There are many players that are handed the label of ‘What could have been?’. Mario Balotelli, Adriano or Alexander Pato are prime examples of footballers who never quite hit the heights they were expected to.
It is rare to find players in this world like Ledley King; who were regarded as one of the greats of their era and established themselves as a club legend, yet still perhaps had more to give.
Through no fault of his own, Ledley King could be firmly placed in that rare breed. An injury-hampered career meant the stalwart centre-back’s first team appearances were consistently interrupted, but when he was available he would be the first name on the Tottenham team sheet.
King joined Tottenham as a 15-year-old trainee and worked his way up the academy seamlessly, even garnering comparisons to England’s World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore within the Spurs youth system. High expectations were placed on his young shoulders. And that’s putting things lightly ...
He made his first team debut three years later under the Anfield lights in a 3-2 defeat to Liverpool. It took him a further two years to cement his place in the starting 11 under George Graham and had to do it through a central midfield role instead. During this more advanced role he scored what was at the time the fastest goal in Premier League history, netting against Bradford City in 9.82 seconds.
King began to mould back into his favoured position of centre-back and fully flourished when Martin Jol arrived at the Lane in 2004. The following year King was instated as club captain and under his leadership Tottenham began progressing from middling in the Premier League to regularly competing for European football.
It was during this time that Ledley King began to establish himself as a Tottenham icon. Any club’s supporters will have affinity for the academy players when they break through into the senior set-up, with the hope that they become a Steven Gerrard or a Carles Puyol and lead the club through new successes.
Tottenham fans had already been scarred by the betrayal of former captain Sol Campbell in the years prior, and so King became even more of a source of pride for the Lilywhite faithful when he wore the armband.
He consistently produced outstanding moments for his club. His recovery tackle against Chelsea, sprinting back and sneaking the ball from a clear-on-goal Arjen Robben, has echoed through the ages as a prime example of his athleticism and defensive class.
King was an architect of clean defending. Only receiving eight yellow cards in 268 Premier League appearances and not once being shown a red. Thierry Henry said “Ledley King will get the ball off you without you even noticing. No contact, no fouls, but still strong. For me, that is a good defender.”
His Spurs performances led to England call-ups. One off matches in 2002 and 2003 integrated him into Sven-Goran Eriksson’s plans for Euro 2004, where he made two appearances.
He remained firmly in the England set-up in the build up for the 2006 World Cup, but then the nagging, unrelenting injury problems reared their ugly head again. He didn’t travel to Germany and his national team minutes in the following years were limited to tournament warm-ups and international friendlies.
Fabio Capello, however, was still an admirer. “Without doubt, King is one of the best central defenders in England,” said the Italian. “We hope (he has an international future), because he’s a very interesting player.”
He regained his England squad spot through nursing chronic knee issues and was selected to travel to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. As Rio Ferdinand sat at home injured, King partnered John Terry in the opening group game against the United States, making his first, long-awaited World Cup appearance, aged 30.
But Ledley King’s chance on the highest stage of them all concluded almost as quickly as it began.
At the halfway mark, King was substituted for Jamie Carragher, suffering a groin injury that ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. That night in Phokeng was emblematic of Ledley King’s career – Great enough to be starting on the biggest stages in football, but cruelly plagued by injuries.
King would never play for England after that match, but he would continue to proudly serve Spurs for two further seasons. By this point, under manager Harry Redknapp, he had stopped training in the week in order to keep more injuries at bay, yet he was still able to maintain the high standard he had always set himself.
His last match came in a 1-0 loss to QPR, but that was no fitting way to send off such royalty. Two years later, his testimonial brought together a team of Tottenham legends and a White Hart Lane packed to the rafters that brought the long-time leader’s reign to a proper end.
Ledley King’s presence is still significant on N17. Aside from a brief first-team coaching spell under Jose Mourinho, he has been a club ambassador since his retirement, proudly representing Tottenham as he has done since he first arrived as a teenager.
His words ‘This is my club, my one and only club’ are still etched into the hearts of Tottenham fans around the world.
And with how disappointing the contemporary Tottenham sides have been in the past two-or-three years, how they could do with a Ledley King on the pitch today.