£40million sounds like an awful lot of money for Manchester United to pay for Harry Kane. The urge to believe that Kane had an impressive but short-term purple patch is almost irresistible. Will he ever be that good again? Clearly, United would be gambling on him being a top striker for the next decade and not their next Ted MacDougall (one for the kids).
Kane has one big thing in his favour. Indeed, it may well be the one big thing that is driving up his price and certainly increasing his desirability. It isn’t his skill as a footballer and it isn’t his nationality.
United need Harry because Harry is likeable. He is the sort of player who it’s easy to support. He seems a simple soul and yet not a knuckle-dragger. He’s just one of those play-football-for-fun types who feels like an antidote to the overbearing, cynical money hoovers that more typically populate the top flight. It may be naïve, but we want to believe in him. We want him to do well. He makes us feel better. He is sweet morphine for the existential pain of modern football.
Likeability is a much-undervalued concept in modern football. Everyone is so obsessed with who’s any good, but that’s all a bit boring. Robots are great at things but we don’t fall in love with them. Top-flight players are self-evidently pretty good and of course skilful players can attract support, but likeable players are more important to our enjoyment of the modern game. There are plenty of players who are fun to watch but to whom you never form an emotional attachment. You can fake it, the way Samuel Eto’o fakes it every time he leaves a club with the same message of goodwill to the fans, but underneath, we know it’s a functional relationship born out of necessity. That slowly shrivels the soul.
The World Cup in Canada showed how having players who you can happily support makes watching football more of a Prosecco than pasta experience. The thrill and happiness many of us felt was as a direct response to the perceived nature of the players and their attitude. Being able to share joy at a player’s success rather than dread them doing well in case it further inflates their already unbearable ego – or worse still, allows them to become even more undeservedly rich – is actually a very commercial asset. As sentient creatures, we seek to feel empathy and we all know that for many and varied reasons, we simply cannot empathise with a lot of modern footballers.
Manchester United currently lack players who are likeable. They’re far from alone in this but who in the United side makes the heart glow? David De Gea perhaps, Daley Blind has nice hair, Juan Mata gives off the same vibe as a small, harmless family pet, but they don’t inspire much affection from the neutrals. Antonio Valencia seems to find no joy in any life form and plays as though he is turning out for a prison XI. The defence are severely uncool and not in a hip, nerdy way. Rafael looks like he could start a fight in a graveyard. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all make you feel pity, but not empathy. Pity is the worst of all emotions, having none of the passion and commitment of dislike or hate and none of the affection of empathy. United need someone to love.
Ashley Young? No, I don’t think so, do you? The feeling that Wayne is an over-vaunted creation is not uncommon and God help anyone looking to Michael Carrick for charisma. I could go on. The players seem functional but, regardless of talent, they’re just not very loveable. Decent chaps to a man, I’m sure, but that’s where it ends. That’s why Kane is essential.
If you have a player like Kane who fans and neutrals can get behind, it gives the whole team and the whole club a lift. It is enervating and makes even the dull seem brighter. Kane will be an asset for brand United.
In the 60s and 70s, people who were putting on rock festivals knew the value of making your crowd feel good and would often employ a vibemaster. His task (and it was always a man, largely because women were too busy making sandwiches, in between pleasuring guitarists) was to make everyone feel good, dispense good vibes and keep up flagging spirits. At Woodstock, for example, this was a man called Wavy Gravy (not his birth name) – who ran a commune called the Hog Farm, all of whom were flown in on a specially chartered 727 at the cost of $17,000 just to help out with security, food and to keep everyone feeling good. You might be sitting in a muddy field listening to Joan Baez wailing and wondering when the pain will ever cease, but if someone tells you you’re in heaven with enough belief and passion, it takes away some of that pain. That and the drugs, anyway.
United need a Wavy Gravy. And it could be Harry Kane. The warmth from one bright sun can warm up a lot of cold planets. English players are often said to have ridiculous premiums, but perhaps one reason is that men such as Kane are of extra value to the club from their mere presence. They make the whole place more attractive, especially to a TV audience who watches all goals and celebrations from 100 angles and can tell when someone is just a soulless badge kisser.
Like it or not, modern top-flight football is a never-ending soap opera and all the best stories are not primarily about plot and action, they are first and foremost about character and relationships. When you don’t care about the characters, then you don’t care about the plot, and you become disengaged and disinterested. This is why last season a Harry Kane goal was worth a 100 by, say, Paulinho. United need his goals but they need him for being himself every bit as much. And when you take that into account, £40million for a rather loveable man seems just about right.
Johnny writes novels here and rock ‘n’ roll blogs here