King of the castle? Not in Wayne’s world
On Thursday, it was announced that Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King’s footballing career had come to an end at the relatively young age of 31.
His career in North London was a stop-start affair with injuries hampering his playing time as, in 13 years at White Hart Lane, he amassed a total of 315 games and 21 England caps. News also broke that Spurs are going to keep on the one-club man in an ambassadorial role, easing the pain of having to leave the playing field at his boyhood club.
But while the sorrow on the terraces pours forth for King, there have been countless others who haven’t been as fortunate to have had such a career and the wealth that comes with it. When footballers retire early, one name always springs to my mind – Wayne Harrison.
Liverpool boss Joe Fagan signed Harrison in 1985 for £250,000 from Oldham Athletic, a then world record for a teenager. Born in Stockport, Harrison joined Oldham in the Second Division as a 16-year-old, citing the fact that he could get the bus direct from his house to Boundary Park. He was a goalscorer of some repute for his age, banging in 35 goals for Oldham’s reserve and junior sides.
After he destroyed Liverpool in an FA Youth Cup-tie at Anfield, bagging a brace in a 4-0 win, the Merseyside giants came calling. Harrison was joining the current European champions on the back of two first-team appearances under the tutelage of Joe Royle. After Heysel, Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish took over and it was decided that Harrison should continue his football education in Liverpool tradition of playing in the reserves.
On the verge of making his debut, Harrison suffered an horrific accident when he crashed into a greenhouse while on a reserve pre-season tour in the south of England, losing a lot of blood, sustaining several injuries and severing arteries in his arms. With the ambulance service on strike, back-up army medics rushed him to hospital, where he could easily have died, as the loss of blood was so severe.
Despite this he recovered, becoming top scorer, only to suffer a succession of other injuries that prevented him from playing much football for the reserves. On the final day of the 1990 season, again the reserves top scorer, he collided with the Bradford City goalkeeper and shattered the cruciate ligament in a knee.
Numerous operations followed and then, in 1991, Graeme Souness gave him the devastating news that he didn’t want to hear – that the doctors thought he shouldn’t play again. That call all but ended his footballing life, at the age of 22, during which time he had already had 23 football-related operations, with 12 of those on the knee alone.
Liverpool being Liverpool held a testimonial for Harrison against Oldham in 1992. His injuries were so bad that he couldn’t even hobble on to the pitch for a cameo appearance.
He tried to make a comeback in the Stockport Sunday League, turning out for Offerton Green Reserves, for whom he duly scored, but by then his knee was giving him so much pain that he had to concentrate on delivering kegs of beer as an HGV driver for Robinsons Brewery. After more than 40 operations on various parts of his body, he is now living on incapacity benefits.
So while the news that Ledley King has bowed out at the top level at a fairly young age, he has his health, he has his wealth and Tottenham will be keeping him in the family. So spare a thought for footballers like Wayne Harrison who never even made it on to the big stage, even after a Hollywood-style build-up.
Football can be a fun game but it can be cruel also.