Four years ago, as England were preparing to head to the World Cup in Brazil, Roy Hodgson’s striking options were weak to say the least. The squad he ended up taking included Wayne Rooney, then 28 but already at the beginning of his decline, Danny Welbeck, who was more usually deployed on the wing at Manchester United and with a goal return of just 24 goals in 115 games and Rickie Lambert, the untested 32-year-old Southampton striker who had just completed only his second season of Premier League football.
The one beacon of hope in that forward line was Daniel Sturridge. The Liverpool striker had enjoyed a blistering 2013/14 season, linking up superbly with Luis Suarez to push Brendan Rodgers’ electric Liverpool side to the brink of an unexpected Premier League title triumph, only for it to slip away in the last three games of the season.
At just 24 years old, Sturridge finally looked to be fulfilling the promise he had fleetingly shown at Manchester City and Chelsea earlier in his career. With 21 goals and five assists, he was the highest-scoring English player and behind only Suarez in the overall goalscoring charts. This, surely, was going to be the man to lead the line for England for the foreseeable future.
‘Foreseeable’ is the key word there, because nobody could have predicted the identity of the competitors that would emerge by the time the 2018 World Cup rolled around. Jamie Vardy had just scored 16 goals as Leicester City earned promotion from the Championship; two years later he would score 24 to help them become the most unlikely of Premier League champions.
But more remarkable even than Vardy’s sudden emergence as a top European striker is that the young Tottenham striker Harry Kane would spend the intervening four years becoming the best out-and-out centre forward in world football.
Harry Kane's nine England caps and two goals in a qualifier against Lithuania and one in a friendly against Norway will be great.
— Jonny Sharples (@JonnyGabriel) October 23, 2014
With the World Cup in Russia just four months away, there is no doubt who the first name on Gareth Southgate’s teamsheet will be. Mauricio Pochettino has done too much good work with all his squad for his own work to go uncredited, but having Kane up front is the single biggest factor in allowing his team to believe that they are never out of a game.
For all the banterous talk of Spursiness that still follows Tottenham around, and for all this article will attract the usual howls of derision about how Pochettino’s side has no trophies to show for their efforts, they have been the Premier League’s most resilient and reliable side of the past three years.
Since the beginning of the 2015/16 season, Spurs have been the side least likely to lose a game after falling behind (39.5% – the next best is Liverpool with 50%), and the most likely to win after going ahead (an incredible 93.3% – for context, Liverpool have won just 72.2% of the games in which they have established a lead).
Nor is this a side prone to the odd embarrassing collapse. Spurs have lost a Premier League game by more than a single goal just four times since the beginning of the 2015/16 season; in the same span, Manchester United have lost by at least two clear goals seven times, Manchester City nine times, Chelsea 10, Liverpool 11 and Arsenal 12.
Clearly this speaks of high defensive standards, but there is no better personification of that unwavering cast-iron belief than the man leading the line. Kane is not just a brilliant player and goalscorer in his own right, but carries with him an infectious self-belief that allows him to serve as a true talisman: as Tuesday showed us for the umpteenth time, with Kane in the team there is no sense in ever saying die.
24 hours before Kane helped inspire that wonderful, exhilarating two-goal comeback against last year’s Champions League finalists, Sturridge was limping off the pitch just four minutes into his third appearance for West Brom, currently sitting seven points adrift of safety at the bottom of the Premier League. You have to think that Sturridge looks at Kane and thinks: “That should have been me.”
Pretty sure Harry Kane crept into Daniel Sturridge's house and extracted his essence in the summer of 2014. pic.twitter.com/Kq07m1t7xa
— Steven Chicken (@StevenChicken) February 14, 2018
Sturridge would contend that his struggles are no fault of his own: that you can’t help being injured, and that he was unfortunate that Rodgers was replaced by a manager who just clearly doesn’t fancy him even when fit.
But unfairly harsh though it may be, there remains a sense of huge squandered potential around Sturridge, not least because of Jurgen Klopp’s infamous dictum that Sturridge “would have to learn what is serious pain or what is only pain” in November 2015, less than two months into the German’s reign at Anfield. Where Kane inspires incredible belief in all those around him, Sturridge serves as a confidence vacuum.
Now, far from carrying the Three Lions’ hopes into Russia, Sturridge looks likely to miss out altogether: the latest World Cup Ladder on this site in November placed both Marcus Rashford and Welbeck ahead of Sturridge in the queue to join Kane and Vardy in Southgate’s squad. Since then, his stock has surely fallen further still.
It was not so very long about that we were talking about Kane as the one-season wonder and Sturridge as England’s great hope for the future. Who could have known how completely and utterly arse over tit we had it?