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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A Tale of Two Centre Halves


Though one series has ended and another since begun, this corker from Sam Macrory deserves your undivided attention.

Two decades ago, two schoolboys from East London lined up together in a youth football team and swept all before them. Just three months apart, the older boy played centre half and the younger in midfield.

The former was tipped for greatness from the start, and soon left Senrab FC to sign for a Premier League club, where he was fast-tracked into the first team at just 19 years old.

The latter also signed for a Premier League team, but after struggling to make an impression was sent out on loan to a lower division club. An offer from a rival lower-league team was then was accepted, only to collapse due to a failure to agree on personal terms.

A decade on, one of these players has clocked up over 350 first team appearances, won 71 England caps, has captained his country, and lines his mansion with a full set of domestic medals.

The other has played 100 fewer games, won just 21 caps, and has a solitary league cup medal to show for the same amount of time in the game. And yet, the less celebrated of the two was hailed by no less a striker than Thierry Henry as able to “get the ball off you without you even noticing… [he’s] the only defender here who doesn't hold onto you, and he sometimes still gets the ball off my feet easily.”

Step forward Ledley King, the best centre half England hardly had, and John Terry, a man whose career has benefited enormously from the failure of his one-time teammate at Wanstead Flats to fulfill what was expected of his.

King emerged as a holding midfielder during George Graham’s short tenure as Spurs manager, making a man-of-the-match debut in a 2-1 home win over Liverpool. A few torrid seasons of marshalling the likes of Anthony Gardner and Gary Doherty followed, with King emerging as the outstanding defender of his age group: powerful, elegant on the ball, and phenomenally fast. Watch this tackle on Arjen Robben, one of the quickest players around at that time, for an example of all his attributes rolled into one. He seems to captain the team in virtual silence, yet when he plays lesser defenders like Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and even the never predictable Sebastien Bassong grow alongside him. In his many absences, more of which later, they often fall to pieces.

As for Terry, his failure to break into Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea team meant his loan spell with Nottingham Forest was very nearly followed by a £750,000 move to Huddersfield Town. So what did Steve Bruce, then Huddersfield manager, see in a player deemed surplus to requirements by Vialli?

“It was a cold miserable afternoon and I saw John Terry in his short sleeves, rolling his shirt up. I thought, 'Christ, he'll do me at Huddersfield. I like him’.”

Rolling your sleeves up, it seems, can get you a long way when you’re playing with more refined players. Over the last decade Terry has had the incredible good fortune of playing alongside defenders as good as any in their generation: Marcel Desailly, William Gallas, and Ricardo Carvalho for Chelsea, and Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand for England. It’s certainly a long way from Gary ‘ginger Pele’ Doherty, and where Terry apparently trumps King, as well as all other footballers, is through an asset which seems to make up for any footballing failings he may have: bravery.

Watch him risk a braining here as proof – not the type of tackle which King has ever attempted - or look at this muscle-flexing show of machismo as Terry makes clear who is in charge. He shouts and barks his way through games, bullying referees, teammates and opponents. The approach seems to have helped him get his way both on and off the pitch, with former team-mate Claude Makelele claiming that Terry was behind the sacking of manager Jose Mourinho, and his cuckolded former teammate Wayne Bridge finding out the hard way that when John Terry offers a shoulder to cry on he has something else in mind. The fall-out of his falling out with Bridge saw Terry stripped of the England captaincy, but the whole sorry affair was just one of a litany of misdemeanors which began with the drunken taunting of US tourists in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and at present, of course, the Chelsea centre-half finds himself accused of on-pitch racism.

Of course, it would be overly generous to paint King as a full-time saint to Terry’s constant sinner. An apparent inability to hold his drink has ended in more than one embarrassing night out for the Spurs captain, as King blames his ceaseless injury frustrations as the reason behind his thirsty misdemeanors. However, the softly-spoken centre half has singularly failed to divide opinion as much as his Chelsea counterpart.

At international level, King made his debut for England in 2002, with Terry following a few months later. At the 2004 European Championships King started against France, shackling an Henry at his peak in another man-of-the-match performance. He then returned home for the birth of his son, allowing Terry to take his place for the rest of the tournament. From then on, Ledley King has watched the irrepressible rise of John Terry as his own career stutters onwards.

Shortly before the start of the 2006/7 season, King suffered a knee injury in training. A broken metatarsal followed and King played less than half Tottenham’s games that season. An operation the following summer left King on the sidelines for the first half of the following season. By the start of the 2008 campaign, a regular pattern had emerged, with King’s famously cartilage-free knees meaning he trains alone, if at all, can manage one game a week at best, and frequently succumbs to unavoidable niggles and strains. And yet, when he plays, Tottenham invariably play better. Consider this: in the 56 games King has played under Harry Redknapp, Spurs have won 75 per cent. In the 98 he has missed, the win ratio falls to just 35 per cent. And all that without pre-seasons or training with his teammates.

Martin Jol describes King as the most gifted centre half he has worked with, while Redknapp went as far as to compare him to Bobby Moore. Fabio Capello decided it was worth taking him the World Cup in 2010 even if he couldn’t train – and King predictably retired hurt half way through England’s first game. Midway through the current season, King is notching up more games than expected and Tottenham sit third in the table. The twist is that if doesn’t make it to 20 full matches, he may well find himself released by his club. He admits that he feels he is playing at around 70 per cent of his potential, with every game completed a bonus: King’s knees are now so damaged that he is unable to play park football with his son.

Terry, on the other hand, managed to extract a £150,000 per week contract from his club following suggestions he would join Manchester City. But with the lumbering Alex and eccentric David Luiz now charged with bailing the self-styled Mr Chelsea out of trouble, his paymasters may now wish they had spent the money more wisely.

Gianluca Vialli may not have been the greatest judge of centre halves – he signed Ramon Vega for Watford after all – but if that sale of Terry to Huddersfield had gone through then its easy to imagine that brave JT would have slogged his way through a lower level of football and remained firmly stuck there without any world-class teammates to lift him any higher. At the same time, if Ledley King had knees that worked, then England could have been looking at a decade of a centre-back pairing of King and Rio Ferdinand – Alex Ferguson might have liked the sound of that too – which could have been the envy of the world over. I wonder if Ledley ever looks back on those Senrab days and reflects on the glittering career which his one time team mate has gone to enjoy. He might feel that he has been ever so slightly cheated; English football certainly has.

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