Exclusive: Ex-Spurs captain on trouble with our academies, Bale and managing.
HAD Lionel Messi been born in England the football world could have been robbed of one of its greatest ever stars.
That is the belief of former Tottenham defender Ledley King, who fears the 5ft 7in Argentina forward, hailed by some as the best player to ever grace a pitch, could have been left on the scrapheap with coaches in England generally preferring to build their teams around the tallest and strongest players, rather than the most technically gifted, at youth level.
New Football Association chairman Greg Dyke has pinpointed a need to reform the English game from top to bottom in order to buck the trend of young talent being overlooked for opportunities to hone their skills in the Premier League and preserve the future of the national team. King, who worked his way through the Spurs youth set-up after joining as a 15-year-old, saw first hand how promising players could disappear off the radar and believes it is imperative the most skilled kids are nurtured by coaches to reach their full potential.
“Although Messi is a one-off in his ability, if he was born in England with the same ability he might not have been able to play the game in the same way,” said King, who won 21 international caps.
“You need a balance. I played with a kid who was very talented, technically he was probably the best player in the youth team, but was really small and told he wasn’t going to make it because of his size.
“That mentality needs to change and we need to take players for their talent and try to develop them. Spain have proved that with their small players. It doesn’t matter how small you are, if you can keep the ball that’s the most powerful thing you can have on the football pitch.”
King rates Messi as the most technically astute player on the planet and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo as the most complete, but believes former Tottenham team-mate Gareth Bale is close behind.
Bale moved to Real last month in a world record £85.3m transfer after a devastating season with Spurs and, although confident his old club can cope without their talisman, King feels there is still more to come from the Welshman.
“I think Gareth can get better,” said King. “You want to keep improving. In each season different questions will be asked of you. He’s going to face new challenges, but there’s not many better. Losing Gareth, you want to replace him well and I think we’ve done that. The fans are not too disheartened, which echoes that.
“If everyone plays to their potential we shouldn’t be taking a backwards step, we should be moving forwards, and I thoroughly expect the team to finish in the top four this season.”
King hung up his boots in 2012 after years of managing a chronic knee injury, which he believes began 10 seconds into his first Spurs start following a robust challenge from then-Derby midfielder Rory Delap, and ended up “taking over his life”.
After years of isolation from the rest of the first team, keeping his fitness levels up with water aerobics sessions rather than on the training pitch, the 32-year-old admits he does not miss the day-to-day side of being a player. However, his hunger for the game, born in the playgrounds and parks of Tower Hamlets, endures.
King currently combines working towards his Uefa B licence with ambassadorial duties at Tottenham and hopes one day his coaching journey can lead him to the manager’s hot-seat at White Hart Lane, though says the top job at Arsenal is a “no go area”.
“I’d love to be Tottenham manager one day, but I need to be good first,” he said. “I want to start at the bottom and try to learn and see if I do love it.
“At the moment I’m not entirely comfortable, it’s a different kettle of fish from playing. Once I reach that comfort level, something will click and I’ll know what I’m doing, then it will be time to see how far I can go.”
King was a reluctant leader; one of the quieter members of the squad by his own admission. But the central defender, who played under six different permanent Spurs managers, expects to be able to command the respect of players, despite a reluctance to throw tea cups in anger.
“It’s important to be yourself as a manager,” he said. “There will be different things that you take away, little elements of different managers.
“When I was breaking into the team there was George Graham, he was a tough guy, very disciplined and you need that, a manager needs to have that respect. Glenn Hoddle was my next manager and I really enjoyed him. Training was a little more fun and more technical.
“There’s a time to shout and throw cups. As a manager you have to be allowed to react to disappointment. Players can’t be too sensitive to that.”
Tongue in cheek, the famously laid-back King concludes: “Management intrigues me. The only thing that puts me off is a lack of sleep.”
Ledley King will be signing copies of his autobiography King at Waterstones in Leadenhall Market tomorrow from 12:30pm. For info call: 0207 2207882