It is hard to escape one recurrent theme in analysing the career of Ledley King.
Even outside of Tottenham Hotspur circles, most will describe a supremely talented centre back. A potentially great one were it not for a crippling injury record.
By the end of his thirteen year career, King’s knee injuries had become so insufferable that he could no longer train. This prompted former manager Harry Redknapp to declare King “the most amazing player I’ve ever seen”.
To define Ledley King as a nearly man, or as a prisoner to his own body, seeks to ignore an outstanding defender and leader. First Time Finish spoke to Charlie Eccleshare of The Athletic to further understand one of Tottenham’s greatest captains.
The Young King
After joining Spurs’ youth set up in 1996, King would make his full debut for the club three years later away to Liverpool. His manager at the time George Graham recalled a special youngster, and one that was always going to break into the side sooner or later.
This talented young player was also turning heads as part of a new breed of English centre back.
‘He was certainly more progressive than the prototype English centre back, and in those early years of his career the expectation on English defenders was to first and foremost defend.’ recalls Charlie.
‘There was the emergence of Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate and even John Terry, defenders that were all good on the ball. King was a part of that group of centre backs, changing the expectation of centre backs at the time.’
Such calmness and ease in possession saw King used in midfield during his early years. As late as 2004 in fact, by which point King had appeared in over 100 games for Spurs, he was being fielded as a holding midfielder at club level. It is unsurprising perhaps that Tottenham were unable to find the best place for such a talent given their own erratic form at the time.
‘The club were in the doldrums in his first few years. Like Sol Campbell during his time at Tottenham, King was a cut above. Even though they finished as low as fourteenth in 2003/04, his performance level never dropped. They finished tenth or lower four times in five seasons between 1999/2000 and 2003/2004.’
‘The quality he had jarred with that around him, and stylistically he was a more modern player.’
The Career Definer
If this is to be an ode to King’s playing career, and not an obituary, then one must look no further than Bonfire Night of 2006. Tottenham won for the first time in sixteen years against title holders Chelsea. Not only was King captain of that memorable triumph, but he delivered the moment of the match. Potentially a career.
Spurs were under intense waves of Chelsea attack during the first period, and their resilience appeared to buckle when Arjen Robben broke free. The Spurs defensive line was high and unorganised, and a lobbed pass over the top set the Dutchman in on goal.
One of the fastest dribblers of his generation, Robben was seldom caught at speed. Yet as he brought the ball under control, King is seen entering the picture at full throttle. Having started over ten yards behind Robben, he roared back towards his own goal. With a mixture of timing and precision he gets goal side of the Dutchman and pokes the ball away.
It is a remarkable tackle. To firstly make up ground on Robben, and then win the ball without giving away a penalty. It is the perfect piece of defending.
Ultimately, Claude Makelele would score from the resulting corner. Yet rather than be in vein, King’s Tottenham would win their first home game over their rivals since 1987.
‘He was at the peak of his powers at this time. It was a defining moment for him, and shows how special his recovery speed was.’ remembers Charlie.
It took until 2004 for King’s position as an elite centre back to be established. It was at Euro 2004 with England that this was really proven. Having only been capped six times prior to the tournament, King would play in a friendly versus Portugal. Playing at centre back in place of Sol Campbell, King would score and earn himself a call up to the tournament squad.
John Terry’s injury would this time open the door for King to start in the quarter final, against holders France. Against a juggernaut of Zidane, Henry and Pires, King was exceptional alongside Campbell. England would be knocked out by Zidane’s late double. King’s stock had only rocketed as a result however.
King would make twenty-one England appearances between 2002 and 2010. Heading into the 2006 World Cup it appeared as if King would make the cut before a metatarsal injury would rule him out.
Four years later and King would this time make it to the tournament. He would even start the opening game against the USA, before being substituted halfway through with a groin injury. It would be King’s last international appearance.
‘He would have played so much more for England were it not for injuries. To take a player with his injury record to a major tournament is madness, were it not Ledley King.’
‘England had great centre backs at the time. Terry, Ferdinand, Campbell and Jamie Carragher were all in the mix with him. For him to start the first game of that tournament shows how highly he was rated.’
A Career Cut Short
King’s twilight years simply should not have been in his early thirties. For most centre backs this is the point where their powers reach a crescendo. Where match intelligence and experience are coupled with a physical peak.
Yet just as Spurs were gathering pace as consistent top four challengers, King’s body was slowing even further. When he played, he was magnificent, but this was becoming all too rare. Alongside Michael Dawson he helped Spurs qualify for the Champions League in 2010/11.
Yet following the club’s run to the quarter finals in that tournament, King would remain for only one more year. As Bale, Modric, Van der Vaart and Dembélé would collectively begin driving Spurs towards a new era, sadly King would miss the boat.
‘To retire at thirty-one is no age for a centre back. I think even in his final season he played over twenty games in all competitions. When he did play he was exceptional too.’
King’s retirement would come several months after his last appearance for Spurs, a 1-0 defeat away to QPR. It is a sad reality that a player and captain who gave so much to the club was not around to see the brilliant Pochettino years that preceded.
After spending nearly eight years as a club ambassador, King is now assistant coach to Jose Mourinho.
‘He has made a great impression in the short time in the role. The club will be realistic with their appointments in the future, but it would be a dream scenario for him to continue his progress with the club.’
King of the Lane
‘There is a great respect at Tottenham for their past. A real keen-ness to retain links with those that have passed through the club from academy level. Ledley King is no different.’
King’s role as Mourinho’s number two once again places him firmly within the club’s image. He might not have been part of the team under Pochettino’s development, but now he can help shape the next age under one of Europe’s greatest coaches.
His longevity might have been crippled by physical impediment, but his time and dedication to the club cannot be disputed.
‘Had he not had so many injuries, almost any club in Europe would have wanted him. As it was, the injury record and Spurs’ own lack of Champions League football probably kept bigger clubs away.’
This of course was to Tottenham’s benefit. There is no denying that when on the pitch, Ledley King was a match for any striker. Pace, strength, match awareness, bravery. It is this repertoire of attributes that has bred a culture of mourning when people discuss his career. For every compliment, there is a looming ‘but’ waiting to douse the sentiment in cold water.
For all the mockery aimed at a club that has not won a trophy in twelve years, it was King that lifted that last piece of silverware.
Whilst Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool enshrine their legends as statues, Tottenham do things differently. The respect and affection of those that dedicated their lives to the club is inherently known. Ledley King is a part of that very fabric. Whilst many declare a shame at an unfinished legacy, Tottenham celebrate an incredible defender, and a fearless character. One that is now entering the next phase of his life at the club.
Charlie Eccleshare is The Athletic’s Tottenham correspondent. Thank you to Charlie for his insight, you can find his brilliant article on King’s role at the club here.