Some youngsters dream of playing professional football. Most will also dream of playing in a cup final, or scoring the winner in front of a sold-out crowd. Few, however, get to actually live that dream, with even fewer going on to represent their countries or wear the captain’s armband during a major international tournament.
Harry Kane sits among an elite group of footballing icons to have achieved all of the above, and there’s plenty more to come.
Off the back of a season that has seen Harry Kane rise even further up the list of all-time goalscoring greats, now the England skipper is ready and hoping to make dreams come true this summer, as he prepares to lead his country to European Championship glory in this Sunday's Euro 2020 Final.
Now widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the world and the finest English marksman of his generation, it’s sometimes easy to forget that his incredible journey is one that started in the EFL. He may have a 17-year association with Tottenham Hotspur, but when a 17-year-old Kane signed on loan for Leyton Orient back in 2011, there began an incredible journey that set him on the road to the top.
His potential was clear, but could anyone have predicted how the Walthamstow-born forward would rise to join football’s elite?
Abi Rodwell spoke to those who have coached, mentored and played alongside Kane on his way to becoming Three Lions captain, and there’s a common theme… the former EFL loanee will be talked about in the same breath as some of English football’s greats in years to come.
“Desire,” says former Leyton Orient manager Russell Slade, when asked what made a teenage Kane stand out from the rest upon his arrival a decade ago.
“That’s what stood out for me. His desire to do well, his desire to work hard and his desire to do that little bit extra on the training pitch, even at such a young age. And what he did have as a 17-year-old, is potential.”
More often than not, behind every key milestone, every record broken and every successful playing career, is an influential figure in a player’s past. In Kane’s particular case, there are several, but Slade is better placed than almost anyone to comment on the striker’s prospects as a youngster, having handed him his professional debut during a six-month loan spell in the 2010/11 season.
With their training grounds situated just a short distance apart, Leyton Orient and Tottenham Hotspur formed a relationship whereby, if the fit was right, players would make the short journey across London and sign on loan for Orient to gain that all-important first-team experience.
“We signed one or two of their players on loan,” says Slade, who was manager of the O’s between 2010 and 2014. “I watched Harry a lot for Spurs Under-18s, we used to go to a lot of their youth games in case there were any young lads who wanted to come on loan to us. We had a good relationship with the club.”
Born just a couple of miles from Orient’s stadium, what better place for Kane to start the transition from youth team to first team and experience his first taste of senior football.
“We thought it was really important for Harry to go out on loan,” says Chris Ramsey, the Queens Park Rangers Technical Director, who was Spurs’ Head of Player Development at the time.
“Tottenham hadn’t produced many players through the Academy at the time and there were so many players ahead of him in the squad. We wanted him to play first-team football and suffer the ups and downs of what it takes to be a professional footballer, as well as share a changing room with those experienced players.”
He may not yet have had that first taste of senior football, but Kane’s name was starting to become known in and around the Tottenham first-team squad.
“As senior players, you always hear about the next lot of youngsters coming through,” says Michael Dawson. The defender was Spurs’ vice-captain at the time.
“We’d always go into training after the weekend and ask how the Under-18s got on and someone would say, ‘oh, Harry scored again’ or ‘they won 4-0 and Harry got another hat-trick.’ So we were very familiar with his name and then he started to get the opportunity to train with the first team now and again which is where we started to see how good a finisher he was.”
And so, a free-scoring, teenage Kane joined Orient - who were competing in League One at the time - for the second half of the 2010/11 campaign, as his professional career began.
“He was a skinny little guy,” says Slade. “He must have only been about eight stone! He was still growing and still developing.”
It says a lot about Kane’s mentality and work ethic that even at 17 he was prepared to take himself out of his comfort zone and challenge himself in the unknown environment of League football.
“There is always a risk when taking players on loan because they’re so young. You can’t just throw them into League One or League Two football at that age and expect them to excel, you’ve got to manage them through gradually.
“I really admired the way he said to himself, ‘I’ll go and play for Leyton Orient. I’ll come out of the Premier League environment to go and play professional football and learn how to express myself on the pitch.’ It was an excellent attitude to have at that age.”
A humble approach, a willingness to learn and a quiet – but confident - determination to succeed were always going to be the perfect groundings for future success, and Kane made sure to make the most of his early experiences in the game.
“I remember his debut,” Slade continues. “We were playing Rochdale away and he came on off the bench. We must have been playing under a foot of mud. He had these lovely white boots on and by the end of the game you couldn’t even see them!
“But that’s what playing lower down the divisions was like and he just embraced it. He didn’t care that he wasn’t playing on the perfect surface or that it was a different type of football, because he just wanted to develop, he wanted to get better, and he wanted to learn.
“He came out of his comfort zone at Spurs where they had fantastic facilities, to go and play away at Rochdale on a cold Tuesday night. It certainly wasn’t your free-flowing Premier League football, but he embraced all of that and had the perfect attitude to succeed.”
And success wasn’t far away. It wasn’t long after making his debut off the bench that the Spurs loanee scored his first professional goal, on his first professional start, in a 4-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. A sign of things to come, perhaps.
“I remember everyone being so delighted for him. We’d seen him in training and we knew he was capable of it - we were so pleased for him. He was only with us for a short while, but I think that time and the goals he scored for us gave him the appetite to go on and do it somewhere else, which he did. He went on to have a couple more loan spells which really challenged him and, looking back, were great for his progression.”
From that first extended taste of first-team action, Kane moved to Millwall, and it was under Kenny Jackett that the future England captain began to show his potential, as he found a level of comfort in the men’s game.
Still only 18 years of age, Kane’s adjustment to competitive action was by no means immediate, as he scored just once in his first 13 appearances for the Championship side. But he grew into the campaign, finishing the season in a rich vein of scoring form, with seven goals in his final 14 games.
Quoted in 2017 in an interview with the Telegraph, Kane said that his time at Millwall had played a “big part” in his development. His contribution helped Millwall avoid relegation and earned Kane the club’s Young Player of the Season Award. The future was certainly bright, but could anyone foresee the heights he would reach?
“Nobody can ever say that someone is going to be the next big thing,” says Ramsey. “But everyone at Tottenham knew he had the ability to succeed at first-team level and we all thought the potential was there to reach the top.”
“Is he going to be the next England captain and go on to be one of the greatest goalscorers in the Premier League?” asks Slade. “If someone said that to me 10 years ago, I’d have said ‘hold your horses’.
“It was too early to be predicting anything like that, but what I can say about him at that age was that he was a very good finisher then; he loved scoring goals and he had a real knack of being in the right place at the right time, even then. He could lose you in a telephone box!”
Two more loan spells followed for the striker, the first at Norwich City, which came with a view to increasing the youngster’s exposure to Premier League football. However, a broken metatarsal saw the loan spell cut short.
Kane spent the remainder of that same season at the King Power Stadium on loan at Leicester City, but struggled to break into a team pushing for promotion from the Championship. There is a well-circulated image of Kane sat alongside Jamie Vardy on the Leicester bench in the Play-Off Semi-Final second leg, two players who now have 284 Premier League goals between them.
“There’s no doubt that Harry suffered disappointments whilst on loan at various Clubs,” Ramsey adds.
“But they were the most important for him, they spurred him on to be even more successful. He has always been eager to learn and wanted to do more. There were times at Norwich and Leicester where he was visibly disappointed, but at the same time he was still so strong minded about his next step to succeed.”
Following the departure of Andre Villas-Boas from the Spurs dugout, Tim Sherwood was promoted from his role as Under-23s manager – where he’d worked closely with Kane – to act as caretaker boss, bringing Les Ferdinand and Ramsey onto his first-team coaching staff. And there followed Kane’s breakthrough.
Prior to Sherwood’s appointment, Kane had made only a handful of Europa League and Premier League appearances but, on 7 April 2014, he was handed his first Premier League start, in a 5-1 win over Sunderland, and scored his first league goal for Tottenham.
“The club had confidence in him,” adds Ramsey.
And they were right to. Kane made it three goals in three games when he followed up his Sunderland strike by scoring against West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, as he continued to impress those around him.
Mauricio Pochettino was installed as Tottenham’s manager for the 2014/15 season, meaning Kane had to prove himself again, which he did, again. He did it in the Europa League and League Cup, scoring 10 goals in both competitions, before opening his Premier League tally in the November. Finishing the season with 21 league goals and 31 in all competitions, Kane was named the PFA Young Player of the Year and had established himself as a ruthless finisher who was quickly becoming recognised as one of England’s best young talents.
“Even as an U18 player, when he’d come to train with the first team, he just wanted to show us what he’d got,” says Dawson.
“It was always obvious that he wanted to be successful and work hard at what he set out to achieve. There was no doubt that he respected the senior players, but he was also looking to take their place and be better than them. He had that hunger.
“He’s put in years of dedication and hard work, but let’s not kid ourselves, he has huge amounts of quality and talent.”
In 2015, Kane’s form was rewarded with an England call-up. Replacing Wayne Rooney in the second half of a Euro 2016 qualifying fixture, the Spurs striker scored just 80 seconds after entering the pitch. Manager Roy Hodgson described his impact in an England shirt as a “fairy tale”, with Lithuania manager, Igoris Pankratjeval, labelling Kane as a “sniper” and a “great striker.”
It was a dream come true for Kane who, at the time, described it as the best moment of his career, with an exciting caveat: “hopefully this is the first of many.”
And it was. Top scorer now in each of Tottenham’s last eight seasons, Kane is Spurs’ greatest player of the modern era, recording 220 goals for his boyhood side thus far. Just 95 goals short of Alan Shearer’s 260-goal record in the Premier League, Kane, a peak-age striker who now captains his country, has proven himself to be getting even better with age. But where would he be without that EFL experience?
“If you work hard and if you have that desire to keep going no matter what, you get your reward,” says Dawson.
“He played lower down the leagues, played some very different football and probably played on some questionable pitches on a rainy Tuesday night, but if you want to walk out at White Hart Lane or the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, you have to earn the right to do that. And that’s exactly what Harry has done throughout his career.”
By his own admission, Kane’s time at Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester are far from distant memories. Despite the things he’s done, the things he’s currently doing and those that many have tipped him to go on to do, he remains humble and grounded. He’s never lost that belief or boyhood love for the game, and he’s never forgotten his roots.
Has fame changed him? Comfortably, the answer is no. It may have changed his life, but it hasn’t changed him as a person.
“Those [EFL loan] experiences were massive,” says Kane, speaking to the EFL in April.
“I speak to young players about it a lot these days and tell them how good it was for my development, not just in terms of developing my skills but also the mental side of it. The fact you’re playing professional football and that what you’re playing for means so much to your team-mates and their families.
“To go into those divisions and play first-team football as a youngster, it was probably the greatest thing I could have done for my career. I try to give that advice to young players now, because I think it’s really important for development.
“I was talking to my wife just the other day, because we were watching a League One match on TV. I told her that sometimes I like to watch those games even more than Premier League games because it reminds me of how far I’ve come, all of the hard work and ups and downs. I never take that for granted. It’s something I’m extremely proud of and hopefully it keeps me going and improving for the rest of my career.”
England captain and indispensable to any club or country’s success, Kane is as important to England as he is to his club. Yes, he scores goals, but his game is about far more than that.
The 2020/21’s Golden Boot winner also won the 2020/21 Playmaker Award, with 14 assists to his name in a Tottenham shirt last season. His creativity is equally important as his ruthlessness in the box, but what drives Kane this year is trophies, for both club and country. He wants to win, and he will not stop until he does.
“The way he’s worked his way to the top is fantastic,” concludes Slade.
“He’s the ultimate professional,” stresses Ramsey.
“His biggest strength – away from his technical ability – is his self-belief,” adds Dawson. “There’s no doubt he will go down as one of English football’s all-time greats. He’s already a Premier League great and he’s only 27 years old.”
Kane – alongside 22 other members of this summer’s England squad who have EFL experience – helps highlight a strong and prosperous EFL Youth Development system that is critical to the success of English football.
What is clear is that the League and its Clubs are investing time and resource into the next generation, and with good reason. Initiatives such as EFL Futures and Club-Developed Player rules give Clubs an additional incentive for home-grown talent and we’ve already seen the benefits. Coupled with the loan system, the future of English football is certainly bright.
Now, as England prepare for the toughest of tests at Wembley Stadium and look to make history by winning Euro 2020, they do so with some of the world’s best talent on show. But one can only wonder where some of these players - Kane included - would be without that experience.