An Unassuming Hero: A Tribute To Ledley King

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.

Ledley’s Knee Beats Liverpool

What the new ground needs, wherever we may end up, is a statue. It’s the thing these days, dignifying our improvised chaotic representation of beauty with the use of an art-form that stretches back beyond antiquity. Wolves and Wembley have had one for a while but there’s been a spate in the last few years. Bremner outside Elland Road, grinning wildly whereas to make it lifelike he should be scowling into the eyes of opponents spreading fear and loathing.  Jimmy Armfield stands outside Blackpool’s ground, all fitting tributes to true club greats and then at Fulham there’s Michael Jackson.

Outside the New Lane fans will gather pre-match to worship. Children will clamber over the plinth and pose for photos. Their parents’ stories of past glory days and the legend behind the bronze will pass down the love of the club through the generations as the kids rush off to the club shop. Only one symbol from the modern era can truly represent Tottenham Hotspur’s heart and soul: Ledley King’s knee. Shiny metal, each ligament, bone and cartilage in detailed relief, sadly more solid in perpetuity than in life. If only.

Written off by many, although not by this blog, even I had almost given up hope that we would ever see him play again. Dignity in retirement seemed the future

Ledleys Knee. An Artists Impression

rather than a series of limping comebacks. Barely a flicker’s difference in the expression as he trudges off but the slumped shoulders betray the agony of failure that for this dedicated Spur outweighs the pain in his leg. Yesterday he’s back as if he had never been gone, like he’s had a couple of weeks break in the sun. The familiar scuttling run, feet low to the ground to save precious energy and minimise impact. Running on empty, he conserves what’s left for short bursts over 5 and 10 yards, that’s all you need in the box. Above all, the mind is keen and alert, match sharp like he’s played every game he’s missed in his head. Perfect positioning, a refusal to be shifted out of place by dummy runs, uncanny anticipation born of years of experience.

A quiet man on the field, he has no need for conspicuous fist-pumping or bellowed vocal encouragement. True leaders inspire by other means. He lifted Dawson in particular, the two of them a solid central barrier to an attack fast becoming one of the most feared in the league. Danny Rose once again slotted into an unfamiliar role with aplomb and he and Kaboul stayed tighter in defence, close to the regal reassurance of their leader and master. Sandro patrolled in front of them, diligent and tough.

A couple of Spurs sites are doing their ‘Best Ever’ polls at the moment. Too young to see Norman at his mightiest, I was brought up on England, a giant in the middle with Beal sweeping up around him. Mabbutt and Gough, the latter teasing us with what have been if he stayed for longer. A few votes for Miller, but not mine. Since 67 I’ve seen them all and Ledley King is the first name that goes down. His injury has cruelly robbed us of the finest centre half in the last 40 years, so let us relish what we have.

I’ve been critical of some of Redknapp’s recent tactical decisions and player choices but full credit for what was a brave option, plunging King back into action in the game that could save our season sliding into oblivion. Also, Rose at full-back is a fine piece of player potential judgement. Yesterday the team was balanced throughout. Sandro and Modric once more showed that they are a formidable combination in centre midfield. Sandro’s progress is astonishing, as is Luka’s consistency. Everything flowed through and around him: selfless work, the touches, he holds it when it needs to be held and gives it when it needs to go. He does penalties too, apparently.

Unfortunately my opportunities for more detailed comments, and indeed for my enjoyment of the bloody game, were severely hampered by a stream so dodgy I may as well have drawn stickmen on the corners of a notebook’s pages and flicked through them. Try it – it’s like having Peter Crouch right there in your living room. Liverpool may have had some dangerous moments but my screen was frozen in anticipation for so long, I wondered if I had stumbled on a photo site by mistake. ‘This has been withdrawn through possible copyright violation’ – well, copyright violation is the whole point, isn’t it?

As the teams played the best game of statues ever (I’m not inviting you lot to my kids party at Christmas), attention wanders to the message stream in the sidebar. Correspondents named ‘lovespurskillgooners’, ‘parklane007’ and ‘spursbigboy’ readily share their views not just on the game but on life itself with ‘redtildead’ and ‘nukemancs100’. Presumably the number is to helpfully distinguish him from the 99 other ‘nukemancs’ out there.

I’m up for a bit of football banter as much as the next fan but these boards expose the reality that ‘fan banter’ is in fact rank abuse. ‘Scousers rule’ Spurs provokes the witty rejoinder, ‘no they don’t, Spurs rule scum.’ Terrace wit, this is what the younger generation will never know. U f off, no u f off out of it. And so it goes. It’s the process behind it that gets me. It’s Sunday, there’s football on, I know what I’ll do. I’ll go online and abuse other fans in textspeak. Out of the blue, another voice appears. ‘Grimsby are going nowhere!’ It came from the heart.

The ether cleared suddenly to reveal the penalty in stunning clarity. I say penalty but we all know it wasn’t. If anything Pienaar took the Liverpool’s player’s ground. It sealed the win and from then on we played well but it must have been a difficult moment for all the Spurs Howard Webb conspiracy theorists out there.

Adopting a less gung ho madcap attacking approach, we looked more comfortable and composed, more of a unit. It’s got to be the way to go. Praise for the attitude of the manager and the players. Redknapp has been talking down our prospects, to the point where we might have gone on holiday with two games left. Maybe that’s the way he likes it, comfortable with the underdog role, which in itself does not bode well for a top team but we’ll let that aside go for now. The players lifted themselves, showing determination to finish on a high.

The same attitude next Sunday will see us in Europe, and I’m all in favour of that. I understand but don’t accept the anti-Europa Cup arguments. The tournament itself has been ruined by UEFA’s insistence on the group stages, although to be accurate, it’s the clubs who make up UEFA and want the guaranteed cash that demand it. To be a top club, you fight on all fronts. You can’t turn a proper winning mentality on and off when you feel like it. It’s precisely the art of scraping through games, winning those we have drawn or lost this season when we should have done better, to handle squad rotation without falling apart, that we need to learn. Concentrating on the league isn’t a viable option, it’s a cop out, with no guarantee of any success. It limits us severely in the transfer market, and being out of the CL will be bad enough in that respect anyway.

Above all, I’m old fashioned enough to still believe that winning something is better than coming 4th and having a decent bank balance. Play a weakened team, get through the group and then go for it. Imagine bouncing your grandchildren on your knee. They look up at you with adoring big eyes, moist with emotion. ‘Tell us about the good old days, granddad’.

‘Well kids, I remember the time when our income stream exceeded salaries and other outgoings by 10 or 20%.’

‘20% granddad. Wow, things were so different in the old days…’

With winning comes the memories, and memories last. I know which I would rather have.