Interview: Spurs legend Ledley King on injuries, management, and growing up in east London
- Credit: Archant
As a gifted young footballer growing up in east London, Ledley King used to practice for hours on playgrounds and in parks near the flat in which he was raised by his mum.
Now, after making more than 320 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, the centre back has established himself as a legendary figure at the north London club.
King, 32, retired last year after a remarkable career which saw him collect a haul of 21 England caps, despite years battling chronic knee injuries.
But he still looks back on his childhood in the East End with affection, keeping in touch with fellow former pupils of Poplar’s (now closed) Blessed John Roche secondary school.
“I’ve got my same friends now that I grew up with,” he said. “I’m a quiet man, I try to keep my life simple. So it’s been easy for me, I’ve kept the same friends from a young age.”
After his dad left the family home when King was still a small child, the talented youngster was left in the capable hands of his mother. He credits her as a huge influence on his career, which he played out at Spurs in a display of loyalty almost unheard of in modern football.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to become a footballer was because I wanted to make my mum proud, I wanted to give something back to her,” he said.
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“Obviously I enjoyed the game, but at the same time I remember a passion and a drive to want to do it for a better life for my mum, so I’m definitely happy I managed to achieve that. It’s satisfying.”
As a schoolboy, King played for east London club Senrab, alongside other future professionals such as John Terry, Scott Parker and Jermain Defoe.
“I used to look out for my name when I scored the goal in the East London Advertiser,” he recalls.
“You realise that you’ve got a strong team but professional football is so far away at that stage it’s nothing but a dream.”
Having retired last summer, he accepted an ambassadorial role at Tottenham, working within the area to help bring hope to youngsters growing up in often challenging circumstances – similar to those he faced himself growing up in Bow.
“Speaking to the kids, it’s very similar to where I grew up, and I realised the importance of giving them the opportunity to succeed in whatever field they have their skills in.
“I’ve always said that if I didn’t play football I’m not sure what I would have done. Football’s always been my life, and there wasn’t too much else around. That’s when you have problems like the riots, because there’s too many kids on the streets with nothing to do.
“Now I’m trying to give back as much as I can and give these kids the chance to succeed, and I realise that’s vitally important.”
Despite the apparent ease with which King has adapted to his new role, the sense of regret when he speaks of his own career is palpable - despite his legendary status among the Spurs faithful.
Without the chronic knee injuries which plagued him during his playing days, many pundits believe he would have established himself as one of the finest centre backs England has ever produced.
As if to illustrate the high esteem in which he is held among Spurs fans, a song celebrating his abilities still regularly rings around the club’s White Hart Lane stadium, more than a year after he retired.
He says hearing that song feels like a reward for his efforts during his 13-year career with at the club.
“It feels almost like it justifies me going out and playing through the pain barrier… these memories will obviously stay with me forever,” said King. But his recurring knee problem ultimately forced him to cut his career short after long spells on the treatment table.
He credits the lessons of his childhood in east London as one of the key reasons for his ability to cope with those challenges during his playing days.
“The things you see and learn growing up… the values that you’re taught still play a big impact in my life today.
“It wasn’t poverty but my mum had to work hard to put food on the plate. This is what gave me the determination and the drive to get somewhere in my life.
“With my injury I knew I wasn’t going to be the same player I’d hoped to have been, but I knew that even through the injury I could still play a big part and help the team.
“It has been tough. You do have to be so mentally strong,” he admits.
King hopes that mental strength will now help him become one of the English game’s few top level black British managers.
Spurs are guiding their legendary former captain through his coaching badges, and he admits he feels he has plenty to bring to the table.
“It’s something that I’m intrigued about. The club have been great in trying to help me to do that.
“A lot of black players used to say to me, ‘we don’t get the opportunity to coach,’ and as a player I didn’t really understand what they werew talking about. I will get to learn about it, but the club has been great to me in pushing me, and we’ll see where the opportunities come once I get the qualifications.
“In my head I feel good at it, but that’s one thing, so it’s intriguing.”
King’s story, typified by hard work and an unshakable determination, might well prove the tonic to inspire youngsters growing up in similar neighbourhoods to his.
Despite most of his friends having moved out of Bow, Ledley admits he sometimes drives through to take a look at the playgrounds on which he nurtured his talent with hours of practice.
“I still drive through there occasionally, but there’s not much to stop for other than one friend I’ve still got there, and ‘the cage’ [playground]. Sometimes I look at the cage where I grew up playing football…”
King: My Biography by Ledley King, Quercus, £18.99 is out now.