Spurs' title ambitions are fit for a King
Whether the defender's fragile knees hold up will determine the fate of Tottenham's challenge
Even as he directs Newcastle's transformation from crackpots to contenders, Alan Pardew evidently remains humble enough to know when he has been tinged with good fortune.
"After we drew 2-2 at St James' Park," says Harry Redknapp, his counterpart at Tottenham, "Alan came to me and said there is no way they would have got a draw if Ledley King had not gone off injured." It is an honest assessment, and it is impossible to disagree: after all, when King plays, Spurs win.
This campaign is a case in point. Beaten heavily by Manchester United and then Manchester City in his absence, when Redknapp's 31-year-old captain – so plagued by a knee injury that he cannot train with his team-mates for much of the week, so fragile that each game is a test of endurance – returned to the side against Wolves, Spurs were bottom.
Since then, King has played nine times, equalling the number of appearances he made throughout last season. Of those nine, Spurs have won eight, the only exception being that late draw with Pardew's team during which King was withdrawn (pictured, right). They are the Premier League's form side, winning 28 of their last 30 points, described by the Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas as the "strongest challengers" to the duopoly of the Manchester sides.
Redknapp insists such a tag is unwarranted, if not unwelcome. He knows, though, that if King stays strong, so do Tottenham's unlikely title hopes.
"It is no coincidence that the run we have been on, he has played every game," says Redknapp. "He has been great. He gives you an air of confidence, he's in the right place at the right time, he reads the game so well. He has got everything. Imagine the pace he would have had if it was not for all those injuries. He would have been as good as anybody in the world."
The injuries, though, cannot simply be erased. King is football's great hypothetical: if he had not had that rotten luck, those chronic knee troubles, what might Spurs have achieved? After all, his record over the last three seasons is played 41, lost six. His impact is a tangible, quantifiable one. And what of England?
"It went a bit wrong when they took him to the World Cup," admits his manager. "I thought he would get through it, playing just week to week, but he picked up an injury in that first game. I would be surprised if he made it to the European Championships."
Given the work that goes in to getting the 31-year-old ready for one Premier League game each week, it seems unlikely Fabio Capello would be prepared to take the risk. Redknapp insists he spends much of his time with fitness coaches, using the club's specialist equipment to run without putting strain on his knee, but his description of how little work King can do is slightly, characteristically hyperbolic.
"He has not been out all week," says Redknapp. "He will come out today, have a 10-minute warm-up and a jog round, a bit of piggy-in-the-middle, and hopefully he'll be OK. He does not see a ball at all during the week. He's like a throwback to the days when they'd say not to give the players a ball all week so they would want it on a Saturday. They would just run you round the track."
King does, in truth, a little more: an abundance of swimming, and often his Friday sessions are far longer than his manager suggests. That he is to be guarded delicately, though, cannot be in doubt.
It is an exaggeration to suggest that Spurs' hopes of a first title since 1961 rest entirely on King's shoulders. After all, there are other factors at work: Redknapp touches on recent experience, insisting that his side might have gone close last year had Champions League defeat at Real Madrid not punctured their confidence. He feels elimination from the Europa League, now almost certain, may prove a blessing."We are disappointed that we may not go through," he admits. "But a lot of the teams around us will be disappointed we don't have that distraction."
The work of chairman Daniel Levy, too, he says, has allowed the club to flourish, despite the impression that the pair are not exactly a likely duo. "Anyone who works with Daniel would make an odd couple," he quips. "He is a businessman, he has a brilliant business brain, and we are football people. But the whole set-up is amazing. It is a very well-run club, and he has to take a lot of credit for that."
So, too, should Redknapp, for so convincingly laying aside the wheeler-dealer image he despises and slowly, surely, nurturing a side. "People always think I will ask for players but I don't," he says. "I have only brought lots of players into clubs because I have had useless teams. I took over teams at the bottom of the league and could not do anything with them except change them."
There is little that requires alteration at White Hart Lane. As long as King stays fit.
How The King Reigns: With and without him
Spurs' record in the Premier League this season
With Ledley King in the starting XI:
P9 W8 D1 L0 F23 A7 Win % 88.9
P3 W1 D0 L2 F3 A9 Win % 33.3
Spurs in all competitions this season
P9 W8 D1 L0 F23 A7 Win % 88.9
P11 W4 D2 L5 F13 A13 Win % 36.4
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