New England captain Harry Kane can bring renewed meaning to captaincy by scoring goals
Ever since Cuthbert Ottaway filled the role in the first ever international match, against Scotland in 1872, the identity of the England captain has been a point of national fascination. That's nearly 150 years of fetishising a position that, practically speaking, is fairly meaningless.
This week Harry Kane was named as the latest incumbent of the role that often calls to mind former US vice president John Nance Garner's assertion that his job wasn't worth "a warm bucket of spit." Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Kane said all the right things, speaking of his pride at leading the national team to the World Cup, and in fairness there's little to suggest he wasn't being genuine.
But it's obvious that the role doesn't carry the same weight as it once did, which isn't a lament on how times have changed, more relief that less energy is being spent on an intangible issue of minimal practical importance.
Kane was told during the last time the England squad was together, in March, meaning it's been kept quiet for two months. Is that because Kane is an expert secret-keeper, or because nobody was especially minded to find out? Probably both, more likely the latter.
"The players came over and shook my hand, congratulated me," Kane said this week of the moment it was announced to the squad, painting a picture of a low-key gathering before everyone turned back to something they were interested in. "It wasn't a big occasion or celebration. They know as well as I do nothing really changes. I've worn the armband before. I'm still the same guy."
England manager Gareth Southgate, a former custodian of the armband himself, has downplayed the importance of the captaincy in the past, to the point where you can almost see his eyes roll right back into his head when he's asked about it.
Other managers have clearly thought similarly, particularly Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, but it's refreshing that Southgate has felt able to vocalise that. Last year he described appointing a permanent skipper as "not high" on his list of priorities, and during his tenure the armband has been passed around, from Eric Dier to Jordan Henderson to Kane, with whom it now rests, for the time being.
Kane was the obvious choice for the armband, which might be a slightly backhanded compliment. There are few senior players in this England squad, the flip side of its youth and vitality, and of those not many are guaranteed a place in the team. Kane isn't quite skipper by default, but the other candidates were Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and Gary Cahill, not all of whom can be inked in for England's first game against Tunisia on June 18.
He is not the cliched English idea of a captain. Traditionalists might get misty-eyed at the memory of Terry Butcher sacrificing blood and dignity for the cause, or Bryan Robson shouting and snarling, or Stuart Pearce kicking wingers up in the air, in the name of the Three Lions.
Kane is more akin to David Beckham, given the armband because he's the best player in the team, a man to lead by deed rather than shouted word. The two men share a surprising number of connections, having gone to the same school (the Chingford Foundation school in North East London) and played for the same youth team (Ridgeway Rovers). Kane was also a student at Beckham's football academy, attending as a 12-year-old when Beckham opened a branch in East London in 2005.
Beckham could and did win games on his own for England, and while it would be rash to say that's what Kane has to do, there is some evidence that he could fulfil that role. He has captained England four times since doing so for the first time against Scotland a year ago, and has scored on each of those occasions, notching five of his 12 international goals while wearing the armband.
"Long may that continue," said Kane. So does the captaincy inspire him to perform at a higher level? "I don't feel like it changes me as a person. Maybe it does. It's been a good experience. It was good to score the last minute goal in my first game as captain, and it's gone from there, really."
Still, while four games is too small a sample size to draw any firm conclusions, it does at least suggest that Kane is not cowed by extra responsibility. And that can only be good news for England: for a generation their problem has been players who perform at elite levels for their clubs, suddenly shrinking in a white jersey.
If the captaincy, no matter how little it ultimately matters, can inspire England's best player even a small amount, then that could spread to the rest of the squad and perhaps watching them will become a much less infuriating experience.
You need every little edge you can get in football, especially international football, where the minimal time spent with the players inevitably means managers have less control. If Harry Kane, England captain, leads via the medium of goalscoring, it's possible that Southgate has turned something that doesn't really matter into something that does.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.