In an exclusive interview with Goal.com, the Spurs captain talks about his frustrating injuries over the last few years and reveals his gratitude to manager Harry RedknappEXCLUSIVE
By Greg Stobart
It is heart-wrenching for Ledley King to talk about his dreaded knee, to ponder what might have been had he been injury-free throughout his career.
The Tottenham captain would rather talk solely about football but knows it cannot be ignored. For most of the last five years, he has not been able to train with his team-mates during the week because he has no cartilage in one knee, meaning bone grinds on bone with every movement. It hurts.
King instead spends his week in the gym and chairman Daniel Levy's swimming pool going through exercise routines. He knows full well that, come Sunday afternoon when Spurs take on Arsenal in the north London derby, he will be in pain, each jarring movement telling his body he can't take it. Yet King has worked tirelessly on how to break mental barriers so he can perform to his best despite the restrictions that have been put upon him.
With three Premier League games in a row under his belt – all of which have been Tottenham victories – King is in bullish mood as he explains why he believes he can continue to astound with the quality of his performances for the north Londoners.
“I think I've become mentally strong and that's why I can play well without training,” he tells Goal.com. “I realise I'm not as fit as other players who train regularly but when you're in my position you have to get stronger in other areas.
“I'm constantly telling myself during matches that I'm fine and pushing through barriers. That's what it's become for me. I get through games at 60 or 70 per cent. I don't feel very good out there.
“Players like myself, Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan Woodgate and Kieron Dyer – we've had trouble over the years and I'm sure we all think the same thing. It can be really tough to be away from the rest of the lads for long periods. You need to have good people around you and to be mentally strong. You have to always believe there is a way around it.
“I love football. My love of the game keeps me motivated. It can be tough, any footballer will tell you. It's difficult being away from the pitch and your team-mates. My love and desire to play football at the top level drives me back.”
King may come across as a shy character but there is extra steel between his eyes these days. Now 30, you get the impression that King does indeed realise how good he is; he understands the role he can still play as Spurs push for a top-four finish this season.
Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, describes King as “a freak”. Redknapp was astonished when he learned about the severity of his captain's injury when he took over from Juande Ramos in October 2008. He was even more surprised that King could slot into the side after months on the touchline and regularly claim the man-of-the-match award.
|LONG LIVE THE KING
| REDKNAPP'S RECORD WITHOUT KING
AV. GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME
|REDKNAPP'S RECORD WITH KING|
AV. GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME
On Sunday, Spurs enter the north London derby as favourites in the eyes of supporters and bookmakers alike. King will play, but only after he joins his team-mates on Saturday for the first time in six days to test his knee and run through some tactical scenarios.
King is revered at Tottenham, a one-club man and a bona fide leader whom everyone looks up to, from the kids in the Academy to Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart. He considers himself a leader.
“[Emmanuel] Adebayor is going to want to do well against his old club but it's important for us and the staff to make sure he keeps a cool head,” King explains, conscious of the Togolese striker's infamous knee-slide celebration in front of the Arsenal fans after scoring against the Gunners for Manchester City. “There will be a lot of attention on him and we don't want him being caught up in the moment. He needs to let his football do the talking.
“I know this game better than most players who will be out there on Sunday. There is an extra spice. When the Barclays Premier League fixtures are announced, it's the first fixture Arsenal and Tottenham fans look out for.
“We feel we can win any game by going out and attacking, putting other teams on the back foot. Whether or not we're favourites, we have our style of play and that's what we will look to do against Arsenal.”
The gameplan at White Hart Lane on Sunday will be mapped out by Redknapp, a man King feels indebted to for the loyalty he has shown. King knows another manager may have lost patience, could have decided that a part-time centre-back was no good for the club's progress.
“A lot of managers could have turned their back on me in that situation but he's supported me all the way,” King says of Redknapp, genuinely feeling affection for his boss. “It's not been an easy time for me.”
The Spurs manager says he never sees King because the former England international spends the whole week working on his own, hoping the swelling on his knee calms down enough for him to make the weekend fixture.
Some people within the game feel that, without his injury problems, King could have earned dozens more caps for England and at one stage Jose Mourinho was desperate to take him to Chelsea.
King, though, goes back to his mental strength. Of course he thinks about what might have been, but he is happy with his lot, content to play in the Barclays Premier League as much as possible and drive Tottenham towards the Champions League.
“I used to wonder what my career could have been like if it wasn't for the knee,” he continues. “I think I've now accepted I will never have two great knees. It's not perfect but it's still fair.
“It's not a case of thinking what I could have achieved, more how I could have been as a player if I was 100 per cent and my knees were OK. I've had to accept what I've got and I don't think that's too bad.”
Not too bad at all. Tottenham are an infinitely better side when King is fit and despite all his injury problems he is guaranteed to start when he feels up to it. It doesn't matter who else is fit, what the score was the previous week – Redknapp will happily throw King into the mix even when he has been out for six months.
Redknapp, however, has warned King that he needs to play at least 20 games this season if he wants a new contract when his current deal expires next summer.
And now there is an elephant in the room: retirement. Some medics have told King that, by continuing to play, he is doing long-term damage to his knees. For years he has had to deal with rumours that he may be forced to quit the game but his experiences mean he takes a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to his future.
“In my situation you can't look too long-term,” King admits. “There is nothing I can do other than stay fit and play well when I can.
“It's a big season but let's see where I am next May. I have to focus on playing games, that is the only answer.”
The answer will be on the pitch when Spurs play Arsenal on Sunday.
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