Everyone knew it was coming. Given there was virtually no cartilage left in Ledley King’s almost permanently knackered knee, it was only a matter of time before the greatest English defender of his generation had to call it quits. It’s a sad day for Tottenham, a sadder day for the man. But we’ll always have the memories. Time, then, to recall just a few of the things that made him a modern great.
1. One club man.
In an age of guns for hire chasing the contracts, King stayed faithful to his club’s cause. He joined at 14, made his debut in May 1999 as a lanky 18-year-old, worked his way into the side and became the first name on the team sheet for the next 12 years. When fit, that is. Had he not suffered injury problems, would he have stuck around at under-achieving Spurs? We’ll never know, but 17 years service makes King one of the club’s finest servants.
2. Lightning Ledders
9.7 seconds. That’s all it took for King to score the fastest goal in Premier League history, away to Bradford in 2000. It was a deflected 30-yarder, Spurs led 3-1 but drew 3-3 in the end - it was that kind of game and that kind of Spurs team, managed by George Graham. But King was a diamond in the rough.
3. Midfield genius
As things got worse at Tottenham, King just seemed to get better and better. With David Pleat playing usurper King John to Glenn Hoddle’s deposed King Richard, the club was in a power-struggle mess. Desperate to halt a slump in form, Pleat played King in midfield, and still he shone.
4. Captain material
In the 150th North London Derby in 2005, Captain King needed to lead by example and did so with a thumping first half header. Breaking out from the clutches of ecstatic team mates, he jogged back to his half, realising there was a job still to be done. Spurs drew, typically. King didn’t score that many (14 in total) but they were all memorable.
Every time he played it felt like the climactic scene in El Cid when the deceased medieval warrior was sent out on horseback to fool his followers into thinking he still lived.
5. Robbing Robben
November 5, 2006, and Spurs are desperately trying to end another long winless streak, this time against the nouveau riche champions of Chelsea. The Blues break clear with Arjen Robben haring through the middle. It’s got 0-1 written all over it. But then King turns on the after burners, catches Robben, and with a perfectly timed interception puts the ball away for a corner. The Spurs crowd celebrate like it’s a goal.Chelsea score from the corner but inspired by their captain Spurs rally and win 2-1.
By 2008, King’s debilitating injury problems fed rumours of impending retirement. Every time he played it felt like the climactic scene in El Cid when the deceased medieval warrior was sent out on horseback to fool his followers into thinking he still lived. King had similar powers of inspiration. In the League Cup final against Chelsea he turned in a superb performance to lead Spurs to victory. He could barely hobble up the new Wembley steps but he finally got to lift a trophy.
7. Mr Majestic
Thanks to the Champions League and modern football’s wacky financial ways, finishing third also-ran now counts as success. But however dubious the achievement, securing a place in Europe’s premier competition owed a large part to King’s cameo roles, and few were better than his commanding display in the deciding game at Manchester City. King held his nervy team together to hold off City’s early threat and defended like a lion.
Balanced, athletic, and skilful, he could pass better than plenty of midfielders and read the game to perfection. That’s why, with only one functioning knee, he could still play (coupled with the hard work in the swimming pool as a substitute for everyday training, that is).
8. What he said
Thierry Henry may be no hero to Tottenham fans but all recognise his quality. So when one of the finest attacking players in Premier League history ranks Ledley King as the greatest defender he played against, it counts for a great deal. Alternatively, there’s Harry Redknapp who said King was “an absolute freak” for the defender’s ability to keep playing. It didn’t sound like much of a compliment but we know what he meant.
In a world of snarling, posturing, egotists ever ready with a display of showy yet toothless aggression, Ledley King was Mr Cool. Eight bookings in 268 league appearances and no red cards tells its own story. King has not been a saint, and some of his nights out seeking refreshment got the notice of the paps, but this quiet and modest man resolutely let his football do the talking.
10. Style King
Ledley King was not just a great defender - he was a great footballer. Balanced, athletic, and skilful, he could pass better than plenty of midfielders and read the game to perfection. That’s why, with only one functioning knee, he could still play (coupled with the hard work in the swimming pool as a substitute for everyday training, that is).
The sad fact is that King could have played so much more. Spurs were left weaker for his absences, and so were England. He played just 21 times for the national side, but in truth England didn’t really suit him. Fans may love the blood and guts heroics of those who throw their body on the line, but King preferred to stay on his feet and play. Because Ledley King was a proper footballer.
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