A tribute to ‘Sir’ Ledley King, the most cultured defender of his era
Cast your mind back to Bonfire Night 2006. It’s early evening, the chill in the air is beginning to bite and fans of Tottenham are pinching themselves.
Having not beaten their hated rivals Chelsea since 1990, Spurs beat the Premier League champions 2-1 and 30,000 Spurs supporters had crowed themselves silly over John Terry’s dismissal.
But the script had looked very different. With only minutes gone, Arjen Robben raced through to put the visitors into their customary lead at ‘Three-Point Lane’.
The Chelsea fans went quiet with expectation, their Spurs counterparts experiencing the sensation of their hearts sinking into their feet. The regularity of this feeling didn’t make it any less painful.
But Ledley King had other ideas. The Spurs captain sprinted back manically, making up 10-15 yards on the famously rapid Robben before producing a perfectly-timed tackle on the Chelsea winger as he was about to shoot.
The crowd jumped into the air as if they’d scored. Tottenham scored a red-letter victory but King’s challenge was its abiding image. It was one of the most impressive tackles in Premier League history and was typical of the defender King was.
In dispossessing Robben, there was no hint of foul play. No hint of professionalism or cynicism. Just an expertly timed challenge from an impeccable footballer.
No wonder Spurs fans christened him ‘Sir Ledley’.
It’s Ledley King’s birthday today. You remember him.
Central defender. 6ft 2in. Once made himself invisible to Arjen Robben…
— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) October 12, 2020
King joined Tottenham as a 16-year-old trainee after making his name at youth club Senrab.
This wasn’t your standard local youth team; it had considerable pedigree when it came to developing players from the London areas and birthed the careers of Sol Campbell, John Terry and Jermain Defoe among others.
But King still stood out. With his outstanding positioning, ability to read the game and the inclination to dictate play from the defence, he reminded some observers of the great Bobby Moore.
And his in-game intelligence and awareness stood out during an era where black defenders were mainly praised for their physical qualities.
Even so, his Spurs debut was inauspicious. The young centre-back was introduced as a half-time substitute at Anfield in May 1999, where Spurs were leading 2-0.
They lost 3-2. So far, so Spursy.
But King recovered from that setback and began to establish himself in the first-team squad. By the time he scored within 10 seconds of Tottenham’s trip to Bradford in 2000, he was already thought of as one of the league’s best young defenders.
His elevation to legendary status at Spurs has its origins in the summer of 2001. Campbell had been the prized homegrown hero until then but, in joining Arsenal on a free transfer, effectively defecated upon his legacy from the height of Canary Wharf.
Tottenham needed a new homegrown icon and King slotted into the role as seamlessly as one of his tackles. Often paired with Chris Perry or cult hero Gary Doherty, the Leyton-born man was an anchor in Glenn Hoddle’s inconsistent side.
And he caught the eye at international level too. King made his England debut under Sven Goran-Eriksson and, with the likes of Terry and Rio Ferdinand unavailable, shackled Thierry Henry during England’s match with France at Euro 2004.
Indeed, Henry later said: “I don’t like defenders who hold the shirts of other players. The only defender here who doesn’t do that and still gets the ball off my feet easily is Ledley King.
“He is the only guy who doesn’t hold players. He will get the ball off you without you even noticing.”
Happy Birthday, Ledley King 👑 pic.twitter.com/MSnpe2KUuQ
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) October 12, 2021
Unfortunately, while the accolades racked up, injuries did so too.
An on-trend metatarsal injury ruled him out of the 2006 World Cup, while he’d be restricted to just 10 appearances during the 2007-08 season – the last year Spurs won a piece of silverware.
By the time Harry Redknapp was in charge, King was unable to train during the week and found himself limited to gym sessions and trying to keep his ligaments intact.
Not that it impacted his on-pitch performances. His partnership with Michael Dawson was immense and took Spurs into the Champions League for the first time.
Redknapp has come out with some codswallop over the years but his assessment of King was bang on the money.
“There’s no cure. There’s no cartilage, nothing to operate on. It’s just bone on bone,” he said. “So it’s just a question of managing it. It swells up after games and it normally takes seven days to recover but having played on Monday night he’s had less time than usual.
“He rarely trains, he mostly just goes to the gym to keep himself ticking over. But not running or anything like that.
“But even if he only plays 20 games a season, he’s worth having because he’s so good we have a much better chance of winning.”
King had a stellar career, a real one-club man who represented England at two major tournaments. His ability was such that’s impossible not to wonder what might have been if he’d remained (more) injury-free.
But you’ll find nobody at White Hart Lane that downplays his ability and King rightly sits alongside Gary Mabbutt or Dave Mackay as beloved Spurs defenders.
Not bad for a man with one functioning knee, we’re sure you’ll agree.
By Michael Lee