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For Spurs, Harry Kane is the gift that keeps on giving

The striker must know his team’s job is to provide opportunities – he should give Spurs another season, test out the new stadium, then leave.

The festive season in football seems to have lasted for ever. I could have sworn Virgil van Dijk was sold by Southampton to Liverpool six months ago. And have not Man City already won the Prem? And next season’s as well, and the year after? They are so far ahead they are out of sight, out of mind, which makes it really exciting for the five teams following behind, tightly packed, each of whom can convince themselves that if they manage somehow to scrape second place they are THE REAL WINNERS!

Meanwhile, the also-rans are hardly running, stumbling about, petrified of relegation, their managers tight-lipped and ashen-faced, trying hard to keep their job and their dignity. There was one game over the festive period in which Mark Hughes of Stoke and Sam Allardyce of Everton stood on the touchline looking like undertakers in their black coats, black shoes, white shirts, dark ties. Whose funeral were they about to witness? Their own?

The higher up the league, the less well-dressed, the more casual the manager can be. Nowadays, Pep Guardiola, once so dapper, dresses as if he has just popped out to buy a paper in his comfy, slim-fitting slacks and fave pully. Klopp wears to games what he presumably wears on the training field. Jose has given up looking poncy and posed, too busy concentrating on frowning. Wenger does try to keep up standards and appearances, wearing the same office clobber he has worn for 20 years. Getting to 811 Prem games, beating Fergie’s record, was a fine achievement.

But Harry Kane is the gift that keeps giving. I was there at Wembley when Spurs stuffed Southampton on Boxing Day. Harry got another hat-trick, beating Shearer’s record for most goals in a calendar year, and even scoring more than Messi in 2017.

What surprised me was the silence. Wembley is like a morgue unless it’s full, and even then the crowd seems to go quiet, fall asleep. It is just too big, too spacious, the fans too far from the action.

Two days earlier, on Christmas Eve, I took my younger granddaughters to the cinema to see Paddington 2 and what surprised me most there was the noise. My ears were throbbing even though I am beginning to go a bit deaf. I have not been to the cinema for at least ten years, which could explain it. They seem to have doubled the sound effects, convinced that louder means better. The crowd could have done with turning the volume up at Wembley.

I came away from the Spurs game wondering if Harry could do better, score even more goals, in a better team. When you think how far ahead Man City are in the league, and the huge number of goals they have scored, it is surprising that a Man City player is not the Prem’s leading scorer.

Harry is playing in a poorer team, yet scoring all the goals. Perhaps that is the explanation. His team’s job is to provide opportunities for him; Spurs rely on him to finish them off.The structure has been created round him. In a better team, he would be one of several expected to score, would have to fit in with the others, rather than, as at Spurs, the team fitting in with him.

Perhaps he has been thinking about this over the New Year: “If I go to a better, richer club, such as Barça or Real Madrid, would I score as many goals ? And would I be happy? Does it suit my temperament and style of play to be Main Man at Spurs rather than One Of Many if I go elsewhere? Does environment matter?”

It happens in other walks of life – in business and in newspapers. Star columnists get poached yet some don’t shine in their new surroundings, despite feeling they are carrying on just the same. It is as if the new setting has unsettled them.

Gareth Bale was loved at Spurs, almost one of our own, despite being Welsh, but has not flourished in the same way at Real Madrid, having to take second billing Ronaldo.

Harry is more emotionally attached to Spurs than Bale was, but if I were him I’d give Spurs another season, test out the new stadium, then leave. He should look upon it as a gap year. Go off and find himself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.