England warriors Harry Kane and Harry Maguire deserve our gratitude not our jeers

It has not quite been the greatest year in the history of the England football team, but by any objective measure, 2021 will be pretty close when it comes to an end on the field this evening.

England's Harry Kane (right) celebrates scoring their side's second goal against Albania with Jordan Henderson (Picture: PA)

It will do so with qualification for another World Cup.

For that not to happen, tonight’s hosts San Marino, ranked 210th of the 210 FIFA-recognised international football teams, will have to double their all-time tally of victories. Poland will also have to beat obdurate Hungary convincingly enough to pull off a seven-goal swing. If both happen, England will go into play-off semi-finals to qualify instead.

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But they will not, so this will be the year when England were a penalty shoot-out away from only their second major trophy, and qualified for a World Cup. They have not lost any of their 18 matches in regulation time.

England's Harry Maguire celebration on Friday drew criticism (Picture: PA)

If qualifying for a major tournament seems a bit “So what?” to England fans either too young to remember Steve McClaren cowering under his umbrella or just able to erase it from their memory, it is not.

The Three Lions have not been blessed with as many super-talented playmakers since the 1970s, when they sat out consecutive World Cups. With expanded tournaments and the geopolitical map creating more minnows, qualification is easier now, but has still been beyond some of global football’s biggest hitters this century.

You would think, then, this England squad – not just good footballers but a group with a strong social conscience too –could do no wrong. Sadly that is not the case.

Harry Kane, England’s captain, the golden boot winner at the last World Cup, scorer of four goals and a shoot-out penalty at the European Championships, and level with Jimmy Greaves on 44 international strikes, has been copping criticism left, right and centre for six months.

England's Harry Maguire applauds the fans after the FIFA World Cup Qualifying match at Wembley on Friday (Picture: PA)

Harry Maguire, the Sheffield-born centre-back whose song England fans love to sing more than any other player’s, has been taking pelters for his poor recent Manchester United form, so much so he unwisely celebrated Friday’s goal against Albania by putting his fingers in his ears. You can tell it was a mistake because afterwards he claimed the gesture was not aimed at anyone.

That only earned more criticism. “Embarrassing,” fumed Roy Keane as only he can.

So feeble was the opposition Albania put up in their 5-0 surrender at Wembley no one could claim with a straight face that Maguire’s goal or Kane’s three – header, left foot and right foot – provided redemption but they raised questions about why we treat our top footballers the way we do.

Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s title-winning captain, owner of 68 England caps and often the source of nationwide groans when his name is on a Gareth Southgate team-sheet, knows all about it.

“It surprises me because of the quality of him but it doesn’t surprise me because we play football and everyone has an opinion,” said Henderson, when asked about the criticism of Kane. “You’ll always go through moments when your form might not be as good as you’d like.

“He’s always going to get criticism along the way. I’ve had it my whole career and I’ll get it until the day I finish. You learn how to deal with it in a better way as you get older and more experienced. You use it to fuel you and make yourself better.

“I do think he is appreciated. He certainly is from the players and that’s the most important thing.

“I think the majority of England love him for what he’s given over the past few years, the amount of goals he’s scored, the records he’s got, but you’re going to get criticism at times, especially when your club form is not as great as Spurs would want and he hasn’t been scoring as many goals as he would want.

“He’s proven he’s still one of the best strikers in the world.”

Southgate can stick his fingers in his ears to the nonsense.

“Form is always temporary,” he reflected. “What pleased me most on Friday was his all-round performance – his hold-up play, he bullied his centre-backs and brought his team-mates in very well and pressured very well.”

Southgate continued: “Maguire is a fabulous player – in the European Championship team of the tournament. He’s rushed back (from injury) because he’s got a huge conscience to help his club. Lots of players hide in the treatment room when the pressure’s on but he hasn’t done that and I’ve got massive respect for that.

“But you know as a player sometimes you can go into matches not 100 per cent fit or short of the training ideally you’d like and you’re always judged as if you’re a fully-fit player.”

Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount and Luke Shaw will stay at home, adding to a lengthy list of absentees through injury and illness. Conor Gallagher has been drafted in.

Mason Greenwood has been saying “No thank you” to an England call-up for some time now, his club-mate Marcus Rashford preferred to build up his fitness training with Manchester United’s under-18s; Callum Hudson-Odoi turned his nose up at an under-21 call-up.

If we do not start treating our best footballers better, we risk ending up with the England team we deserve. Even though it would make nights like tonight slightly less predictable the game would be much the poorer for it.