There was an agreeable note of pantomime when the moment came for Harry Kane. Goalscoring records don’t matter, perhaps, or shouldn’t matter, are just numbers in the book. And yet of course they do matter, not least in international football, with its sense of duty and history and ritual.

And somehow it always seemed likely Kane would get his chance to take that England record in this wonderful mini-epic of a qualifier, with England just about holding on to take a thrilling 2-1 victory.

Naples is a glorious place to play football, a city where even the lead-up to the stadium, the total chaos of carriageways and concourses speaks to something unbound and slightly beyond the control of everyone present. Football basically happens to Naples, jamming the roads, scrambling squadrons of police, causing strange noises, energies, excitements to break out. You don’t really steward or manage football in a place like this. You ride it like a wave.

And England were sublime in those first 45 minutes, establishing a two-goal lead that could have been a few more, and producing surely their most balanced midfield performance under Gareth Southgate.

Kane was a magnet for the ball in that period, making it stick like a human baseball mitt. His little runs into space drove the Italy defence into a mania of indecision. Several times he dribbled away from his man, then was caught – he really does chug these days – then had to dribble again, a strange game of tag.

The record moment came after a corner. Giovanni Di Lorenzo handled the ball shielding it from Kane. The referee, Srdjan Jovanovic, strode to his VAR screen, then returned to point at the spot. Gianluigi Donnarumma threw the ball away. The blue shirts crowded around the penalty spot, churning the turf.

Kane paused, collecting his revs, gathering the potential energy of all those years, the rungs on the ladder from there to here, the stumbles and steps up, the act of finally getting in the Spurs team, of making his debut for England under Roy Hodgson, scoring within moments of coming on and looking, even then, like a man just born to do exactly this in exactly that shirt.

England fans celebrate the victory against Italy in Naples.
England fans celebrate the victory against Italy in Naples. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

The ball that Kane had sent into the night sky from the penalty spot at the Al Bayt Stadium three months ago is still out there somewhere, floating in the desert air. He wasn’t going to miss this. Donnarumma dived right. Kane buried it high to the goalkeeper’s left and just kept on running to the corner as one slice of the ground at the far end erupted.

And that was that: the mark passed, 54 goals for England, and a note in the pages of England-dom that will always be there, and is, at the very least unlikely to be passed any time soon.

It is huge moment personally for Kane, who loves records, and who clearly feels his own place in that England scoring lineage, a golden seam of main men, goal kings, record-chasers running back through Harry Kane-Wayne Rooney-Michael Owen-Alan Shearer-Gary Lineker, amassing a total of 225 goals between them in the years 1984-2023.

There has always been something retro in Kane’s noble sad-lion styling, the comic book brow, the 1950s insurance clerk hairstyle, as though this England line is turning back on itself in time, completing the cycle of England hotshots. Who will take it up from here? The English game doesn’t churn out goal-poachers right now. Kane himself is something of an outlier, forged by Football League loans and time in the doldrums, a No 10 who became a No 9.

skip past newsletter promotion

Kane is, for some reason, talked down by some, dismissed as a penalty king, a deflections merchant, a man who has simply got lucky 54 times in 81 games. This seems back to front. In reality Kane has scored relentlessly while always playing for teams with an aversion to winning. Imagine being this good while playing for Spurs and England.

Kane has got there quickly too. His goals per game record is better than any significant goalscorer of the past 50 years, better than Rooney, Charlton, Lineker, Owen, Shearer. Only Jimmy Greaves and Vivian Woodward finished with more than 30 goals at a better rate.

Harry Kane of England talks to the former Liverpool and England player Steven Gerrard
Harry Kane of England talks to the former Liverpool and England player Steven Gerrard, who was on pundit duty with Channel 4 in Naples. Photograph: Will Palmer/Getty Images/Allstar

Greaves was an outright genius. Woodward was born in 1879. Kane has done all this while leading England to a final and a semi-final, taking a World Cup Golden Boot, barely playing a friendly (although there has been plenty of meat for the grinder, as there is on every single one of these scorers’ lists: check out Charlton’s roster of whipping boys).

Plus of course Kane is not just about goals. He plays as a No 10 for half the game, uses the ball beautifully is, in effect, a one-man attacking plan. England were already 1-0 up when he scored his record-breaker, after the goal from Declan Rice. Just before half-time Kane almost made a third for England, sniping through on the left, looking up and pinging the perfect low cross to meet Jack Grealish’s run on the opposite flank. The finish was horrible, stunned weirdly back across a semi-open goal and well wide of the post. If anything it was a useful reminder. This stuff only looks simple.