Tottenham Hotspur: Retiring Ledley King Has Earned His Place as a Spurs Legend

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Tottenham Hotspur: Retiring Ledley King Has Earned His Place as a Spurs Legend
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Ledley King lifts up the League Cup in 2008 after Tottenham's 2-1 defeat of Chelsea.

The history and tradition of Tottenham Hotspur is one that is rightly cherished by the club's supporters.

Echoes of significant pre-WW2 contributors and Arthur Rowe's title-winning "Push and Run" side of 1950/51 continue to reverberate, while the more tangible presence of those still with us from Bill Nicholson's double-winning side of 1960/61 and the great teams that have since followed are beloved for the success and memories they provided.

In truth, the past two decades of that history pales in comparison to what came before. In the Premier League era, Tottenham have only added two trophies to their previous haul.

But then, in the increasingly money-powered world of English football, Spurs have fared better than most and can claim in recent years to have been one of the best of the "nearly-men."

That is small comfort to players and fans who desire so much more, but with football, as with any sport, you have to take what you can get.

In Tottenham's last decade of achievements and successes, near-misses and disappointments, Ledley King has been the club's preeminent figure, one who has earned his place alongside the great names of the club.

King, whose retirement was announced on Thursday morning via the club's official website, made his debut at Liverpool in May of 1999 and went on to make more than 300 appearances for the club.

The centre-back captained Spurs to their League Cup success in 2008, putting in a strong display to hold off Chelsea at Wembley and win his only major honour. In the Premier League, he was a vital contributor in particular to two superb seasons in 2005/06 and 2009/10.

The greatest tackle of all time? Ledley King gets back to stop Arjen Robben from scoring in what seemed an impossible situation.
These are King's achievements on paper, but his value to the club extended beyond that.

As a product of Tottenham's youth system, his emergence as a player capable of establishing himself in the first team was always likely to endear him to a White Hart Lane crowd that, like any other, holds a special fondness for a "home-grown" player.

But the significance of King's presence grew in importance when another player to come through the ranks did the inconceivable.

The vitriol that has been directed Sol Campbell's way ever since he left Spurs for Arsenal in 2001 immediately veered into the distasteful and disgusting, but if that marked the extreme end of the feeling of hatred toward him, at its core was an understandable heartbreak that essentially one of their own had betrayed them for their worst enemy.

It meant that King, the talented young defender who was meant to become a partner and not a successor to Campbell, was now the saving grace of a club and a fanbase that had just suffered yet another humiliating blow from their (then, as now) superior north London rivals.

The song that has rung around White Hart Lane and on visits away so often since, celebrating the virtues of King while disregarding Campbell's (to put it politely), have been a battle-cry that Spurs fans have needed.

Wonderfully for the Spurs fans who sung with such gusto, this salute to King became more than just a song of defiance, it was a fitting accompaniment to a defender that developed into one of the best in England.

In the couple of years following Campbell's departure, King was undoubtedly the gem in a defence of decent, hard-working pros of not especially remarkable talent, but he was not quite the finished article.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
King (centre) was a "saving grace" for Tottenham fans in the wake of Sol Campbell's departure in 2001.
Two key things happened to spark that transition from a promising young talent to a defender blessed with impeccable timing and near-spotless ability.

In 2003/04, under the caretaker stewardship of David Pleat, King was deployed on several occasions in central midfield. Already a comfortable presence on the ball, this duty undoubtedly opened his eyes to different responsibilities and challenges that ultimately improved his own game.

The catalyst that completed the aforementioned transition came the following season with the arrival of the experienced Moroccan Noureddine Naybet.

With all due respect to the players King had been playing alongside, Naybet was a class above, an accomplished veteran who by example and instruction was able to impart years of experience competing with the best in European football and on the international stage.

By the end of the 2004/05 campaign, King was no longer just the heir apparent to Campbell—he was a legitimate top player in his own right.

Through Naybet (and indeed his own experience at Euro 2004 with England the previous summer) King had seen the level for which he could aspire, and in particular alongside Michael Dawson, the recently named captain of Tottenham would go onto establish himself as one of the best defenders the club has ever seen.

It was only in the latter half of last season that his form ever really dipped, a consequence of the lack of regular training finally catching up with him.

Before that point, despite the lack of practice and the regular injuries that led to such a situation, King was more often than not magnificent.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Noureddine Naybet was a pivotal figure in the progression of King at Tottenham.
From 2004 to 2007, before the injuries had really begun to effect his game time, King was a near ever-present who consistently was a rock in the Tottenham defence—no, I expect that "rock" is too crude a description for a defender who was so elegant.

On the ball, there have been few English defenders better, and his ability to pick out a pass could be a thing of beauty, too (see his assist for Dimitar Berbatov away at Charlton in May of 2007).

This is not to say that he couldn't get stuck in, either. King was a committed presence in the Spurs defence, one who could organise and flourish in pressure situations. It was telling that they started conceding a lot more post 2006/07, when the fitness issues really kicked in and King was missing.

The likes of Berbatov, Robbie Keane and Luka Modric have been among the quality players to have represented Spurs in this last decade, but his ability and that he came through the ranks mark King out as the defining player of that period.

The club's announcement that King will be granted a testimonial following the conclusion of the upcoming season will give everyone involved with Tottenham a chance to say thank you for King's service (though he will remain at the club as an ambassador).

For now, though, the best tribute to King's career would be to watch the video linked to above on this page, his now-legendary tackle on Arjen Robben during a famous 2-1 victory over Chelsea in November of 2006.

King may not have played the amount of games or won the trophies that other great defenders have, but few can claim to have made a tackle as perfect as this, one that could quite reasonably be claimed to be the best ever.

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