Illustration: Sammy Moody

In July 2013, on a Tottenham forum on Reddit, a fan posted a profile of a nineteen-year-old striker named Harry Kane, and encouraged debate about his potential. Below, many worried. Kane was no leading striker, for sure. But he also looked unsuited to a deeper role: he was tall, lumbering, uninventive. Despite a few highlights—two goals in the FA Cup, a loan spell at Millwall, a goal at the U-20 World Cup—most saw his future away from Spurs, probably at a lower-half club. “I don’t think we will ever see him playing regularly,” one wrote. “Not a guy who makes you dream of big performances against anyone,” said another. They drew parallels with Danny Graham, Gary Hooper and Grant Holt. One called him a ‘decent Championship player’ and a ‘poor man’s Michu’.

These were intelligent fans who had seen him play. Their opinions were reasonable: Kane had scored one first-team goal, and hit sixteen in sixty-five games across four loan spells. The last two had been fruitless stints at Norwich (where he had got injured) and Leicester (where he had got benched). “He wasn’t great,” Norwich season ticket holder Matt Wallace told FourFourTwo (FFT). “He generally struggled to do anything with the ball, and never looked a goal threat in any way, shape or form.” Even Kane had misgivings. “I was nineteen, living away from home and not playing,” he would tell The Daily Mail. “You always have that doubt. If you’re not playing there then how are you ever going to play for Tottenham?”

Countless youngsters toil in the lower leagues, on loan, looking for a break. Most never make it. But in three years, Kane had won the Premier League Golden Boot and broken the club record for goals scored in a season. He had been linked to Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid. Antonio Conte had valued him at £100m. Diego Maradona had told Napoli to sign him. Mauricio Pochettino had compared him to Gabriel Batistuta.

Players don’t normally evolve meteorically. You can usually spot a talent at nineteen; nobody turns world-class overnight. When people labelled Kane a one-season wonder, it was because his path to stardom seemed too unconventional to be real. And yet when his England U-16s coach Kenny Swain called him ‘the classic story of development’, suggesting there has been, somehow, an underlying logic to his sudden emergence, he was right.

Kane was no wunderkind. Born into a Spurs-supporting family, a few miles from White Hart Lane, he idolised Teddy Sheringham, but liked other sports too: he was a decent cricketer, fell in love with golf, and wanted to become an NFL kicker. Like David Beckham, he began at Ridgeway Rovers. At eight he joined Arsenal, who released him after a year. (A dismayed Arsène Wenger would later find out about it in the papers.) After returning to Ridgeway, Kane moved to Watford, then Spurs, who had rejected him earlier. But he soon struggled: born on 28 July, he was among the youngest in his age group, and so his physique lagged behind. At fourteen, youth coaches told his parents that unless he made progress the next year, he’d be released.

What to do? Work. He and his dad arranged extra training sessions outside the club and, boosted by rapid growth, Kane earned a new contract. He even made the national youth teams. There he spellbound nobody, but he trained hard and kept asking how he could improve. “The most outstanding thing for me was his character—his drive and determination,” Swain told The Guardian. “It was not so much his technical ability, but he had a thirst and an appetite for work, for goals and wanting to learn and do better.”

Back at Spurs, Kane hit eighteen goals in twenty-two games for the U-18s. Yet they still played him out of position—as a winger and even holding midfielder. The same did England; other strikers were just better. “We had some good forwards: Nathan Redmond, Saido Berahino, Ross Barkley, Benik Afobe,” ex-U-19s coach Noel Blake told The Guardian. “It was hard to fit them all in.”

In January 2011, Spurs decided to farm Kane out on loan. He joined Leyton Orient, scoring five times in eighteen games to cap a beneficial spell. In August, he made his Spurs debut, missing a penalty in a goalless draw against Hearts in the Europa League qualifiers. By January, Spurs loaned him out again, this time to Millwall. The Lions feared relegation from the Championship, but Kane struck nine goals to save their place and become their young player of the season. “It probably turned me into a man, really,” he said. “I was playing in difficult, high-pressure games, and I managed to come out of it positively.”

He also stunned the staff. “In my twenty years of coaching, I’ve never seen a player practise as much as Harry,” Millwall assistant Joe Gallen told The Guardian. A popular drill was shots from the ‘D’ outside the area, slammed low into the corner. “He’s the best I’ve seen from that area,” Gallen said. “It’s like a six-yard tap-in for him, but he would practise so much on it.” Managers are usually delighted to see their players toil and sweat, but Kane took it so far that Kenny Jacket feared he would get injured. He told Gallen to haul him off the pitch. Kane was livid. “He’d be looking at me—not happy,” Gallen said. “The assistant gets all the abuse.”

In August 2012, Kane played his first Premier League game for Spurs, coming off the bench for the final five minutes at Newcastle. Yet they soon loaned him out to Norwich. In his second game, a broken metatarsal sidelined him until December, before Spurs called him back in January. Three weeks later, Spurs decided they did not need him after all, so Kane spent the next four months on the Leicester bench watching David Nugent, Jamie Vardy and Chris Wood.

By 2013, Kane resolved to stay at Spurs and wait for a break. When they suggested a new loan, he refused. In training, he told youth coaches Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand to put on shooting drills with various angles and distances. One staff member said Kane was ‘obsessive’ about his finishing practice. When Sherwood replaced André Villas-Boas as manager in December, Kane played more, and began outscoring misfiring £26m signing Roberto Soldado in training. After one Friday session in April, Sherwood casually told Kane he might start him against Sunderland the next day. “Yeah, about time!” Kane replied.

That Saturday, Kane struck in a 5-1 win. He started the next two league games, scoring a goal in each. In summer, Daniel Levy gave him a new five-year contract.

As Pochettino ousted Sherwood, however, dark clouds seemed to reappear. By November, Kane was still awaiting his first league start. He had played five games in the Europa League, scoring six goals, plus two in the League Cup—yet Soldado kept playing. Even after a hat-trick at home to Asteras Tripoli, Kane got benched.

At this point, Kane’s prolific cup form either denoted luck and weak opponents, or genuine talent waiting to blossom. On 2 November, he came on as Spurs were drawing 1-1 at Aston Villa, and scored a free-kick in the last minute. He then started his first league game, scored in three consecutive 2-1 wins, and hit a brace in a 5-3 win over Chelsea. He remarked how Pochettino’s fitness regime had boosted his strength and speed. In the terraces, Spurs fans sang:

‘Soldado, he came from sunny Spain, to train with Harry Kane.’

Kane reached twenty-one league goals and thirty-one in total, becoming the first Spurs player to go above thirty since Gary Lineker in 1992. The goal at Villa had proved the break he needed. “It was a pretty lucky free-kick as well,” Kane would tell The Times, referring to a deflection. He then paused for thought. “If it hadn’t gone in, would I have ended up playing as much?”

Ahead of the next season, pundits tipped Kane to fade. There seemed to be few reasons to believe anything else. He looked just a regular guy—there was no hype, no PR, no signs of a superstar. A year earlier, nobody had read anything about his imminent emergence. The underlying statistics also looked poor. Analytics site FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece titled ‘Harry Kane, Luckiest Man In Soccer’, saying he had no chance of replicating his latest season. The premise was fair: Kane had exceeded the ‘expected goals’ metric (xG) by more than anyone, scoring nineteen non-penalty goals from an xG of 11.33. Only the very best outscore xG regularly; the rest enjoy hot streaks or brief luck. Based on what people knew about Kane, he was easy to categorise. “Unless he’s a truly elite player—and we don’t have a reason to think he is yet—he’s due for a regression,” the piece said.

Kane duly endured a drought that lasted until 26 September. When he struck a second time, it was an own goal at Swansea. But then he began scoring. A stunning array of finishes flew into the net: shots with both feet, long-range missiles, headers, volleys, flicks. Was this still just luck? “I stay behind after training to work on my finishing and practise for match situations,” Kane told FFT. “I think that’s why you’ve seen me score every different type of goal—inside the box, outside the box, headers, left foot, right foot.”

By late May, Kane had struck twenty-five goals and won the Golden Boot. Ferdinand said his finishing had come to evoke Alan Shearer. “Look at Alan’s goals, a lot of them are hit with pure venom,” he told The Telegraph. “He very rarely tapped in. Harry’s like that.”

“I think a bit of it is obviously getting older, your muscles develop more, you get a bit more power,” Kane said. “But I worked hard on it as well. I put a lot of work in the gym on my power, and my lower body side of it, because I felt like I needed to get a bit more pace in my game.”

Since 2013, Kane has kept improving what is improvable: finishing, positioning, stamina, strength. Each skill is linked to an exercise. Each goal is rooted in a shooting drill. “He’s always pushing you to try to let him train, play, and score goals,” says Pochettino. “His character is unbelievable.”

In 2016/17, Kane scored twenty-nine goals in thirty league games, a rate of 0.98 per game. He outperformed xG by about ten goals. On the last day, he posted a picture of himself walking down the tunnel at Hull, holding the Golden Boot, now retained, under his left arm. “It’s not come easy for me,” he told FFT. “I’ve probably had to work harder than most to get to where I am.”