An international break means headaches for football writers left with space to fill and low key fare on offer. But they also provide a useful purpose in getting coverage for topics that rarely feature within the hustle and bustle of league competition.
But with time to pause, the game and its fourth estate gain space to reflect and correct. And so it is with the clamour to lay claim on the career of England’s Harry Kane this week.
In a BBC feature entitled Harry Kane and the making of a Premier League football star, it is reported that Richard Allen, former head of academy recruitment at White Hart Lane, has used his platform as a speaker at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in London to make an impassioned plea for a return to scouting common sense. That he did so in a room in thrall to the promises of big data and analytics in football recruitment and match analysis is extremely significant.
I have written on this need to get get back to basics at length in Issue 6 of the Scottish Football Periodical Nutmeg (The stats don’t work), and it is a topic with specific resonance for the rise to prominence of the £172m rated England captain.
“One of the coaches said to me bluntly ‘who is that fat kid?’,” Allen recalled of Kane’s first days at Spurs as a youngster.
“Harry was 11 at the time, and the truth is he would not have got in the building if we were using physical testing as a determinant.”
Richard Allen, joined The FA in November 2014 as Talent ID Manager before moving up to take a position as Head of Talent ID in February 2015. Prior to joining the organisation Richard Allen spent two years as Head of Academy at QPR and eight years as Head of Academy Recruitment at Tottenham Hotspur. He has recently been appointed Head of Football at Loughborough University.
Thankfully, Richard Allen says that when his coaches were assessing Kane’s strengths, and weaknesses as a guide to potential, they were ‘not particularly scientific or numbers driven’.
He said:”Firstly, his ball striking was good, he always scored goals. He could hit the ball cleanly and he could score, so he was good technically.
“Another thing was, his father was big, so although Harry was fairly little when he was young, maybe he would grow up to be big like his dad.
“He was also really committed, he worked hard and was a good learner – he would pick up new things early and had a thirst for knowledge.”
Alongside applying the mitigating evidence of his father’s physique, Kane also benefited from the fact that those same coaches at Spurs also factored in the impact of the relative age effect – a fact of life that is a constant within children’s and youth football at all levels.
The professional game is dominated by players born between September and December. They tend to shine brightest at an early stage and they get chosen for teams because they are more physically precocious than those born in the first half of the calendar year. Harry Kane was born in July, which meant the coaches gave him a bit more leeway, according to Allen.
Scotland’s Head of Coaching and U19 boss Donald Park is an expert in this regard. He says that the developing player’s performances are still affected by age-old variations in the fundamentals of biology, but that football experience brings a greater understanding of what is, and isn’t, significant to the process.
“Chronological age (date of birth), physiological types, body mass, sexual maturation and muscle mass, and so-called change periods or growth spurts, still have a profound impact on how, why, where and when a player develops. These factors when combined produce peer group influences and they effect selection within youth squads and within youth initiatives.”
Park says: “For example, two fifteen year old boys may be at completely different sexual maturation stages. One will probably be shaving while the other could be potentially as much as four years behind in development. And that represents a challenge. What are our expectations of these two young players?”
He says: “A young player’s technical ability and understanding may not be supported or matched by their physical stage of development and our expectations of developing players should accept that varied success is likely. The reality is that adulthood is often required for sustained, consistent performances to be achieved.”
And that means that without the appliance of the scouts’ collective career wisdom good players inevitably get lost to the game. This is the fall-out of the rush to produce ‘measurable’ athletes rather than nurture all-too-human talents.
Nonetheless, I think there is a real Stalinist rewrite of history going on with Harry Kane. And specifically so among those people now scrabbling over the bodies to lay claim to being responsible for his subsequent success.
It was ever thus, of course.
Aged 16, Harry Kane was on his way out at Tottenham according to both Richard Allen and former manager Tim Sherwood.
When Kane’s loan deal at Leicester ended at the close of the 2012-2013 season, Allen says Spurs were considering cashing in on the teenager. Spurs were looking to make Kane’s next loan arrangement a “loan leading to a sale” in a move typical of a club that had been selling their youth academy players short for years in terms of opportunities.
And in normal circumstances the striker’s career would probably have played out very differently. But there are two key factors in the case of Kane’s deviation from the norm at Spurs – one is luck and the other is timing. And these are two factors that no-one, whether with a notepad or MacBook can ever socially engineer.
Kane made his first Premier league start for Tottenham, in a 5–1 win against Sunderland on 7 April 2014 and he scored his first Premier League goal in the 59th minute. He followed up in the following game as Tottenham recovered from a 3–0 deficit against West Brom, before eventually drawing 3–3. He scored for the third consecutive match on 19 April, helping Spurs to a 3–1 derby win at home to Fulham.
But what’s largely misremembered now is that where Kane seized his chance, necessity played a greater role than sentiment or conviction. There was little option but to play him due to the travails or Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado.
And had he not started like a train, when given a run as a Premiership starter, then in Tim Sherwood’s words Tottenham would have reverted to type and signed a player whose name ended in an ‘i’ or an ‘o’ in the next January transfer window. It was always the same at this most impatient of clubs until they reinvented themselves as a football factory producing a conveyor belt of first-team ready talents. But this is football’s equivalent of a rebranding exercise: as shallow as it is cynical.
These days Tottenham fans happily sing about ‘one of their own’ now, but these are the same fans who criticised Kane’s awkward touch and lack of pace when Harry Redknapp first played him in the Europa League, lampooned him on Twitter or openly sniggered when the ugly duckling forward was raised from the bench – often in an act of desperation.
The managers who loaned him were underwhelmed and didn’t play him. Even as a first team starter in league games, Sherwood says, that the Chingford-born player remained a target for boo boys who prefer their stars to be franked by another club’s endorsement, an exotic name and a hefty transfer fee.
“This is how strong the kid is,” Sherwood continues. “When Harry did not score in the first 25 minutes or so, they were singing Soldado’s name for him to come on the pitch. It wasn’t, ‘He’s one of our own’ back then.
And to a greater or lesser degree these are the rules of the road.
By the time players are playing at the top levels – elite international underage teams and the likes – it is more than likely that they all have the physical raw material to make it at some level professionally, even if they have to ultimately drop down levels to account for a physical, mental or technical deficit.
At that stage though, other more fugitive factors come into play: opportunity to continue developing through elite level game time, perception of quality amongst scouts, coaches, peers and managers, luck with injuries for example.
Players themselves naturally focus on physical and technical attributes (the thing they seem to have most control over) to explain success even if the picture is always far more complex. But all the imponderables – luck, opportunity, perception – loom largest as D Day hoves into view for youngsters at a career crossroads.
For the fans, football is the glory game, an opportunity to blow off the cobwebs of the working week, a 90-minute release. But sitting in the stands, with a scout’s notebook, football most often looks like a beauty contest where luck and perception can easily overwhelm talent and personal motivation as career-defining factors.
In this respect football takes on all the key themes of elite jobs where the opportunities for advancement are limited by a small number of new slots for newcomers – like modelling, pop stardom or acting, for example.
And that’s why the attrition rates and the hard luck stories of the ‘nearly men’ are so pronounced and the rewards for the victors have to be so high.
Harry Kane’s rise to international prominence, is really the product of a lot of seemingly unconnected factors. If the dice were rolled again, in his case, Kane could just as easily be plying his trade at a lower level, in League Two, in The SPL – or worse, and worrying about his longer term prospects in the game. Small margins.
The tale of Harry Kane’s fairytale rise from ‘fat kid’ to ‘fast lane’ fascinates, not because of its fairytale quality but because it confirms the role of one of the most underrated quantities in football and that is the role of luck.
Before a young boy is aged six, the bookmakers William Hill are happy to offer his doting parents odds of 1000/1 for him to play for England and 500/1 to play in the Premier League – presumably with no other information than a name on a birth certificate.
Chris Kirkland’s dad Eddie famously placed such a series of wagers when his boy was just 11 years old. And the family was rewarded with a pay-out of £10,000 when Chris Kirkland kept goal for England as a second half sub v Greece in 2006 (his solitary international cap).
Nonetheless, those odds regardless of the upside are distinctly ungenerous in an endeavour where the road to hell is paved with good intentions and where hard luck stories are a dime a dozen.
But even at this relatively late stage for players in and around a Premiership first team the odds are still stacked against them.
Harry Kane himself, would no doubt confirm that if it weren’t for a series of ‘breaks’ such as the promotion of his former coach Tim Sherwood to the manager’s role and the troubles of the big money signing Roberto Soldado and the other senior striker Emmanuel Adebayor, he would likely never have got a look in. And that’s a pretty common story among those youngsters that do somehow get in and buck the trend for big money, tried and tested stars in key positions at big clubs.
As Harry Kane himself confirmed to the Daily Mail in 2015: “Even when I was going out on loan everywhere, I always thought I would return to Tottenham and make it — but if Tim Sherwood hadn’t come in, who knows where I would be now? It could have been different. I could have gone on another loan, ended up with another team. I took my chance, but I’m sure a lot of other players don’t even get that.”
Greg Gordon has over a decade’s experience as a next opponent analyst. He works with www.prep4pro.com and is the creator of www.howtowatchfootball.co.uk.