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comment Sterling was just savvy, not cynical, in winning penalty - I have no problem with how he ‘won’ it

I have long argued that England have not been clever enough – Kane shifts that perception

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Streetwise: England captain Harry Kane celebrates after his team's win over Denmark. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Streetwise: England captain Harry Kane celebrates after his team's win over Denmark. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Streetwise: England captain Harry Kane celebrates after his team's win over Denmark. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Scores level, a few minutes remaining, a major final beckoning, and an England player goes down suspiciously easily in the penalty area. For the best part of 30 years, through all those seasons hearing how those from other countries were guilty of gamesmanship, I have been wondering how my nation would react in such a scenario. Now we know.

The next time there is a debate about players going down ‘too soft’ in the aftermath of a controversial Premier League decision, can those complaining pause and consider how they felt when referee Danny Makkelie decided Denmark’s Joakim Maehle fouled Raheem Sterling. Hypocrisy is rampant in football, but the selective memory of those who would have launched a tirade against an overseas player under the same circumstances has never been so shameless.

The so-called rogues of England’s failure in previous tournaments – including Diego Simeone and Cristiano Ronaldo – must have allowed themselves a wry smile when seeing how comfortable English football is with the manner of the decisive goal in the Euro 2020 semi-final.

The winner was no more a penalty than David Beckham’s red card in 1998, when the response of Simeone guaranteed the severest punishment, and we all remember Ronaldo begging the referee to send off his Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney in 2006.

I have no problem with how Sterling ‘won’ the penalty. He did what many top-class attackers would have done when Maehle brushed against his leg.

He was savvy, not cynical. To me, it was not cheating because having dribbled into the penalty area he induced panic in those trying to stop him. They got the man rather than the ball, regardless of how bad it really was. This is what makes Sterling such a dangerous player, running at pace so defenders never know whether to risk a challenge, especially in the penalty area.

The biggest mistake is the defender’s in being too late to his man, making contact inevitable and ensuring the officials have a big decision to make, with a volatile home crowd screaming for what in that split second looks like the most obvious foul.

I would not have been happy with the referee for penalising me in those circumstances, but I would have been more livid with myself and the full-back for allowing Sterling to get so far towards the six-yard box.

I have long argued that England’s players have not been clever enough on the international stage when it came to game management and securing favourable decisions. Nobody has done more to shift that perception than Harry Kane – who I described last season as the “most streetwise player in the Premier League”. Whenever he brings that quality to the pitch, that is when you know he is his old self.

Kane is a master of holding the ball with his back to goal, inviting clumsy tackles and winning cheap free-kicks to relieve pressure. Remember the set-piece he won which led to Harry Maguire’s goal early in the second half in Rome? Check out the replay and ask yourself how much of a foul it was.

That was the kind of influence lacking in the first four games of this tournament, Kane barely offering a physical presence.

There has been a massive change in Kane’s physical demeanour since his goal against Germany. It was revealing that he admitted he wanted to grow into this tournament, having felt he took the reverse journey at the last World Cup.

“In Russia, I felt that I couldn’t perform at my best in the most important games, the quarter-finals and the semi-finals,” he said. “I wanted to make sure it peaked at the right time.”

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England were never going to be able to get this far unless we saw Tottenham’s Kane. We have done so when it has really mattered; drawing fouls, dropping deep and making clever passes. He is the best passer in the squad. Look at the delivery to Bukayo Saka in the build-up to the equaliser against the Danes. It was never about doubting Kane as a player, or whether he should stay in the side, or if the goals would come. It was about cold, hard analysis of each 90 minutes and asking what he brought to the team outside the box as much as in it. There had to be huge improvement. There has been.

However this story ends for England and Kane, he must have had a lot on his mind after the group stage. Aside from how he was playing, he came into the tournament making it known how desperate he is to fulfil his desire to win the biggest honours. A month ago, he was presumed to be talking about the Premier League and Champions League.

Now he is on the verge of doing what no England captain ever has, lifting the European Championship. As well as England, could this be good news for Spurs?

While I am sure Kane’s thirst to challenge for club honours will not be compromised, would international glory mean he is in less of a hurry to force his way out of north London?

Nothing he went on to achieve at, say, Manchester City would ever eclipse ending his country’s 55-year wait for a trophy.

For Kane and this generation of England players, this really is new territory. The same may be said of Italy. Who would have thought that the Italians would face an England team as streetwise as they are?

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