If I were to tell you that the best English centre-back of his generation was not Rio Ferdinand or John Terry, I would probably receive an earful from you telling me I was wrong. After listening to you, I’d probably tell you it wasn’t Jamie Carragher, nor was it Sol Campbell.
No. The best English centre-back of his generation unfortunately never played for a hallowed club amongst the so-called Big Four. But that is where the real superheroes are found, aren’t they? Always in the shadows, willingly allowing others to occupy centre-stage, basking in the glare of the spotlight and smiling and waving as the roses gather on the dais.
Such a man was Ledley King.
“He is like a magnet for the ball, a thoroughbred of a defender and the best centre-half in the country.”
- Jamie Redknapp
All football clubs have their superheroes. For Manchester United, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have been likened to Batman and Robin and the ‘Awengers’ hold fort at Arsenal. Tottenham Hotspur‘s Superman was the one who would always zoom in to save the day. Unlike Kal El, though, King’s kryptonite existed within him.
For the latter part of his career, King was plagued by a chronic knee injury, where his knees would fill up with fluid every time he was on the pitch. No effective treatment was found for his condition, and he spent the last six or seven years of his career training by himself.
No surgery would be able to fix his condition because there was no cartilage to operate on in his knee. Moving his knee did not involve cartilage on bone, but bone on bone. There was nothing to operate on every time he went under the surgeon’s scalpel.
And therein lay the underlying cause for all his injuries.
But despite this, Ledley King persevered, Ledley King endured, and Ledley King forged on with a dogged determination and unbelievable resilience in the face of excruciatingly painful adversity that would have signalled the end of many a sporting career.
If King had one thing in common with other legendary defenders of his era such as Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Paolo Maldini and Carles Puyol, it was not that he was excellent at what he did, it was that he was a one-club man through and through. Coming from the youth ranks at Tottenham Hotspur, King stayed on when he could have walked away from White Hart Lane before his injuries began to surface.
He could have departed for pastures greener, just like the man alongside whom he used to walk out to the electric atmosphere at the Lane, but unlike Sol Campbell, who went to Tottenham’s hated rivals Arsenal and enmeshed himself in the clubs folklore by becoming the rock in the Gunners rearguard as they achieved their unbeaten streak of 49 games, Ledley King set about winning the hearts and minds of those who showed him admiration by adoration.
He knew the fans were hurting, he knew they needed succour, he knew they were aghast when they saw Sol Campbell cap their unbeaten season by lifting silverware at the Lane, and he would step up to the plate and try to put things right. Quoting the Bible in an article like this may seem weird, but it lends great credence to the kind of player King actually is:
“For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me.”
King James Bible, Psalm 31:3
And King rose to the occasion of laying the foundations of turning White Hart Lane by donning the mantle of Horatio at the Bridge (should that be the Lane?) as he helped turn his home ground into a fortress. The impact may not have been felt immediately, but if you look at Spurs’ league position this season as they lie in third behind Manchester giants United and City, the ripples that King had cast into the Lilywhite pond are now being felt.
And it was evident that King was at the centre of Spurs’ slow but certain climb up the table. Audere est Facere (to dare is to do) is the motto of the North Londoners, and King dared his body to go past its very narrow threshold as he did the impossible and established himself a mainstay at White Hart Lane, pushing himself over the edge to fiercely defend a lead that his team had fought so valiantly to earn.
“King would get the ball off you without you even noticing…he’s the only defender in England who doesn’t hold onto you, and he sometimes still gets the ball off my feet easily.”
- Thierry Henry
It was that attribute that made coach after Spurs coach give him the captain’s armband despite an injury-pockmarked career. Jamie Redknapp called him ‘the best centre-half in the country’, his father Harry called him an ‘absolute freak’ for his unquestionable dedication to the game, another former Spurs coach Martin Jol hailed him as the best central defender he had ever seen and former England coach Fabio Capello labelled him ‘one the best central defenders in England’.
But you don’t have to scan through the facts once again if you aren’t convinced. Below is a statistical comparison of Spurs’ games with and without King during the 2010-11 season:
Being physically strong is easy to achieve. Most defenders in the modern game do possess strength of body. But the greatest defenders who have written themselves into the annals of history and have achieved a place in the highest echelons of a club’s memories have had tremendous mental strength. Look at the best the world has produced. Alessandro Nesta and Maldini are the first who come to mind. Jaap Stam, Fernando Hierro, Tony Adams, Ian Callaghan – they all displayed mental toughness and an intelligence that belied the fact that they were grown adults who wore shorts and ran about a patch of grass for a living.
Ledley King is surely as strong – if not stronger – than his peers. He had to be, in order to withstand what his body was going through every week:
“I knew my fitness levels were so low compared with those I was playing against. I had to trick myself into believing it wasn’t about that. “I’d tell myself, ‘This is a football game, use your brains, use your intelligence’. That’s the way I started to defend. “There wasn’t really any pain. It was more of a restriction. I couldn’t bend the knee past 90 degrees and that would limit what I could do.
I was never much of a diver-in but you just learn to survive. You find a way. You don’t cheat, but you do what you can to survive. “Some days it would feel OK and some days it would feel terrible. Some days I’d not train for the whole week and I’d go out the day before a game and it felt no good.”
Whether one wants to will himself into disbelieving it or not, it was King’s tremendous performances where he gave it his all that have catapulted Spurs to the club they are today.
That King was so pivotal to Spurs can be seen in some of the most memorable victories he’s enjoyed in a Spurs shirt. In 2006, he became the first Spurs players to captain a team to a win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as Tottenham won 2-1.
It was by the same scoreline that Spurs beat Chelsea to lift the League Cup in 2008, with King becoming the first captain to do so at the new Wembley Arena. He was denied a chance to repeat that feat, however, when Spurs lost to Manchester United 1-4 on penalties the following year, a game which saw the emergence of Ben Foster.
But by far one of the most important games of King’s career for Spurs will be their one-nil win at Manchester City on the fifth of May 2010, guaranteeing Spurs a Champions League berth for the first time in their history coupled with their highest ever league finish.
Whenever he played, he made sure he was at the top of his game.
In 2008, he received on behalf of his team the award for Cleanest Team in the Premier League: something which translated into King’s performances. Throughout his career, King received only eight yellow cards and was never sent off.
It was these battling, never-say-die qualities that prompted England’s coaches to call him up despite his evident injury woes. One needs to be at the top of his game to play for one’s country, and despite what his critics might say, King displayed those attributes. That was what defined Ledley King as he earned 29 caps for England, one of them coming in a surprise call-up for England when they travelled to South Africa in 2010. King played 45 minutes against the United States before succumbing to a groin injury.
King announced his retirement from football in 2012, being appointed as Spurs’ club ambassador soon afterwards. Legends both past and present hailed him as one of the best centre-backs of his generation.
Chelsea will have their ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’, Arsenal will have a Mister Arsenal, Liverpool will have someone to call their own Kop heartbeat and Manchester United will hail one of their legends as someone who has been a Red Devil through and through. But for Spurs, there will only be one King.
And his name is Ledley.Published 01 Mar 2013, 16:26 IST