He departed in the manner that befits the man. News of Ledley King’s retirement slipped out on the official site, no press conference or media blitz, just a few heartfelt words in tribute to the club he served with unswerving loyalty, tinged with unspoken regret at what might have been.
King never sought to draw attention to himself. Rather, he preferred to get on with the job at hand, protecting the Spurs goal from all-comers. This is the main reason why he’s not better known throughout Europe and the world, not his injuries. Debilitating and cruel though they were, never could they fully diminish the talent of the finest centre half of his generation and unquestionably an all-time Tottenham great.
No fist-pumping exhortations to team-mates. Perhaps if he had, more kudos would have come his way. Just the example of do as I do, show your skill, demonstrate dedication and committment and Spurs will triumph. Such a shame only some chose to follow his lead. Neither did he possess any one single attribute to distinguish him from the rest. He was tough, strong in the air but without the physical presence of many top centre halves. To the causal observer he didn’t have lightning pace or perfect touch. That’s why other, inferior players were noticed, praised to excess, demeaning the language with the use of words like legend, greatness, words that belong not to them but to Ledley King, a virtuoso of the defender’s art who made strikers sing to his tune.
But we knew. Those of us who had the privilege of being there, close up, watching him work, we understood. Week in, week out. A forward would slip away, pull back his boot to shoot only to find the ball had gone. Darting at pace into the box but Ledley is first. Back to goal, surely now the striker is immune, then a nudge here, a toe there, and gone. Gone before they knew what was happening because when the strike came, it was clean and silent, the product of shrewd anticipation and impeccable, unrivalled timing.
Here are the master’s secrets. Anticipation: understand not just what is happening but what might take place. Be on the move: better to slip into place unnoticed off the ball than hammer hell for leather in pursuit, even though that might catch the eye of the uninitiated. Don’t commit too early: refuse to be drawn into tussles that can’t be won. Not too far away from the man he was marking or else lose him, not too close because risk being turned. Just the right place, right time. Turn quickly: superlative midfield maestros like Gazza or Modric drop their shoulder and are gone in the blink of an eye. Ledley did the same only in defence, on the move a fraction quicker than most, get ahead of the man, shoulder inside, make the tackle. Pace over five or ten yards: that’s what you need in the box. Quick off the mark, short jabbing strides like a sprinter out of the blocks, minimal clearance from the turf, all the effort geared towards one aim, to get their first.
No dismissals, only 8 bookings. Partly because he’s a decent man in the cesspit of the Premier League, mainly because he tackled clean and did not get caught out so had no need to foul. Henry: King was the only defender who got the better of me without resorting to foul play.
I weep at what might have been, shed tears for each time he hobbled off. Ledley fully fit along the way, yet his latter years will linger long in the memory because of his indefatigible determination to pull on a white shirt, navy blue shorts and play. Football is a physical game – he couldn’t train but still he carried on. Couldn’t run, had no sense whether he could last 9 seconds, 9 minutes or 95. Couldn’t play football with his son in the back garden, all because he wanted to, had to, play for the white shirt and navy blue. One club, our club, he’s my inspiration. I hope we deserved him.
His half a career eclipsed his contemporaries, the finest British centre half of his generation. Eventually, it had to end. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to stop the clocks for as long as he did. Look for mistakes in those later years and they are few and far between. December last and I wondered if the moment had finally come, but I should not have doubted him. Here’s what I wrote when we played Chelsea:
We mopped up many attacks but never quite picked up their runs from deep. Gallas rose to the challenge, becoming more assertive, while King was alert and quick. He and Sturridge set off on a chase. This was more than a dangerous throughball on the right wing. It was the old master versus the young pretender.
In the blink of an eye, it could have been the changing of the guard. Ledley has learned to turn quickly and maintain a chopped economical stride to coax the maximum effort from those battered, weary bones. He was ahead but the young man pressed from behind. Eager and willing, he sensed weakness and quickened. Shoulder to shoulder at full speed now, for a moment he eased ahead but Ledley stretched one last time and came away with the ball, the master still. Long live the King.
On the field, you never saw him moaning at refs or other players. Ian Wright: he made me mad because he never bloody said anything, all game, whatever I threw at him. Off it, no celebrity status, no transfer requests. Drunk once or twice, nothing more.
In fact, we know hardly anything about him but we understand the man because of the honourable way he played the game. That’s all there is to know. He carried himself with dignity, with the humble modesty of the truly great. My favourite, my all-time Spurs centre half, my unassuming hero.
This is a youtube video of King tackling Arjen Robben. You’ve probably seen it before but today I’m drawn to watching it over and over again. I was there. I recall the sinking feeling as Robben approached the goal. We were playing well at the time against opponents who always beat us, and in what seemed like endless minutes there was time to reflect on how we’d thrown it all away. Again. Ledley was in pursuit but he appeared as if from nowhere. Look again – at full pelt after sprinting 50 yards his intervention is clean and pure, no hint of a foul. Watch once more, this time focus on the crowd who leap joyfully into the air as if we had scored. Ledley could do that.