The next phase of Harry Kane’s career begins tonight. The 26-year-old has fully recovered from a hamstring injury and will lead out Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United at White Hart Lane. Few players have benefited as much from the long break in Premier League action as the England captain.
When the coronavirus emergency forced football into its three-month hiatus in March, Kane was already in the midst of a long layoff after injuring a hamstring at St Mary’s during his team’s 1-0 defeat by Southampton in January. As Tottenham’s Champions League challenge faded and the team’s injury crisis deepened, Jose Mourinho and the club’s medical staff were pondering what was the earliest possible point they could thrust their main goal threat back into the action. It would probably have been too soon.
Kane is highly competitive. Like most players he wants to be on the pitch rather than watching from the stands. Last season, Spurs rushed him back from an ankle ligament injury to play in the Champions League final against Liverpool in Madrid. It was an understandable decision by both player and club but neither gained from it. Kane was obviously off the pace in Tottenham’s 2-0 defeat and it was clear that he had not fully recovered.
If Covid-19 had not intervened this season, the temptation to hurry Kane back would have grown with each week. As long as Spurs maintained a faint chance of qualifying for the Champions League – and fifth place remained in the equation with Manchester City’s ongoing appeal process against Uefa’s two-year ban – the pressure on Tottenham’s talisman would have been massive.
Even if the Premier League had finished on schedule, Kane may well have played through pain to take part in the Euros. Gareth Southgate’s captain is proud of his role in the England setup and was desperate to participate in the tournament. The workload would not have been ideal for someone who had prematurely returned after an operation.
The coronavirus interlude will be the longest break most top-flight footballers will have in their career unless they suffer serious injury. It has allowed many small niggles to heal and most players will be as close to fully fit as possible when they regain their sharpness. This is a small positive that has come out of the crisis and may help extend the playing life of some. For Kane it could prove massively beneficial.
It is now more than six months since he kicked a ball competitively and circumstances have allowed his rehabilitation to proceed at a natural, unhurried pace. He has had the luxury of healing, an extravagance few players are fortunate to experience. Hamstring and ankle problems have bedevilled his career but when he runs out tonight against United everything should be as close to full working order as possible. Kane and England could reap the benefit of this extended sabbatical for the next few years. But will Spurs?
Qualifying for the Champions League is crucial for Tottenham. The club will struggle to compete financially without the windfall that comes with participation in Europe’s most prestigious competition. Coronavirus has had a bigger impact at White Hart Lane than most places. Behind-closed-door matches turn the superb new stadium from a money-spinner to a liability. Payments still need to be made on the facility but income has dried up for the foreseeable future. The NFL have cancelled their games in the UK this year meaning another shortfall in projected revenue. Failure to meet expectations on the pitch will exacerbate the fiscal difficulties.
Money is less of an issue to Kane than glory. In March, the forward admitted for the first time that he needs to win trophies “sooner rather than later.” He turns 27 next month and is nearing what should be the peak years of his career. Kane’s emergence as a Premier League superstar came during a period when it seemed inevitable that Spurs would collect silverware. It appeared only a matter of time before Mauricio Pochettino and his young squad experienced glory. That time has gone. A window of opportunity appears to have shut in north London.
The age of Mourinho and rebuilding is upon Tottenham. “I’ve always said, if I don’t feel like we’re progressing as a team or going in the right direction, I’m not someone to stay there just for the sake of it,” Kane said in March. Without Champions League football, Spurs will be back in the sort of blind alley that their captain dreads.
Mourinho has no excuses. Three months ago the Portuguese could point to an injury crisis as a reason for Tottenham’s underperformance. Now he has most of his squad available and, with Son Heung-Min’s return, options up front that he lacked earlier in the year. Most importantly, though, he has Kane, a forward with the power and class to spark the sort of nine-game run that would secure Spurs a top-four slot.
The new era begins tonight. Kane should be in close to perfect shape but if Tottenham are not it could be the beginning of a long goodbye between player and club.