‘I’m at peace’ – Andy King on retirement, Bristol City’s legacy and cause for optimism in BS3

Andy King knows he could go on. You never lose touch or awareness, the sharpness of your football brain never diminishes, especially when you’ve groomed yourself as well as he has. After all, he made 17 more appearances for the 31st-ranked team in the country this season; there are many clubs out there a little further down the pyramid who are in dire need of someone with his experience, presence and craft on the pitch.

But one of the underlying reasons why the 35-year-old is hanging up his boots is also at the heart of what has made him the footballer he has been throughout his career: standards. As he admits, his legs can’t quite do what he wants, he can’t quite play at the level he’d like, and besides, there’s a sense of what’s left to achieve?

The king lived the dream. A legend at Leicester City, where he made 379 appearances and won titles from League One to the Premier League. A main character in the modern football fairy tale.

And then, after briefly losing an emotional attachment to the game as his time with the Foxes ended, where it all began for him he was able to rekindle his passion.

Few footballers get to fulfill their childhood fantasies of lining out for the club they supported. But in 2021, King slipped on the shirt of the team he had worn as a child, before Chelsea and before Leicester. The red and white of Bristol City was much more than just a route out of a miserable spell in Belgium, it awakened previously dormant feelings about why he loved the game so deeply.

That he was able to play 54 times, wear the captain’s armband and also celebrate the mark was possible beyond initial expectations. He found something special, even magical, at Ashton Gate, something he could never replicate elsewhere, so with his contract up and the prospect of having to find another club, he eventually , why would they?

“When I left Leicester, I’ll be honest, I found football difficult,” King tells Bristol Live. “To go from somewhere to feel so loved and do so well, by then (the game) gets a bit more difficult and you think ‘ah, I don’t know’ … but then I got that feeling coming back here at Bristol City, so I thought, I don’t want to go back down that route where I don’t feel an emotional connection to it.

“I wanted Bristol City to be my last club for a while. I thought it felt right. I achieved what I achieved, but I wanted to end here. I know how lucky I’ve been to be here and to have this with the fans, my teammates and a great group of people that I get to work with every day.

“And also, I’m 36 soon, it’s frustrating when your legs can’t do what they used to and you can’t play at the level you once did. I think I could still play somewhere? Yeah, but leveling when I was 25? No, of course not, and that’s also a frustration.

“I thought it was the right time, it felt right. I wanted a final ending; one last training session with the lads, I wanted one last game, to make it really final, rather than go out into the sun with him and leave him in the air.”

It says a lot about King and the impact he had on the game that the tributes were so eloquent, so profound and more than clichéd passing platitudes; Nigel Pearson described him as “a manager’s dream” who developed into something more than just a footballer, but perhaps the most fitting and enlightening of his time in the West Country came from Noel Scott, Alex’s father, the man of 25 million pounds for which King. he was a mentor throughout his rise at City. “Thank you for looking after my boy, he owes you so much,” Scott Snr wrote. “I’m glad he still comes to see you. You are a top man with a fantastic career.”

Alex Scott celebrates with Andy King after scoring against Blackpool last season (Ashley Crowden/JMP)

King’s influence on the field was not always significant, he himself even admits that he would have liked to have been better, although he rarely let the team down and was a reliable and ultimately essential member of the team, who was often there in times of crisis.

But his presence was most felt off the field, guiding Scott, Tommy Conway and Sam Bell through their early professional years, while providing assistance to those in the next phase of their careers such as Zak Vyner, Joe Williams. and Cam Pring. The dressing room he entered was not the one he leaves with a legacy that will continue to be recognized and resonate for years to come.

“I look back on it with great pride,” King added. “Would I have liked to play more? Yes. Could I have played better? Yes probably. But like I said, when you’re 34-35, it’s never going to be as beautiful as when you’re 24-25. But I gave absolutely everything to this football club and dedicated myself to it 100%.

“The steps I think the club has made, both on the pitch and culturally, and now I feel like I’m in a much better position to be successful in the future. I’m not saying this is just up to me, of course it isn’t; but I feel I played a small part in it and it fills me with great pride.

“I told TC that, but they’re like my little brothers to me. But not just them, Joe and Zak, the developments they’ve made – I’m now in my mid to late 20s. I’ve made incredible friends here, I’ve absolutely loved it and that’s why it’s hard to say goodbye, but I’ll be able to sit back and watch these guys progress in their careers.

“I have great relationships with them and they know I’m always a phone call or a coffee away if they need help or want to ask me something.

“But now it’s up to them if they want to show the next group of young guys — whether it’s Ephraim (Yeboah) or Jed (Meerholz) or whoever — how to behave, how to eat right, how to train right. It’s up to them and that’s how you build a culture within a club. I’ll be watching with pride because they’re really brilliant guys and I wish them the best.”

Those truly brilliant boys were around him as tears filled his eyes at full-time at the Bet365 Stadium. Taking to the pitch for the final time after also honoring Ashton Gate the previous weekend, the 4-0 defeat did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the 1,875 away fans to show King what they thought of him.

Pushed forward by his teammates, King was cheered and greeted as one of their own, with the midfielder blowing kisses and beating his chest. It’s no different to the other farewell he experienced earlier this season at the King Power Stadium.

“It was tough, knowing it was the last time,” King said. “It’s hard to put into words, really. Pride, seeing your family in the stands and everyone singing your name. But it was emotional to tell the guys on Friday, because your teammates are the ones you’re going to miss the most, they’re the ones who are there for you.

“If it was a group of guys you don’t like, or a place you don’t like, then it almost makes your decision easier. You can be grateful for everything and be on your way, but when you have real deep friendships and connections somewhere, then it’s more difficult.

“One of my children was born in Bristol, we love our city so it makes it more difficult but it also makes it worth it. I put it out there on Friday and went to bed at peace with my decision, happy that I made it, and the response I had to it from the fans was overwhelming. It was tough, knowing it was the last time, but I’m happy with how it went.”

Most of those who gathered with King in the dressing room for a final team photo will still be around for the 2024/25 season as City look to emulate what the midfielder achieved with Leicester 10 years ago and secure promotion to the Premier League League.

It was the dream he’d harbored as a child and one he’s now been a part of as an adult, but as he gets back to being a “fan”, King is optimistic about the basics – which many -he helped set them up, not that he wants to take too much credit – they’re there for that elusive success.

“I think I’m in a great position to be honest,” he added. “We talked about people like George, Pringy, Tommy – guys who probably when I first came here were developing in the league. I look at them now and see consistent performers every week at the top of the league in my opinion.

“And those are just the guys that have been brought in to develop, not the guys that are already at that level when you think about some of the more senior players.

“Ultimately, the goal is to be more consistent, and that comes with age. There is a fine line between players to develop and players to produce and if you can get the balance right then perfect and the composition of the team and what we have now is very, very close.

“With Nigel we have given the players an incredible platform to go on and perform; you look at the development of Antoine, Scotty, TC, Pringy and Zak, they were brilliant. And now the gaffer will do the same, train them and put them in a brilliant structure.

“I think you can see the way he wants to play now suits the players we’ve got so I think they’re in an incredible position and, if I had to say, with a bit of help in the summer, there’s every chance of that. the football club can be in the top six this time next year.

“The team, when you look at it, who we have and the guys we have to get back, I don’t think the team is going to be far, it’s just about consistency and mentality and everybody. moving forward, which is night and day now compared to when I first came three years ago.”

Although Saturday was goodbye, it is not goodbye forever. As for what’s next, he’s not sure. Coaching is the obvious route, and maybe inevitable, maybe not at City, but he’s too well-liked, connected and respected for a club to think hiring Andy King isn’t a good idea.

Time spent with wife Camilla and his two daughters over the next few weeks will help shape what he wants to do next. And who knows, given his precedent, perhaps the fairy tale will continue and he will one day return to Ashton Gate as manager, as Pearson predicted.

For now, though, he’s looking forward to taking his place in the stands like he used to. Before football became his career, when he was simply a Bristol City fan.

“One hundred percent we’ll be back here,” King said. “I came here before I played here, but now I played here, I have even more connection with the place. I have family down here and now a lot of friends and it gives me even more reasons to come. And I’ll be looking forward to doing it from the other side, with a little less pressure, watching the guys as supporters, watching it from the outside and enjoying the game for what it is, rather than having such a big effect on my. life.”

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