Living across the road from Ashley Cole and playing alongside John Terry in Sunday league football, Ledley King grew up in exalted football company. But he admits to wondering what might have been when he faces the pair today in opposition for the London derby. While the Chelsea duo have gone on to win league titles and established themselves as first choices for England, King's own career path has been far from smooth.
Having made his Tottenham bow 10 years ago, he was tipped for great things. Martin Jol, his former manager, described him "as the best central defender I have seen in my career". But it is Terry who now stakes a greater claim to that mantle. A chronic knee injury means King has to miss training just so he can play games. "Of course it might have been better without the injuries, but I am still playing at the moment and all I can try and do is make the best out of the situation," he said.
"When I have finished playing I will probably look back and feel that way, but I am playing now and the best thing to do is get the best out of myself and keep playing for as long as I can." It was as 11-year-olds when King teamed up with Terry for Senrab FC - an east London Sunday League team that also launched the careers of Sol Campbell and Jermain Defoe. "He was a midfield player back then and quite a bit smaller, actually," he recalled of Terry. "He was small, but he was like a little braveheart and good in the air for a player who wasn't big.
"You could definitely see his characteristics even at a young age. As he grew a bit more he played at the back, but he had a similar style in midfield. "There were a few other players from that team who came through as well. Not Ashley Cole, although I played with him for the Tower Hamlets district team. "We lived across the road from each other, but he played for a rival team [Puma FC]. We played a lot together in the street. Back then my first club was Leyton Orient so he didn't have any reason to hit me or me him at the time so we became friends. We both had the same dreams at a young age."
That dream was to be top player. At 28, his future is uncertain, but he is learning from the experiences of the former Manchester United defender Paul McGrath, similarly blighted by knee problems. "I have recently started reading his book," adds King. "He was a top player and I've got a lot of admiration for how he managed to keep playing through his problems. "He played until 39 so I've got 11 years left. I recently read some of the things he said about being injured and I can definitely relate to that. You start to doubt yourself because you know everyone else is fitter and training on a regular basis. He has been a help even though he doesn't realise it."
Like McGrath, King is fearless against the best strikers and he will relish taking on Didier Drogba. Chelsea, unbeaten this season, welcome him back after his Champions League ban in midweek. King says: "As a big, powerful centre forward he is the benchmark. Drogba can score goals out of nothing. You can be playing well against him, but he can still create something or score. "Playing against Chelsea does give us the chance to prove people wrong, more that people are probably thinking the bubble has burst [after losing to Manchester United last week]."
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