Leicester City 2 Leeds United 2: the making of Max Gradel and Andy King
When Leicester City and Leeds United met at the Walkers Stadium on Boxing Day, it represented the latest event in the burgeoning careers of two young men attempting to realise their huge potential as professional footballers at the highest level. Max Gradel and Andy King each scored for their respective sides. Their celebrations said everything.
“Hey, f**k you man, f**k you”.
Max Gradel was born in Abidjan, the capital of the Cote d’Ivoire, in November 1987. He always wanted to be a footballer, and he has succeeded in that ambition, but, to the young Gradel, the East Midlands of England surely would have seemed an unlikely location for his football education. Following trials with Auxerre, Werder Bremen and Arsenal, it was at Leicester City that he finally found a home.
It was a great place to learn. Leicester’s youth setup focuses strongly on developing players to an advanced standard before they are thrown into the first team or loaned out to the lower leagues. Often, this means shaping raw talent and providing the building blocks of organisation to mould a player into one suitable for professional football. In Gradel’s case, it was more a case of ensuring that he understood the discipline of the game.
During a youth team game against Aston Villa, an opposition supporter disputed a Gradel opinion and received the response noted above. It was a nothing incident, which probably went unnoticed by most present and certainly anyone not at the game, but it also provided a glimpse of the temperament that the Leicester academy staff were dealing with.
Gradel went out on loan to AFC Bournemouth during the 2007/08 season, during which Leicester were relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in the club’s history. Following a successful spell on the south coast, albeit one hampered by personal tragedy after the death of his mother Maimouna at the age of 46, Gradel returned to the East Midlands and began the season a Leicester City player.
The campaign began with a 2-0 success over Milton Keynes Dons, in which Gradel looked every inch the exciting, creative winger that Leicester fans had craved during the previous season. Although in and out of the team due to inconsistent performances, Gradel provided one of the many high points of Leicester’s short time in League One.
Against the same opposition he had helped to defeat on the opening day, a team that had become one of the few to offer a threat to Leicester’s title challenge, Gradel floated in a 97th-minute equaliser which was met with rapture by everyone connected with the club.
It extended a long unbeaten run. It sent a message to all of the side’s competitors. Above all, it was meant to be the goal that made Max Gradel.
But Gradel did not make the grade with Leicester, at least not to the extent which some supporters expected of the promising Ivorian. Instead, he made another loan move to League One – this time to the more illustrious surroundings of Elland Road – and soon this was his new permanent home.
And so it came to pass that Gradel returned to his previous employers on Boxing Day and headed his current club into an important lead halfway through a first half devoid of any other action. It was his seventh goal in ten games and he is one of the main reasons why Leeds United sit third in the Championship, well placed to complete the circuitous comeback from the depths of League One to the Premier League.
Gradel did not celebrate. He knew that many Leicester fans never wanted to see him leave. Football can be a ruthless business, in which entertainers are often underappreciated. Simon Grayson, a solid, no-nonsense right-back who made his name at Leicester, knows that Gradel has what it takes and is thankful that he is in the best form of his life at the best time possible.
Leeds United led 1-0 at the break.
“Number ten and captain…”
Andy King was born in Maidenhead in October 1988. He always wanted to be a footballer. And then Chelsea came calling. King’s early football education came in his days at their Cobham training complex between the ages of 9 and 15. But soon, like Gradel, he was off to Leicester after being released prior to reaching Academy level. King played alongside Gradel in the FA Premier Youth League winning side of 2007, a trophy won after defeating Sunderland, featuring King’s current Leicester team-mate Martyn Waghorn, on penalties at the Stadium of Light.
The whole team was built around King, particularly through the constant inclusion of Tom Tejan-Sie as his midfield partner. The diminutive Tejan-Sie, who has been a Dagenham and Redbridge reserve for the last three years, anchored the middle of the park and allowed King to roam forward in search of goals. It was a winning formula, which saw King net eight in 21 appearances during the young Leicester side’s successful season. Although not blessed with electric pace, King looked a durable performer with a canny knack of arriving in the box at the right time.
King’s first-team debut for Leicester came in October 2007. The manager at the time was Gary Megson. Within six weeks, it was instead Ian Holloway. At a time of great upheaval, King’s unpolished quality was seen as a luxury and, despite scoring what remains arguably the best goal of his career in a 2-1 home defeat to Southampton in December that year, Leicester brought in the former Saints stalwart Matt Oakley the following month to play alongside Stephen Clemence in the centre of midfield.
On paper, Oakley and Clemence were one of the strongest midfield duos in the division. In reality, they offered little resistance as a succession of teams dominated and Leicester were demoted. All the while, King bided his time.
In the summer of 2008, with a long League One campaign ahead of them, Leicester needed a settled side – and quick. Pre-season saw new manager Nigel Pearson field King in his reserve side to face local non-league opposition such as Quorn, against whom the young midfielder netted a sumptuous lob. It was only Quorn, but Pearson had seen enough. When the campaign started with that opening game against MK Dons, King was in the starting lineup.
King’s career has been on the up ever since, having been a virtual ever-present at club level for two and a half years, collected Welsh international honours – including a first goal for his country against Luxembourg in August this year – and assumed the Leicester captaincy at the age of just 22 under new boss Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Despite an ability to retain possession that belies his youth and stamina that would match any athlete, King’s foremost quality is unquestionably his goalscoring. In his first two full seasons at first-team level, he reached double figures. At the halfway stage in the current league campaign, he is just one goal away from that tally yet again. When the ball drops in the penalty area, Leicester fans do not want it to fall to a striker. They want it to fall to Andy King.
It didn’t drop to King in the penalty area on Boxing Day. It fell to him 25 yards from goal. His side, a term that gains weight from the presence of the band on his arm, were 2-1 down. His side needed a goal to maintain a strong unbeaten home record and provide a platform for the remainder of the busy festive fixture list. In a heartbeat, his side were level from two goals down against 2nd-placed Leeds United.
King glanced around quickly and noted the lack of closing down. Taking the ball down on his chest, he volleyed it towards goal. It flew beyond Kasper Schmeichel, striking the underside of the bar and rippling the net. It was a goal every bit as good as that struck by Robert Snodgrass just minutes earlier, the one that gave Leeds their two-goal advantage.
The captain runs to the corner flag, leaps into the air and clenches his fist. This is now his team and one that he must lead by example.
At the final whistle, Gradel and King exchange shirts. They know where they’ve come from. They know where they want to go. Leeds United and Leicester City supporters must hope that Max Gradel and Andy King will achieve Premier League status each wearing the shirt now in the other’s possession.
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