DESPITE A COMMANDING Europa League victory where his side enjoyed 68% possession en route to a landslide 4-0 win, the freezing cold winter night of 15 December 2011 was bittersweet for 18-year-old Harry Kane in south Dublin.
Later this evening Kane will lead his country out at the Luzhniki Stadium, with 90 minutes of football standing between him becoming the first man since Bobby Moore to lead England to a World Cup final. Potential immortality awaits the other side of a referee’s final whistle.
Six and a half years ago, however, Kane was dwelling on a different matter altogether, caught between the gleaming highs of his first ever goal for Tottenham while also enduring the frustrating setback of his side’s deflating and premature elimination from the Europa League.
Spurs finished third in their qualifying group in 2011/12 following a disastrous campaign under Harry Redknapp, which saw the London club finish behind both PAOK and Rubin Kazan.
That cold December night in Dublin saw the curtain come down on their European travels that season. Following defeats to both Kazan and PAOK, Spurs went into their final group game needing a series of results to swing in their favour — something that failed to transpire.
Despite their group-stage exit, their final showing in the Europa League that year saw Tottenham go out with an impressive bang, as they brought the curtain down on Shamrock Rovers’ own European odyssey at Tallaght Stadium.
Michael O’Neill’s side had captured the imagination of the Irish public as Rovers became the first club from this country to ever qualify for the competition, a feat which has only been replicated once by Dundalk in the intervening years.
In order to progress to the knockout stages on the night, Redknapp’s men needed Greek side PAOK to beat Rubin Kazan, while the London club simultaneously had to overturn a goal difference of five against Rovers.
Neither of these criteria came to fruition, with Tottenham’s 4-0 victory led by a second-string team in Tallaght Stadium proving to be nothing but an exhibition for the 8,000 home supporters who came to salute their heroes, as Rovers’ Europa League dream came to an end.
Despite finishing without a point to their name and a goal difference of -15 after six consecutive Group A defeats, Rovers had succeeded in reaching the promised land of a major European competition and created memories that would last a lifetime for their supporters.
This, while also daring other League of Ireland clubs to dream that European qualification was in fact possible for a side in the SSE Airtricity League, and that it was not the audacious and farfetched delusion of the imagination — Rovers had shown that it could actually be done.
Rovers had long known they didn’t have a chance to make the last 32. But with Tottenham hanging onto the slim hope that PAOK could do them a favour against Kazan while they took care of business in Dublin, the Londoners got to work on the landslide win they required to stand any chance at progression.
Steven Pienaar, Andros Townsend and Jermain Defoe got the show up and running as Tottenham raced into a 3-0 lead before half-time in what would be O’Neill’s final game in charge of the Dublin club.
Pienaar’s low strike crept into Richard Brush’s bottom corner after 29 minutes, before Townsend whipped in the goal of the night — an audaciously curled effort which he caressed into the top corner, giving the Rovers goalkeeper no chance whatsoever at keeping it out.
Despite keeping an eye on proceedings in Greece, Redknapp’s men knew their chances at making the knockout stages were slim, a fact which was reflected in each goalscorers’ slightly muted celebrations.
Defoe added a third just before the interval, putting the night’s result beyond doubt ahead of the second half with a poacher’s finish from close range, which left centre back Dan Murray on the floor as the striker reeled away to take the plaudits of his team-mates.
With three points all but secured, the game’s pace slowed down in the second 45 minutes, seeing boss Redknapp introduce a promising, if still slightly raw young striker by the name of Harry Kane with a little under 15 minutes to go.
The pale striker wearing the number 37 shirt had endured a period of ups and downs up to this point, with the defining setback of his career being a rejection by Arsenal due to his physical condition.
“He was a bit chubby, he wasn’t very athletic,” Liam Brady, who was the Gunners’ academy director at the time, reflected a number of years later when Kane’s form for Tottenham saw him become a global superstar. “But we made a mistake.”
“Tottenham sent him out on loan to lower-division clubs three or four times as well,” Brady added. “But through his determination he has carved out an amazing career and he deserves it. He has a character that drives him to improve all the time.”
Ahead of tonight’s World Cup semi-final, Kane will perhaps borrow a few quiet moments to take stock of just how far he has come over these last few years since coming off the bench in Tallaght.
Definitely v Shamrock Rovers. My first ever goal for Spurs was always going to be a special one! https://t.co/fOH32cU83G— Harry Kane (@HKane) February 25, 2016
Captaining an England side on the cusp of history ahead of their semi-final against Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium, constantly being linked with a £150 million transfer to Real Madrid and regularly netting more than 30 goals per season, it’s clear the striker has lived up to his potential.
But it was never always so obvious that Kane was destined for such highs. His story of being loaned out to clubs like Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester is well known now, with the young forward who took to the field in Dublin all those years ago just at the beginning of a journey which would see him knocked back time after time, before dismissing all his naysayers to reach the top.
As Kane entered the fray after 76 minutes in Tallaght, news that Kazan had equalised to make it 1-1 away to PAOK had long since filtered through, thus rendering Tottenham’s victory redundant — regardless of the scoreline.
Despite this, the side plowed on, Kane converting with an instinctive low finish from no more than five yards out following a clever header from team-mate Townsend to make it 4-0 in the final minute.
“This was an emphatic victory for one side but an end that satisfied neither,” noted The Guardian’s match report. “Tottenham Hotspur cruised to victory but Harry Redknapp was still left to rue elimination from the Europa League.”
It was a night of bittersweet emotion for many concerned. Following three immensely succession seasons which took in two Premier Division titles and Europa League qualification, the 4-0 loss was Michael O’Neill’s final game in charge of Shamrock Rovers.
“Disappointed with the game. I never like getting beat and we were beaten well tonight,” O’Neill said afterwards, while also adding that he would remember his time in charge of the Hoops “fondly”.
It, too, was a bittersweet occasion for Kane. The teenager had bagged his first goal for Tottenham, but it had come in the midst of their premature elimination from Europe.
“Thanks for all the messages!,” the 18-year-old tweeted afterwards. “A shame we didn’t get through ! Pleased with my 1st goal ! First of many !xx.”
Thanks for all the messages ! Ashame we didn't get through ! Pleased for my 1st goal ! First of many !xx— Harry Kane (@HKane) December 15, 2011
139 goals in a Tottenham shirt later and the boy from north-east London came good on that promise, ever since becoming the leading figure, captain and goalscoring menace of a Spurs side which has tinkered with title ambitions and is now all but a regular fixture in the top four of the Premier League.
That dead-rubber Europa League finish against Rovers has now become goals against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages of the Champions League, replacing nights in Tallaght with ones at the Santiago Bernabeu and, later tonight, the semi-finals of the World Cup in Moscow.
Kane has six goals to his name in this summer’s World Cup already and, following Belgium’s elimination last night, is a sure bet for the Golden Boot. One game of football stands between him and captaining England to a World Cup final, the stuff of every single boy’s dreams.
Somehow, though, it started in Dublin with that close-range finish. His first goal for Tottenham and his first for a club he has become the embodiment of under Mauricio Pochettino: level-headed, grounded, but incredibly driven and ambitious towards the sweet taste of success.
Though many have probably since forgotten the largely meaningless goal, Kane himself certainly hasn’t in the intervening years.
“5 years ago today my first @SpursOfficial goal… Time flies! #throwbackthursday”, the striker tweeted a year and a half ago with an accompanying photograph of the teenager reeling away in that baggy purple Spurs jersey after scoring against the Hoops.
Then, when asked by a supporter online which his favourite Europa League goal was, the England captain replied: “Definitely v Shamrock Rovers. My first ever goal for Spurs was always going to be a special one!”
Even though his ambitions have reached a much higher level — transforming himself into the Premier League’s most prolific striker, Tottenham’s captain and England’s guiding force en route to a World Cup semi-final — the young man with a Galway-born grandfather still holds that night in Dublin close to heart.
Despite the litany of success which has followed Kane ever since that cold December night in Dublin and all the future accolades which will surely continue to follow in years to come, that old saying remains as true as it ever did before: you never forget your first.
His goal in Dublin as a raw 18-year-old was the first of many en route to the Tottenham and England captain’s armbands. With a World Cup semi-final on the cards later tonight in the Russian capital, that poacher’s finish in Tallaght was a first milestone down a long road of success for Harry Kane.
The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!