dynamism in central midfield, England are edging towards becoming a complete team. Issues remain, however. Centre-back continues to look an area of weakness and the second-half wobble against Italy was a reminder that a problem of surrendering the initiative still exists. But qualification already looks an easier proposition now the toughest Group C fixture is won and there is time to fine tune their approach.
Sunday’s visit of Ukraine, before which Kane will be presented with a memento marking his goal-scoring achievement, represents a good chance to establish a dominant position. England are a young side but Kane turns 30 this year. A model professional in elite physical condition, his career will surely endure at the highest level for years to come but Kane’s time is now; Euro 2024 and the 2026 World Cup are clear targets.
Kane played in a brilliant Tottenham side for five years under Mauricio Pochettino and won nothing. It would rankle forever if the same fate awaited him for England. Just ask Rooney.