A footballing icon and legend of the modern game, Ledley King talks to Mark Pilkington about the upcoming season and Tottenham’s push for the Champions League…
In fourteen seasons at Tottenham Hotspur, Ledley King defined himself as one of the greatest footballers of his generation. Capable of playing both in defence and midfield positions, he gained respect of teammates and opponents alike for his unique blend of natural ability and technical prowess.
After his first-team debut in 1999 he quickly set about making a name for himself. His first-ever goal for the club in 2000 against Bradford City was the fastest in Premier League history, hitting the net after just 10 seconds. He was made club captain in 2005, and led the team to League Cup glory against Chelsea in the 2007/08 season. A statue in his honour was erected at the club in 2011.
As glittering as his career at White Hart Lane was, however, it was also one blighted by injury. After damaging his knee in training in 2006, he undertook a special fitness regime in a bid to continue playing, forcing him to train away from the rest of the squad all week long before games. It was a desperate measure, but against all odds it worked. Harry Redknapp even famously described him as a ‘freak’ for the way he trained alone, yet was ready by match day to play at the highest intensity. “Even if he only plays 20 games a season, he’s worth having because he’s so good we have a much better chance of winning.”
By the time Ledley reluctantly decided to retire in July 2012, aged just 31, he has made 321 appearances in a Spurs shirt scoring 15 goals, and 21 for England scoring 2. Incredibly for a defensive player, he only ever received 10 yellow cards. He left the game with the highest level of respect and admiration amongst his peers and fans. Almost straight away Tottenham – the only professional club he had played at for his entire career – offered him a role as a sporting ambassador.
He met up with Mark Pilkington to explain why expectations at Tottenham have never been higher and how a place amongst Europe’s elite beckons….
You recently returned from a pre-season tour of Hong Kong with the rest of the Spurs squad. Were you surprised by just how big the support was for the team out in Asia? Yeah I think you are always a little surprised when you go overseas and find so many fans that follow you. You realise there are some very passionate fans abroad as well. I met so many in Hong Kong, and it is great for the club as it is always trying to build upon its fanbase around the world.
You’ve been at Tottenham since signing up as a trainee in 1996. How much has it changed during that time and what has that been like to see? It’s changed a lot. I joined the club when I was fourteen, when I was just a young kid trying to make it into the first team. The club wasn’t anything like this; it’s really developed and grown so much since then.
Tottenham came so close to the top four last season. Can they make the Champions League this year? Yes, and I know I say every season that we can, but with the new signings I definitely believe we can do it again this year. Three top quality players have come in. I got to see Paulinho at the Confederations Cup for Brazil and he looked a great player. Chadli will surprise a few people with his ability. The people that don’t know him will find out about him this season and realize what a good player he is. We’ve got Soldado in too and he’s a proven goal-scorer. The signings have been great. Hopefully we can keep everyone together now, and if we do we’ve got a great chance.
There are lots of new faces and some that are potentially leaving. How do the players handle the transfer speculation in the press? As a player you’re used to speculation. Players don’t enjoy this period of time anyway, you just want the window to be shut – but as players you are used to this time of season. You wish the window was a little bit shorter and everything was out of the way. But everyone is professional, the window is what it is. There is always going to be speculation around top players, that’s the world we live in.
How important is it that Tottenham move to a new stadium and how much would that change the club? I think the club deserves it and I think the fans deserve it. We’ve got a huge fanbase, and a new stadium is a natural move for the club, especially after recently opening our new training facilities. We’ve got the players, top players who signed for us even though we are not in the Champions League. It just goes to show that they think we are capable of becoming a Champions League team. The club is moving forward, so hopefully moving to a new stadium is the next step that they will take.
What’s your first sporting memory and who were the idols you had in the game? Paul Gascoigne was someone who stood out to me. I remember watching him in Italia 90 as a young kid, and obviously Gazza has the Tottenham connection as well. He was someone who played with passion and a smile. He was a great character, and players like that attract you to the game.
How hard was it to train by yourself for all those years. You had the knee problem that was very well documented, but you didn’t train with the rest of the team. What did that do to your mindset? It was tough. I won’t say I enjoyed working on my own, because I didn’t, but it was just something I had to do. To get through to the game it was a procedure I had to go through to make it out there on a Saturday or Sunday. Five years was a long time to be doing that, and in the end it takes its toll. It was tough, but the love of being out there and getting to the game kept me going.
You were a leader at the club in your playing days. A club captain for a while and the last captain to lift a trophy for Spurs. Have you ever thought about going into coaching or are you happy with the club ambassador role? I’ve been thinking about coaching, I’ve started my badges. But it’s one thing playing the game, coaching is completely different. It’s not for everyone; we’ve seen some great players not get into coaching or not be as good a manager as people thought. I think you need to have a taste for it and then see how you do. For me it’s very early days and hopefully I’ve got something to offer. I’ve been working with the kids at the club at the training facilities, and I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can from the coaches who are already there and see where it takes me.
So…any chance you’ll be AVB’s replacement? (laughs) I’m not saying!