‘Ledley’s gone’. They were the words we never wanted to hear. Many outside White Hart Lane had long predicted the demise of Ledley Brenton King, but to hear those words come from those within, those I stood beside on the lower banks of the South Stand, those who, we felt, knew him best, made the realisation that the end of one of Tottenham Hotspur’s greatest ever players was drawing near that much more, painstakingly, clear. We were forced to confront the reality, something we wished would never happen but knew we would have to accept one day. One distant day. Suddenly upon us.
Watching King being given the run-around by Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington and Grant Holt on that drab Easter Monday, as Tottenham’s Champions League ambitions were dealt another blow by Paul Lambert’s Canaries, was enough to break those of us of a lilywhite persuasion. The 31-year-old made two more appearances after that, defeats to Chelsea and Queen’s Park Rangers, but it was that final showing at the Lane that opened our eyes to the realisation that he had to call it a day. The knee injuries, which stemmed back to a humdrum league match at Derby just five months after his debut for the club, had finally claimed the great man.
Over his 13 years at the Lane, King had come to assume more than just ‘key player’ status at Tottenham. Ledley brought calm. Ledley brought reassurance. Ledley brought an increased chance of victory. Ledley held the backline together and helped give confidence to younger players alongside him, most notably Michael Dawson. He would make 323 appearances for the club – the poor showings of which you could count on one hand. After making his debut in a 3-2 defeat at Anfield in May 1999, it was another match the following year against Liverpool in which King really displayed his potential – played in midfield by George Graham. The maturity and poise shown by the 20-year-old that November afternoon caught the eye of many, and quickly saw him ear-marked for great things. A couple of weeks later he would score a deflected effort against Bradford City after just 10 seconds, a Premier League record that remains to this day. An England debut quickly followed, including a goal on his third appearance, a 1-1 draw in Portugal in the year they hosted the European Championship. Rio Ferdinand’s enforced absence from those finals gave King the chance to shine and his display against France in the opening group game almost helped England get off to a flier, before Zinedine Zidane dictated otherwise. King was restricted to just 21 appearances for his country, but Fabio Capello was still minded enough to include him, against most Spurs fans’ wishes, in his squad for the 2010 World Cup – where he was to last just 45 minutes of the opening game.
The displays and undoubted potential of King made the then-agonising departure of Sol Campbell to ‘them down the road’ in July 2001 that much easier to stomach. He was installed as captain and made an impression on opponents – Thierry Henry describing him as ‘the only defender who doesn’t foul and sometimes still gets the ball off my feet easily’. His only trophy at the club was the 2008 League Cup, the sight of him climbing the steps at the new stadium after leading the club to victory over Chelsea at the new Wembley a fitting tribute for all his effort. He played a key part in helping the club reach the European Cup for the first time in half a century in 2010. He was able to make just three appearances in the competition after injuring a hamstring against Fulham – a result of his inability to train regularly. Even an arrest for drunken behaviour was laughed off by most fans, just ‘Ledders enjoying himself’. The club had begun to look at long-term replacements, and the imperious recent form of Younes Kaboul, along with the recent signing of Jan Vertonghen, gave clues as to what we were to hear this morning. He is to be afforded a testimonial at the club at the end of the forthcoming season and will not slip quietly from supporter’s thoughts. The man. The legend. The King.
James Mariner is a Tottenham season ticket holder.