Ledley King’s impending retirement brings an end to an ‘if only’ career. Modern day footballers are often derided for their sense of entitlement and lack of commitment, with King’s teammate David Bentley being the very epitome of this. However King was a man who, despite his body working against him, seemed to defy rational thought by extending his career as far as he did. His doctor famously described him as “superhuman” and “a player who has defied logic”, highlighting just what he put himself through in those final years at Tottenham. Towards the end of his career he could barely even train, yet still he reached the high standards we had come to expect from him.
I will argue until I’m blue in the face with those who believe defenders such as John Terry and Jamie Carragher are amongst the very best. They are certainly very good but have their limitations which prevent them from being grouped in that top bracket. Defenders of their type put their bodies on the line and make great last ditch tackles, which are both very commendable and great for highlight reels, yet are necessary to hide their faults. Terry, as an example, is positionally poor and lacks pace, therefore has so many memorable recovery moments due to his own errors.
True defending is an art form. The very best defenders in any period in modern football rarely ever go to ground. The body-endangering blocks are not necessary and the last ditch tackles are not required. They use their brains to read the game and anticipate danger rather than react to it. They will position themselves to prevent an attack rather than have to adjust to stop one. I would never tell a young aspiring centre-back to watch videos of Terry, rather they should study a defender of this style.
King was undoubtedly part of this elite group who perfected the art of defending. He was strong, quick and most importantly understood the game so well. Rarely caught out of position he was not far from being the perfect defender. Like many of the greats, King had a great ability to make early interceptions, resulting from his ability to read the game. Thierry Henry referred to King as the best defender in Europe on several occasions, speaking of how he never needed to bully you off the ball but would still win it.
King was also a fine footballer. Calm in possession and reassured at the back, he was more than capable of stepping into a midfield role. His 13 year career spanned a big change for the role of the centre-back in England. He broke into the Spurs first team when centre-backs were expected to be more robust and deal with far more of a physical challenge than they are today. As the Premier League has evolved, the role has changed. The point of attack is completely different, with many teams lining up with more tricky and skilful strikers. Simultaneously, defenders are now expected to start attacks and be comfortable with bringing the ball out of defence. The fact that King seamlessly altered with the change is testament to his ability.
Not only was he a fantastic individual, but he was a natural born leader who seemed to inspire those around him, bringing even more to the collective. The statistics tell their own story. Under Harry Redknapp, Spurs’ win percentage was more than double that with King in the side, than it was without him. Those who replaced him when injured were not poor players; notably Michael Dawson, Younès Kaboul and Sébastian Bassong were all competent deputies. It instead speaks volumes for the inspiration and level of calmness he brought to the side.
If only King had remained free from the injuries that plagued his career, he would have in my opinion, been the best English centre-back of his generation, playing in several World Cups and European Championships – and most likely captaining his county. He was a class act, a proper defender and a true leader. It’s just a shame that his body was working against him.