King digs deep but can never win battle of wounded knee
The Spurs captain is a 'freak' who should really call it quits but backs his troops to storm the Bridge today
When Ledley King says that Tottenham's record against Chelsea is "good in recent years", it has to be understood that these things are relative.
Three wins and three draws from the last nine meetings is, indeed, an improvement on not winning any of the previous 10; but it is also true that a quiz question on Radio 5 Live last week asked listeners to name the last occasion on which Spurs actually won a League game at Stamford Bridge, where they return this afternoon. Those with short memories need not apply: the answer is 10 February 1990, when the winning goal was scored by Gary Lineker.
Spurs will travel hopefully across London, King insists, with "probably the strongest squad we've had since I've been in the team", buoyed by what was the best start to a season for almost 50 years until Manchester United brusquely terminated it last Saturday. "People are probably thinking that the bubble's burst," he said. "Playing against Chelsea does give us a chance to prove people wrong. We've got a good record in recent years against them and it's a great time for us to strike back and see where we are at at the moment."
More remarkable than any of this is the fact that King should be involved at all, let alone as club captain. For three years he has suffered from an injury to a knee that can no longer be operated on, which swells up so badly after a game that he can neither play for another week nor take part in squad training. Instead, "there's a lot of pool work, deep-water running and other methods that we use".
The swimming pool at the house of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has come in particularly handy, and when King finally makes the training pitch on a Friday or Saturday morning, he has to tread carefully. "I get carried away sometimes, which I can't [afford to] do any more. I've always loved football, was always one of those players who wants to have a kickabout afterwards. I'll still try to do that but I might get sent in because of the risk of injuries."
To the astonishment of the manager, Harry Redknapp, who calls him "a freak", King remains at 28 one of the club's most consistent performers, despite this unusual preparation. Paul McGrath at Aston Villa was the only other player Redknapp can remember playing regularly without training.
King has recently been reading McGrath's moving autobiography, of which he says: "I've got a lot of admiration for how he kept playing through his problems. I read some of the things he wrote about being injured and I can definitely relate to that. You start to doubt yourself because everybody else is fit and training on a regular basis. Things like that have helped to try to get my mind around everything and stay positive. What I can't do is be negative or feel sorry for myself because I'm sure it would affect me. I have to make sure I'm ready for that."
Grateful as he is still to have a career, there must be an element of regret and "why me?" about the misfortune that has denied him a far larger collection of England caps. Stepping in for the injured John Terry in the opening game of Euro 2004 against France, he was by common assent England's most assured performer. Three successive appearances followed at the beginning of the following season but he has managed only five international starts since and none for more than two years.
Terry has crossed his path at regular intervals since the days when they featured as 11-year-olds in the same East London boys' team, King already at centre-half, Terry "a little braveheart in midfield, but good in the air for his height". Ashley Cole, whom he will also expect to encounter this afternoon, was another young acquaintance from just across the road in Bow: "We played a lot together in the street and became friends through football. I think we both had the same dreams at a young age. You go to school, finish school and then join a club. That's the period when you don't know what's going to happen next. I probably didn't think about Ash and how he was doing until he popped up in the first team."
Terry has called today's game Chelsea's biggest test so far this season. What an examination, too, for King and his new partner at the heart of the Tottenham defence, Sébastien Bassong, signed from Newcastle, just a week after facing Wayne Rooney at White Hart Lane.
Now it is Didier Drogba, refreshed after missing the midweek Champions' League game because of suspension, of whom King says admiringly: "As a big, powerful centre-forward I think he probably is the benchmark. He can do everything, hold the ball up, score goals out of nothing with his feet or his head. It's important to double up on him and let the full-backs look after the wide men."
Tottenham, he says, will attempt to use their own qualities of pace and tempo. "I think it suits us best playing at a high tempo, going at teams. We feel our players are good athletes and pace is one of the strengths of our team. That's our best way of getting results and it's been a good weapon against Chelsea in recent years."
Better to travel hopefully or arrive? King and his courtiers will find out by teatime today.
MANCHESTER UNITED v MANCHESTER CITY (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)
United are not pleased to be facing City and later Liverpool after long trips into Europe, but their neighbours' list of absentees is compensation. A shame for neutrals that the game has come this early, with the visitors below strength, though it should still be highly watchable.
WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS v FULHAM (2pm)
Look out for the Wolves striker Stefan Maierhofer, who scored as a late substitute in defeat at Blackburn last week. At 6ft 7in it will be difficult to miss him, though his marker, the lanky Brede Hangeland (6ft 5in), will not have to crane his neck as far as most.
EVERTON v BLACKBURN ROVERS (3pm)
Whether or not the Europa League proves to be something of a nuisance as a long season wears on, Everton used it to good effect on Thursday, boosting morale in a 4-0 win and introducing Diniyar Bilyaletdinov with plenty of success in midfield.
CHELSEA v TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (Sky Sports 1, 4pm)
Some of Tottenham's pretensions were exposed last Saturday after Manchester United gave them the usual start. Chelsea, with Didier Drogba back to partner Nicolas Anelka, could do further damage, although their diamond midfield lacked something – width? – against Porto in midweek.
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