King's presence on the field as important as ever for Tottenham
Besides Wayne Rooney's renascent petulance, the central narrative in England's Euro 2012 qualification campaign has been the rejuvenation of Fabio Capello's squad; piecemeal, certainly, but we are witnessing a changing of the guard of sorts. Particularly in defense, where a number of players -- Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Micah Richards and Kyle Walker -- look more or less viable alternatives to the incumbents and where Phil Jones has already shown himself comfortably capable of replacing his perpetually injured Manchester United teammate Rio Ferdinand -- so much so that Ferdinand's future at international level has been called in to question. Yet speaking to the Tottenham defender Ledley King a short while before England's 2-2 draw with Montenegro, international football seems an anomalous topic of conversation, a diversion too far on a tight schedule. Which is odd when you consider that he is two years younger than Ferdinand, and arguably the finest English central defender since Bobby Moore.
The modern game is laced with nonsense realities, but few feel as discomfiting as the fact that King, who turns 31 on Tuesday, is playing for a new deal in the summer. The Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp is not being exactly tyrannical in suggesting that he will have to let his captain go unless he makes at least 20 appearances this season (King made nine last season, when a recurrence of the groin injury that scuppered his 2010 World Cup kept him out for seven months), but King can -- and frequently does -- make a difference to Spurs when palpably unfit. He has admitted that playing is agony, and that he has rarely felt better than 70 percent on the pitch, yet still, he is determined to win a new contract at the club he joined as a teenager. As he lumbered up the pitch in support of Jermain Defoe in the last 10 minutes of the recent north London derby, struggling back even more slowly, you wondered whether it could be a coincidence that he had summoned such determination against Arsenal.
"It's a big season for me," he tells SI.com, delighted for now to be starting -- and finishing -- games on a weekly basis. "It's a big season for the club, we want to get back in to the Champions League, and for me personally, having missed the whole of preseason. I feel good." It is certainly not coincidence that King's return to something resembling fitness has accompanied the upturn in Tottenham's season; the simultaneous signings of Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor clearly remodeled Redknapp's side for the better, but King's presence is a charm. The manager has won 75 percent of the matches that King has featured in, and 33 percent of those he has not. No wonder Redknapp has recently been quoted as saying that Ledley King is "the most amazing player I've ever seen."
King broke in to Tottenham's first team at 18, during George Graham's spell in the dugout. "I was just a kid that wanted to play football, and he gave me that opportunity," says King. "He was a good person, he was very defense orientated and he was a big help for me." It was in a defensive midfield position, however, that Graham introduced King, and he would switch between that and a central defensive post several times before settling in to the latter during the 2004/05 season, which started with Jacques Santini's brief tenure at White Hart Lane and ended with Martin Jol having made King the club captain. His consistently impressive performances that season and the next -- blending the departed Sol Campbell's doggedness with pace, a slightly more cerebral grace and a Moore-esque sense of anticipation -- had Spurs fans crowing like cockerels. King looked a natural successor to the England captaincy (Jol later said that King was more talented than every other central defender in the country). And then he hurt his knee.
Having played 74 games in two seasons for Tottenham, he played 96 in the next five, returning repeatedly to surgeons who quickly began to run out of Plan Bs. "I hope I'm due a bit of luck with my fitness," he says now, having just played four in a row for the first time since the end of the 2009/10 season. King is poised to start a fifth consecutive league fixture against Newcastle on Sunday, and you have to go back another year, to 2008/09, to find the last time he managed five in a row. "The last three or four years have been tough; I've felt a bit like I'm on the rebound, back in, back out, but I just keep going. Every time I have had a setback, I've just tried to work as hard as possible. Until I feel that I can't perform at the highest level, I'll always continue to try to work hard to try to stay there."
King idolizes the former Manchester United and Aston Villa defender Paul McGrath, who spent 15 years in the top flight and eventually retired at 39 despite numerous operations that left his knees knotted with scars and prevented him from training; in the end, his warmup routine consisted of a soak in the bath. When I ask King what he'd do with a week off without any obligations (secretly hoping to uncover a quiet dedication to Airfix, or time spent trawling eBay for Rococo ornaments, maybe), he focuses on what he could do to help his return to the team. "A few days away in the sun somewhere would recharge the batteries -- then you can come back and have another push," he says, staying deadly serious, "I have to do the right things." Unlike 99 percent of Premier League players, King doesn't play golf. "I probably will play, when I finish, but at the moment I don't do anything too strenuous. I can't afford to. I can't play tennis because I get carried away; I'd rather not play than try to play at 50 percent." Even a kickabout in the back garden with his son is a rare treat.
There are those who feel, reluctantly, even guiltily, that the Spurs back line would benefit from choosing a central defensive partnership and sticking with it, rather than operating a system in which King is reinstated alongside A N Other whenever he is fit. Yet there are plenty of others for whom King is a bit like a your best china: always worth keeping, no matter how rarely it comes out of the sideboard, because when it does, you feel like royalty. They will wait for the player to name his last game. When King does hang up his boots -- and he has hinted he might at the end of this season, if there is to be no new contract at Spurs -- there is the possibility that he will stay in the game, behind the scenes. "I'd like to do my badges and give myself the opportunity to be a coach," he says. "It's something that, the older I've got, the more I've thought about." If he stays in north London, he could guide young defenders such as Steven Caulker, currently on loan at Swansea City. It's a mouthwatering prospect for Tottenham supporters.
"If I had the chance to speak to my 18-year-old self, I'd probably tell him that it goes so quick, to really make the most of it, work hard, and enjoy it," he adds, musing on the changes he has seen in the game in the last decade or so and the wisdom he could offer. "A lot of the older players at the time had told me that it slides by, but at 18 you don't worry about it. You think, 'Oh, I've got plenty of time', but it really does fly by." King is not so much rueful as amazed that the time for such questions -- about retirement, the future, life after football -- really could have come already. In the last five years his chase for fitness, for a run in the team, has rendered "when Ledley King is fit" an utterance loaded with promise; his later career has imitated a young player's existence. Can it really be 10 years since that Monday night at Goodison Park when King, newly appointed in Glenn Hoddle's Tottenham back line alongside Goran Bunjevcevic, seemed to intercept every ball that Everton launched in Duncan Ferguson's direction? "It's over in the blink of an eye."