King centre stage while pretender waits in wings
Spurs nurse their fragile captain from game to game but, writes Sam Wallace, they may have to pool his talents with Fabio Capello
Tuesday 24 March 2009
The swimming pool at the Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's house near Potters Bar in Hertfordshire is heated, indoors and the classic status symbol of a man who has made it in life. Ledley King is probably sick of the place. Because it is in that pool that the Tottenham captain trains alone most days, easing his chronically injured knee back into life.
Levy's dedication to his captain does not stop at granting him the usual perks of a Premier League footballer; the chairman also makes available his own pool for King's rehabilitation work. The swelling that affects his knee after games is so bad that King cannot train with his team-mates between matches, and because Spurs' modest Chigwell training ground does not have the hydrotherapy facilities that Chelsea or Arsenal boast, he spends a lot of his time chez Levy.
The injuries that grip King's career are why his call-up to the England squad on Sunday came as a huge shock to the Tottenham hierarchy, who spent most of yesterday trying to persuade the Football Association that their captain is simply not up to international football. Spurs told Fabio Capello's camp that King could play only every six days at a push and that would be without him doing any full training in between. What use would he be at the World Cup, where games come at the rate of one every four days?
There is another statistic that haunts Spurs' medical department. The last time King played for England in June 2007 he played two full 90 minutes against Brazil at Wembley and then Estonia in Tallinn. The 28-year-old did not play for Spurs for another six months, making his comeback against Fulham on Boxing Day. Of course, there were other factors involved in his fitness, but when it comes to their captain, Tottenham regard England duty as an unnecessary extra for a player who is just trying to keep his fragile career going.
King's injury is one of the great losses to English football; had he been luckier with his knees there are many who believe that he would have played as much as Sol Campbell, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand at international level instead of winning just the relatively modest 19 caps. At the Spurs training ground they regard King as a freak of nature, a phenomenal athlete who can spend the week in the Levys' swimming pool and then turn it on at the very highest level in the Premier League.
But with King it is a day-to-day survival: he plays on in the knowledge that his injury will only get worse, not better. His knee joint, where bone rubs against bone, cannot take any more than stretching and "deep-water running" in the pool that allows him to work his muscles without putting too much pressure on the critical joint. Last week, in which the Spurs squad built up to the Chelsea game, was a good one for King. He took part in a five-a-side on Friday but apart from that he was limited to stretching and pool work.
Last summer King was getting fairly desperate. His knee problems had allowed him to play only 10 games after his return on Boxing Day. His performances against Arsenal in the two legs of the Carling Cup semi-final and then Chelsea in the final convinced him that he could still do it at the top level, but his knee seemed to be getting worse. He travelled to America and Europe to see specialists but none of them could do anything for him.
However, this season the Spurs medical department has done an excellent job of managing the injury. The staff do not drain the knee or give him injections, they simply ice the swelling and let nature take its course. While Juande Ramos, for reasons best known to him, saved King for the Uefa Cup games, Harry Redknapp has done the opposite and played him exclusively in the league – with the exception of the Carling Cup final – and King has been the linchpin in Spurs' recovery.
There have been suggestions from the Capello camp that they know of a doctor in Italy, connected with Juventus, who has dealt with a problem as serious as King's before and come up with something approaching a cure. Spurs' medical department is extremely dubious. it believes that King has seen all the leading specialists and the best route forward is to get plenty of rest and take each game as it comes.
The ideal scenario for the club is that King makes an announcement he no longer wants to be considered for England on the basis that he wants to prolong his club career as long as possible. Spurs regard him as a special case, a player who must eke out his career and one who – despite his talents – is not crucial to the success of the England team.
There is also the case of King's future. As a lifetime Tottenham player – he joined as a kid – and a fans' favourite there will be a clamour for his contract to be extended beyond its expiration in July next year, provided he is still playing. Leaving Spurs is out of the question because King would not pass a medical anywhere else. Spurs and Redknapp are hopeful that King will throw in his lot with them, just as they have stuck with him through the bad times and the good.
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