King of the Lane
Tottenham High Road hasn’t had the best press in recent years. Three summers have passed since the area made headlines around the world against a backdrop of baton-wielding riot police and looted shopfronts. Much has changed since then: The broken windows have long been re-glazed, the carcasses of burnt-out cars towed away and the fire-scorched bricks replaced. The area’s reputation, however, has proven harder to repair.
Footfall in the High Road’s stores crashed following the riots. The area’s family-owned businesses, many forced to wait months or longer for essential insurance payouts and government compensation, struggled as potential investors were scared off and punters stayed away. In an already deprived area – unemployment is above the national and London average, and Northumberland Park has the third-highest benefit claimant rate in the capital – the legacy of that summer lasted long after the TV cameras had moved on.
But slowly, signs of Tottenham’s transformation are beginning to appear. Once-neglected buildings have been replaced with stylish apartment blocks, and construction sites straddle both sides of the High Road. At the northern end lies the largest of the lot, the spot where the new home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club will soon stand. In summer 2017 the ground will open, and bring with it dozens of new flats, restaurants, shops and bars, providing hundreds of jobs and an invaluable boost to the local economy.
The first stage in the project is already in place; this autumn the new Tottenham University Technical College, co-sponsored by the club and Middlesex University, will open its doors to its first batch of students. The view from their classrooms is currently a rather uninspiring makeshift car park and the tentative beginnings of a building site. In a few years, when they come to graduate, they will be looking out on an altogether more inspiring sight.
On the other side of the building site, Ledley King is holding court at what will soon be known as the old White Hart Lane.
Long gone are the days when former footballers spent their retirement running pubs. Even the lowliest of ex-Premier League footballers should have saved enough money to guarantee post-playing years spent in the company of their home cinemas or the latest incarnation of Playstation, with even the strain and stresses of management appearing to put off the pampered former player.
King, however, is doing things differently. The former Spurs captain retired from playing a year ago after spending much of his playing time battling a chronic knee problem. He was just 32, having managed to extend his career despite being too injured to train. The man considered by many to be the best English defender of his generation was able to clock up a meagre return of just 21 international caps throughout his career.
But while the boots have finally been hung up after medical advice, King hasn’t left the stadium. The former Spurs leader has chosen to stay on at White Hart Lane as a club ambassador. Sitting in one of the Lane’s executive boxes, and still decked out in full Spurs leisurewear, King is one of a dying breed of one-club footballers.
“I’ve been coming to the area from a very young age, 20 years now,” he reminisces as behind him a small squad of groundsmen puts the final touches to the White Hart Lane turf. “Making my way along the High Road. Coming on the train. It flies by. But I remember being there.”
Where once it was pace or positional sense that King relied on, now it’s those memories that he turns to. King’s main job spec is to spread the message that the club’s new stadium will bring employment and regeneration opportunities to this part of N17, but he also spends his time visiting youth and job projects across the area. The day before we met he presided over a Dragons’ Den-style work fair at White Hart Lane, while next up in his diary is a trip to a centre where children growing up in care are given advice and a helping hand as they plan their education and careers.
Perhaps unfairly, it doesn’t sound particularly typical for an ex-premiership footballer, many of whom have an unfortunate habit of making news for all the wrong reasons. King has been there. During one of those many injury lay-offs his over-exuberant nightclub exploits landed him at the wrong end of the tabloids, but these days he looks like being a rare example of a former player giving something back, both to the fans who still cheer his name and the community beyond.
His influence even stretches beyond White Hart Lane: London’s Mayor Boris Johnson has named King one of his own youth ambassadors for the capital, while Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has deployed the former Tottenham skipper on a scheme to encourage young black and ethnic minority men back into employment.
Footballers working with politicians? Even for a player as versatile as King that’s something of a challenge. And as the type of captain who led by quiet example rather than chest-beating histrionics, King is learning new skills too. A shyness remains in King’s softly spoken manner, and an ever-present club PR man is never far away.
How easy has King found swapping his position on the pitch for one among the club’s off-field staff?
“It takes a little bit of time”, he says when asked how he has adapted to no longer playing for a club he first joined when just eight years old. “When all you’ve known is football, it’s like coming out into the real world a little bit. But it’s been great for me. I’ve learnt a lot, a lot about myself, since retiring. And I enjoy it – making a difference off the pitch is great.”
It’s probably a relief for him to talk about life off the pitch. Trawling back through the interviews he has given over the last five years or so of his career, his knee haunts the copy. That injury may have ended his career, but at least it’s finished as a subject.
“Being able to help lots of other people, especially young kids who look up to footballers…. to reach out and tap into them a little bit, and try and help them achieve their hopes and dreams… is a great opportunity for me,” he says of his new duties. But surely the buzz can’t compare to scoring a goal on the pitch? King makes a persuasive case.
“I’ve been able to meet some individuals that have gone on to job opportunities and are excelling in new roles. Coming from nowhere, really. The east end of London, where I grew up, is similar to north London. I know what it’s like to be a young kid growing up in London. I’m still fully aware of the kids’ needs and what it will take to help. And I’ve seen a lot of kids coming a long way, almost going down the wrong path but turning their lives around and being in jobs or at college. It’s been really great for me to see.”
King picks out the example of a “big guy, overweight, going down the wrong path”, who has since lost a few stone and “is a real positive influence on all the other kids” who King works with. “That made be proud. I was kind of involved in turning someone’s life around. And it wasn’t just that, it was the positive impact he had on others. He’s an influential person to be around.”
King himself was one of the lucky ones. A gifted footballer from a young age, he remembers fellow schoolboy footballers who “went down different routes as they got older, hanging around the wrong people, bad influences – it’s very easy”. King played in the same east London boys’ team, Senrab, as future pros like John Terry, Bobby Zamora and Jermain Defoe, before being snapped up Spurs and progressing through the youth system. “You try to surround yourself with good people. That’s important. With peer pressure, in young kids it’s very easy to go down the wrong route and it takes a split second to take the wrong decision that can cost you,” he says, though he admits that he wished he “had done a little bit more at school”.
However, football provided the role models King needed. “I got my inspiration from footballers,” he says. “Growing up, seeing people like John Barnes and the likes of Paul Gascoigne who played with flair and enjoyment. And when I joined Tottenham, Sol Campbell was a few years older than me and came from a similar background. That made me realise that ‘if he can do it, there’s no reason I can’t’.”
And that’s the message he now wants to pass on: “When I speak to the young kids, they think that when you’re brought up in a certain area nothing good is going to happen to you. This is your life and there’s nowhere to go from here. I’m trying to get them to realise they can achieve anything – it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I realise the influence that had on me, and that it has on them.”
Looking back, he says that in the 1980s “football seemed to be the only thing If you were a boy – there wasn’t much else”, so part of his remit is to let kids know that there is a whole range of careers to explore. “The more opportunities we can enable them to have, [the more] we’ll see the talent. There wasn’t too much of that in my day; if you didn’t play football there wasn’t too much else.”
Luckily for him, there is a life after football. Looking out over the pitch on which he once reigned, King manages a smile when asked if he would like a runout – in a friendly, perhaps, or a testimonial – once the new turf is laid a few hundred yards away. But this incarnation of White Hart Lane will soon be a place of memories for everyone.
GROUNDS FOR HOPE
Slipping into a hard hat and fluorescent waistcoat, King troops through a makeshift car park for a series of photos at the new Tottenham University Technical College, which opens this month, offering a curriculum based on sports science and health technologies.
To the south of the UTC a large site, stretching all the way to the soon-to-be-old White Hart Lane, has been cleared to make way for initial building work on the new ground. The land assembly and planning application was a tortuous and frustrating process for Spurs, which found itself tied up in rows over transport upgrades, purchase orders and opposition in the courts from local businesses who suddenly found their premises earmarked for demolition. At one point it appeared that a new stadium in the borough that the team has called home since its inception would prove an impossibility. The club began to glance enviously eastward at the new 80,000-seater Olympic Stadium under construction in Stratford, and in the summer of 2010 put in a formal bid to relocate and become the permanent tenant.
The move struck panic into the local authority in Haringey, which began to fear the exodus of one of the largest employers and economic drivers in the deprived area. But the collapse of the proposed move in 2011, and the riots that engulfed the area later that year, prompted a new sense of urgency and greased the wheels on a deal for the redevelopment of the Lane; just a few months later Spurs and the council announced that an agreement on planning permission had at last been reached. Crucially for the council, the deal committed both sides to the wider regeneration of the area through the development of a 'North Tottenham Regeneration programme', including plans to build 1,650 new flats and houses, a library, a cinema, bars, shops and restaurants and a Sainsbury’s supermarket. The latter opened last winter and now employs over 200 staff. Shortly after this interview the club confirmed that Archway Sheet Metal Works Ltd and the Josif Family had exercised their right to seek to challenge the Secretary of State’s compulsory purchase order in the High Court, a legal stand-off which means Spurs now accept that it “is highly unlikely we shall be able to open the new Stadium at the start of the 2017/2018 season.”
Despite the delay, the effects of the stadium redevelopment are already being felt on the ground. After the 2011 riots, King admits that “everyone looked at the area and remembered it for the wrong reasons”.
“It had an impact on everyone associated with Tottenham and the surrounding area. If you’re from the area, if you work at the club in any capacity, then you never want to see your club or your area in that kind of light. But I think we’ve gotten away from that now and people are realising there are some great things happening here, some positive people who work in and come from the area. It took a little bit of time to get away from that ‘riots’ stigma, but now we’re looking forward to the positives.
“The club realises it has a huge impact. It’s more than just a football club; what it does for the area, providing job opportunities – over 200 so far at the new Sainsbury’s, and many more to come through the impact of the new stadium. So I think it’s going to be a great thing. It’s a very deprived area, employment levels are low; it needs a lift, and I think this will be a great way of doing it.”
He adds with a laugh: “And one day it might be a Chelsea, in terms of the area…”
On top of the Sainsbury’s jobs, since April last year Haringey Council has worked with the DWP and the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation to create local employment opportunities. In total 520 jobs have been created, with the club itself holding job fairs at the ground every three months.
But with ticket prices continuing to grow, and astronomical sums paid out to players and staff, football clubs can appear to be increasingly removed from the communities they inhabit. “At Tottenham we recognise the importance, and we’re trying to do something about it,” King continues. “The Premier League is a massive brand, and people aren’t always aware how important a football club is to the local community. Yes, this is a football stadium, but I think it’s important that it plays a big part in the community. It makes sense that the club is giving back.”
All this talk of community, regeneration and job opportunities isn’t typical territory for a footballer. In fact, it sounds rather more like the type of language used by politicians. And football and politics don’t normally line up together. The former Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan may have taken part in a surprisingly convincing televised header rally with Tony Blair, while Sol Campbell, another former Spurs captain, recently gave a talk in Parliament, but footballers tend to keep their distance.
King, however, has edged into that sphere. In his post as Boris Johnson’s ambassador he works with youngsters to achieve goals and “have a positive mind-frame”. He admits that the kids he works with don’t list ‘MP’ as a career goal, though he wonders – with a smile –whether they might.
At the mention of Johnson, however, he becomes genuinely effusive. “He’s a character who the kids relate to,” he says of the extraordinary ability that the mayor, an Old Etonian and Oxford classicist, has to speak on a level with anyone from any walk of life. “He’s been around quite a bit. Quite a lot of the kids have got to meet him and realise that he’s a normal person, a nice guy. And that’s good for them. They realise that he’s not a million miles from themselves as a person, as an individual, someone who can still have a bit of fun, a great laugh, and still have a great career. He’s been good for the kids to meet and good to see around.”
And the mayor, a key figure in signing off Tottenham’s stadium plans, is just as quick to return the praise. Speaking to Total Politics, Johnson welcomes the sight of ex-players taking on roles in the community once they retire.
"It matters because they are leaders off the pitch as well as on it,” he declares. “Take Ledley: he's open, generous and ridiculously committed to Tottenham, but above all he's making a difference to people's lives here. Don't underestimate the power these guys wield – they’ve earned respect and when they speak people listen.”
Boris being Boris, there’s a touch of Johnsonian colour to his admiration for King as he recalls a time when the two donned their dinner jackets for the same evening event.
“It's also about dedication. I remember ducking out early after speaking at Ledley's testimonial. Ledley saw it through late into the night. The next morning, we were due to meet at a community project on the High Road. I didn't give him a hope, yet there he was, immaculately attired, ready for work, bounding with enthusiasm and annoyingly there before me. I couldn't wish for a better mayoral ambassador for Tottenham; he's a role model, an inspiration and an advert for what's great about London. We need more of these guys."
But will there be more? As bigger clubs continue to buy foreign talent and snap up sought-after young players from smaller clubs, the era of one-club men like King appears to be almost over. Players kiss the badge on the shirt, but when a signing-on fee takes them elsewhere, they wave goodbye to the club and the community around it.
“It’s difficult,” King admits when asked about the lack of players whose careers – during and after football – are spent with one team. He insists that “a lot of players do a lot of things for various charities”, but accepts that the one-club men offer something different.
“The game has moved on from when I was younger. There’s a still a few of them around – Steven Gerrard, John Terry. It probably will be a bit more difficult in the future to have that. It’s a great thing when you have a kid that’s come all the way through the youth system, knows the club inside out. It’s like family to them, rather than a workplace. These are players that the fans relate to the most. And generally, not speaking about myself, the Gerrards and the Terrys have been the best players at their clubs for many years, the most important players. So, you know, it’s great for the supporters to have someone to associate with.” Who that might next be in Spurs’ expensively assembled squad of foreign talent is not quite so obvious, but to witness what King means to the locals, you only have to head out onto the Tottenham High Road.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Briefly stopping for a few extra photos outside the building site, we get a glimpse into the bizarre world of the modern premiership footballer. Within seconds, a small crowd has appeared, smartphones in hand. Meanwhile, passing cars beep their horns and shout for a response from King. He’s used to it, of course, waving back at anyone who calls out and posing for a long line of a selfies. After escaping we head to the Bruce Grove youth centre to see how the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation is working with children in care.
Around 800 children have spent time here for mentoring support and training opportunities, with Spurs’ ‘To Care Is To Do’ programme providing mentoring, workshops and work experience assistance.
At the sight of the former captain, a buzz of excitement passes through the building. And today is their lucky day: another former teammate, David Ginola, is there to greet King. Ginola, who is here in his capacity as a pundit for BT, may no longer sport the luxurious mane that earned him a L’Oréal contract and adoring female fans everywhere, and there’s a pound or two extra carried on that once-chiselled frame, but he still struts like a man who knows he’s worth it. Tanned, wearing expensive brogues (no socks), and fresh from a party in St Tropez where Chic’s Nile Rodgers performed a private set, the former Spurs winger still looks more ‘film star than footballer’. And yet, after the bear hug between former teammates, we’re met with the unlikely sight of Ginola showing off his skateboarding skills.
The two ex-players give a short talk for the kids and some lucky BT competition winners, with the emphasis from both very much on the need to work. “It’s 10% talent, 90% sweat,” Ginola declares, not a bead of sweat on his brow despite the skateboarding exploits.
Looking on is Edward, an 18-year-old apprentice and mentor. Decked out in a Spurs polo shirt, Edward has emerged as a young man who wants to help his local community and, despite his cheery presence, is clearly a figure of authority already. Working with a football club helps. “You get a bit more respect in the community; people stop you and are more friendly,” he says of the club’s sponsorship of the programme. “It’s better than when you’re wearing jeans and stuff.”
Later, King and Ginola head into a swelteringly hot makeshift radio studio to be quizzed by one DJ Drifty. The contrast between them is obvious. Horizontally laid-back, Ginola could not look or sound more at ease with a microphone in front of him and a young – and fearless – interviewer to his side. King, on the other hand, is not quite there yet. While he makes a thoughtful and eloquent interviewee, getting out into the wider world and speaking to people is a skill he is learning on the job. Ginola describes him as a more “sensitive” kind of footballer, and suggests that “Ledley needs to learn to talk.”
He’s leaning his goes, but when there’s a ball involved it’s a natural fit once again. Outside, where the local papers and a few news crews line up for the photo shoots, Ginola and King pass on a few tips to budding players. The Total Politics team watch on from the sidelines, held back by a fear of performing an unplanned Chuckle Brothers-esque slaptick routine and an over-familiarity with YouTube clips of politicians attempting to kick footballs.
Both ex-players, meanwhile, are far more interested in the basketball hoop, and Ginola is particularly determined to outdo the gifted young players who keep dropping in three-pointers without so much as a glance off the backboard. Briefly enticed away from his self-set hoop challenge, he is effusive about the day’s work. “I enjoy myself – I’m loving it,” he says, not a hair out of place. “It’s about communities. Around White Hart Lane, Spurs and BT are doing a great job. There’s a love affair between me and the club. Every time I bump into a Spurs fan in the street, there’s enjoyment about meeting people with a smile on their face. If you realise you gave people these sort of things, if you can give it back to the community as a man – a footballer is something, but as the man that I am – then I am very proud of that as well.”
With that, he’s back to shooting hoops with King and the kids, the pair of them looking for all the world as if each successful basket means as much as three points on a Saturday. It’s the 90%-sweat rule in action.
Is this the future for Ledley King? Perhaps not. While his work as a club ambassador takes up the majority of his time, he has also recently been taken on as a part-time coach for Spurs’ under-18 side, as he looks to study for his qualifications and find his feet on the training pitch. So does he see his future in the dugout? “I have to see,” comes the cautious reply. “I think I’ll really enjoy it, and if I do then obviously I’ll look to take it further. But at the moment, I’m getting my feet under the table. It’s a learning curve for me; coaching is a different side. I’ll be learning as I go along, but what I do have is knowledge of the game, and hopefully I can feed that across to them and help them in different situations.”
Ledley King has come a long way since he first made his way up Tottenham High Road as a fresh-faced schoolboy from London’s East End. He’s gone from headed clearances and last-ditch tackles to proving that footballers can give something back, while at the same time White Hart Lane moves from being a one-dimensional football stadium to becoming a driver of local regeneration. And all around, the area is changing: From a burnt out and battered High Road to a buzzing, vibrant community.
There’s a great deal changing in Tottenham these days, but the reign of the King shows no sign of ending. ■