THE WORD ‘LEGEND’ IS THROWN ABOUT IN MODERN FOOTBALL too frequently for some. The criteria for becoming a club legend these days seems to be to simply stick around for a prolonged period of time and maybe pick up a couple of medals along the way – but to truly merit the title requires a lot more than that. It takes a special connection with the club and fans, and at a club like Tottenham Hotspur, the supporters need to adore you for that to become a possibility.
For fans of every generation, they will have their favourite players who they consider legends. Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy Greaves, Cliff Jones and Dave Mackay – to name just four from the 1961 double-winning side – Ricky Villa, Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle, Gary Mabbutt, Steve Perryman; these players are all legends of the London club. But there’s one man who may be younger than all of those mentioned but is held in just as much esteem, perhaps even more so, by the majority of Spurs fans.
Ledley King was born in Bow, East London, in 1980 and quickly showed his ability with a ball at his feet. King joined the famous Senrab youth team, named after Senrab Street in Stepney. This wasn’t just your standard local youth team; it had considerable pedigree when it came to developing players from the London areas.
In 1996, King joined Spurs as a youth trainee when he was 16, and immediately he impressed almost everyone at the club. Comparisons were made between King and the great Bobby Moore, mainly due to their outstanding positioning, ability to read the game and ability to dictate play with the ball at their feet.
It didn’t take long for the first team to welcome King, and in May 1999 under George Graham, Ledley King made his professional debut for Tottenham in a 3-2 loss at Anfield against Liverpool, coming on as a half-time substitute for Stephen Clemence when Spurs were 2-0 up. It may not have been the dream debut that King was looking for, but he gained a lot of experience from that game – mainly in how not to defend a lead away at Anfield.
King would have to wait five months until his next Spurs appearance, playing the full 90 in a 1-0 away win against Derby. Despite this clean sheet performance in a back five for King, he would have to wait until the final two games of the Premiership season to be seen in the squad again.
Read | When Jürgen Klinsmann dived his way into the heart of English football
The first of the two appearances was only a six-minute cameo at Old Trafford against Manchester United when the Red Devils were 3-1 up, but the final game of the season proved to be King’s home debut, a full year after his full bow against Liverpool.
Goals from Darren Anderton, Tim Sherwood and Stephen Carr gave Spurs a 3-1 victory at White Hart Lane to round of what had been a fairly inconsistent season for the north London club, but whilst the young defender had made an impression on both the coaching staff and the fans, he still had to wait another season before getting a full campaign under his belt.
The 2000/01 season was when King became a fan favourite and slowly started to show why Graham was willing to put faith into him, even if that faith wasn’t fully shown until December. Much like the two seasons prior, King was lucky to see himself included in the match day squad, but with the absence of Sol Campbell glaring in the Spurs back line, King’s services were desperately needed at home to face the team he had made his debut against, Liverpool.
This time, King and Spurs took on the Reds at White Hart Lane; despite falling to an early Robbie Fowler goal, Spurs took all three points with King and Chris Perry proving to be a formidable duo in the heart of the defence. It wouldn’t be Perry with whom King would form a partnership, however, but rather his former Senrab partner, Campbell.
Thirteen of King’s 18 Premier League appearances that season would come alongside Campbell as they became two of the brightest defensive prospects in English football, but they alone weren’t enough to save Graham’s job, with the former Arsenal manager getting the sack with Spurs in 13th place. It was actually during this season that King set a new Premier League record, and at the time of writing, the record still stands.
It was a cold December afternoon as Tottenham made the trip up to Bradford for a 3pm Premier League kick-off. Most were expecting a close battle between a mid-table Spurs side and a Bradford team scrapping for every point they could. The theory of it being a tight game went out of the window 10 seconds in; somehow, King opened the scoring before many had even got to their seats.
Read | Martin Jol and the decade that laid Tottenham’s groundwork
For whatever reason, King took the kick-off and rather than retreat back to his defensive position, he carried on running forward. When he got the ball back about 25 yards out, he leathered it into the bottom corner. It will take one heck of an effort to beat 10 seconds, but King can lay claim to that record for years to come.
When Sol Campbell controversially departed the Lane on a free transfer to arch-rivals Arsenal at the end of that season, Spurs fans were left without a defensive lynchpin. Campbell had come up through the youth academy and had just left in the worst possible manner. They were searching for someone new to call their own, but they didn’t have to look too far.
It was at this time that King stepped out of Campbell’s shadow and made the centre-back position his own. At the age of just 20, King was more often than not the youngest member in the Tottenham starting line-up, but it highlighted how mature he was and how he was able to adapt to his surroundings, something that would come in very handy towards the latter end of his career.
Glenn Hoddle had taken over from George Graham towards the end of the 2000/01 season and had made Spurs into a side that occasionally played with three central defenders, with King a huge part of that set-up. As King matured, and with more games under his belt, his qualities began to shine through. He wasn’t blessed with blistering pace – although he was hardly a couch potato – but had the mental awareness and defensive intelligence to be one step ahead of his man.
King may only have been coming into his 20s but he was so clever, rarely making poor judgements. While many defenders go to ground because they think it’s the only option, seeing their name in lights as the hero with the last-ditch tackle, King realised from a young age that if he stayed on his feet, didn’t give in to the attacker, kept his position, and made his move at the right time, he’d be tough to beat.
Under Hoddle, Spurs played good football and many believed that it could be the start of something special at White Hart Lane after years of mediocrity, but in typical Spurs fashion, their promising season ended up a disappointment as a League Cup final loss to Blackburn and a ninth-place finish meant that Spurs missed out on European football.
Read | David Bentley and the unforgiving world of football
An injury towards the back end of the season against Arsenal meant that King had to sit out the remaining games, the 2002 World Cup and the majority of the 2002/03 season, something that would become the norm for King during his later career. What followed for Spurs was two more years of disappointment, which saw Hoddle replaced by Director of Football David Pleat until the end of the season, when Frenchman Jacques Santini would take over full-time.
While Santini had just guided France to the quarter-finals of Euro 2004, he left in November due to personal reasons to be replaced by his assistant Martin Jol, an appointment that would see King’s career go to the next level. By the time Jol had arrived, King was already being spoken about as one of the best English defenders in the Premier League alongside John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and his former teammate Sol Campbell, but his various knee troubles had begun to cause him intense pain, forcing him to miss game after game.
Despite that, Jol’s first season in charge at the club was special for all involved; for the first time in years, Spurs felt like they could achieve something again, and with Ledley King as captain, there was a lot of positivity around White Hart Lane. Alongside Michael Dawson, King formed yet another strong partnership that many Spurs fans consider to be one of the best they’ve seen.
King’s talent shone through as Spurs finished fifth, just beaten to the final Champions League spot by Arsenal thanks to a last-day defeat against West Ham which was dominated by the “Lasagna Gate” controversy. Regardless of the disappointment, Spurs fans looked upon the season as a positive, with King looking likely to be included in Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England squad for the 2006 World Cup following his impressive display at the previous competition, Euro 2004. But the first of a string of injuries meant that King had to miss out, and it got worse when he damaged his knee in pre-season training having recovered from his initial injury.
It was at this time that King’s career became both tragic and remarkable in equal measure. Not only are fans left wondering what could have been had he stayed fit, but also how on earth he managed to put in so many dominant performances despite only having one fully-functioning knee.
King went on to make 27 appearances for Spurs the following season as the club once again finished fifth, but one performance stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Tottenham hadn’t beaten Chelsea at White Hart Lane since 1987 and hadn’t beaten them in the league since 1990, but King put in an inspired performance as Spurs came out of the clash victorious. His tackle on Arjen Robben remains one of the finest examples of defending in the club’s history.
Read | Deconstructing Harry Redknapp: a football talent beyond just his personality
The following season was the worst for King in terms of games played as a senior professional, managing 10 appearances in all competitions, but this was the year that many will never forget for one reason. Spurs defeated Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley to win the League Cup, their first piece of silverware in the 21st century, and the image of both Robbie Keane and Ledley King holding up the trophy above their heads is both enduring and poignant.
During the next season, which began under Juande Ramos but finished under Harry Redknapp, King featured much more Spurs staved off relegation following a poor start to the season. With King and Dawson now established as Tottenham’s first choice centre-backs when fit, the club set their sights high in the 2009/10 season as they finished in the top four to qualify for the Champions League for the first time. What made their achievement even more special was how it had all been led by a man who didn’t train during the week, yet was perhaps the club’s best player alongside Gareth Bale.
Ledley King’s chronic knee problems meant he was restricted to just gym sessions, and trying to keep his ligaments attached. Over the course of the next two seasons, King only played 32 times across all competitions, but in each of those games he was outstanding in one way or another. The lack of minutes were tough for Spurs fans to accept, considering King had become a god-like figure, but what the Englishman put himself through was nothing short of phenomenal.
By July 2012, King had announced his retirement from football due to his chronic injuries and pain. It was a day of sorrow for King, the club and the fans, but his announcement highlighted just how well-respected and rated he was by fans of other clubs, with a number of former foes paying tribute to a man many consider to be one of the most intelligent and complete English defenders produced in recent decades.
Indeed, Thierry Henry 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.”
Unsurprisingly, King remains a popular figure at the club. He’s still a part of Tottenham as an ambassador, still sung about by the fans, and still sorely missed. What remain are the memories of his inspiring leadership from defence, and the inevitable what ifs. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to suggest that King could’ve been one of the world’s best central defenders had injuries not ruined a career heading towards its peak