Tottenham target Josh King faces career crossroads at Bournemouth
Josh King is something of a rarity, the teenage prodigy who became a late developer. At 25, Bournemouth's Norwegian forward is at the most important crossroads of his career.
Last weekend, King admitted Tottenham's widely reported interest in his signature had "intrigued" him and acknowledged Spurs as "a big team who play in the Champions League."
King, though, will also recognise that a move to Tottenham would be as backup to Harry Kane, the role that Vincent Janssen failed to fulfill after joining from PSV Eindhoven last summer. And for his manager, Eddie Howe, Tottenham moving in for King would be the first time that Bournemouth would have to fight to retain one of their stars since they were promoted to the Premier League two years ago.
As King has also acknowledged, Howe has been the making of him, playing him in the central position he could never secure as a youth product at Manchester United, or when transferred to Blackburn Rovers, where both Michael Appleton and Gary Bowyer, his managers at Ewood Park, used his speed on the flanks.
One of Howe's key attributes as a manager is to polish rough diamonds. United signed a 16-year-old King from Norwegian club Valerenga in 2008 with significant expectations, but he could not make the grade in a high-pressure environment that did not suit a relaxed attitude to life. Loans at Preston, Borussia Monchengladbach and Hull City did not convince Sir Alex Ferguson that King could be a player for the first-team squad. A permanent move to Blackburn in the summer of 2013 took him to a club on a downward spiral.
Bournemouth snapping up King on a free transfer in the summer of 2015 was a typically opportunistic piece of Howe business, but it has been a slow burner. Until a major breakthrough in February-March, when King scored five goals in three matches including a satisfying equaliser in a 1-1 draw at United, King's improvement had been steady but by no means spectacular.
Callum Wilson suffering serious knee injuries in successive seasons opened the door for King to play the central role he prefers, rather than on the flanks. Last season, top-scoring for Bournemouth in the Premier League with 16 goals (with 13 scored in 2017) made him an attractive, affordable option for teams looking for an athletic addition to the striking department.
King, should an offer manifest itself, has a serious decision to make. Satisfaction with the pace of life on the South Coast, as the father of an 18-month-old son, has helped his game along, and Bournemouth's free-flowing style suits him. Playing within the far tighter confines that Mauricio Pochettino imposes on his squad, in terms of pressing the opposition in possession, may not be quite so suitable to someone who struggled in his previous big club chance at United.
"I think I have got my childhood confidence back," King said in April, celebrating the freedom Howe allows him, and he has become a player fans are loathe to lose.
"We lived through years of bucket-rattling and penny-pinching at this club," Bournemouth fan and broadcaster Tom Latchem told ESPN FC.
"That has meant we are always afraid of losing players in transfer windows. But I don't feel worried that we will lose King. That's a gut feeling. We hope he's smart enough not to leave to be a back-up and give it one more season."
Moving on would also rob King of the chance to further develop by learning from Jermain Defoe, the veteran striker Howe expects to sign once the former Sunderland man finishes his summer holiday.
Howe's usual employment of a striking partnership contrasts to Pochettino fielding Kane as a sole striker who Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen feed off. Kane's appetite to play each game squeezed out Janssen last season, and being a bit-part player in Pochettino's squad is also a difficult discipline, as evidenced by the Dutchman's struggles, as well as those of Moussa Sissoko last season.
Tottenham's interest in King is yet to become concrete, with chairman Daniel Levy someone who drives the hardest bargain and is not afraid of taking deals to the wire on deadline day, while Howe and Bournemouth would prefer to deal quickly and for a price well beyond that £15 million Janssen cost. King's status as a "homegrown" player after formative years at United adds value to clubs in European competition.
After the previous disappointments in his career, King, though ambitious and flowing with self-confidence, may feel he owes Howe, but the chance of a lucrative move to a major London club, who will next season play at Wembley, would doubtless be highly tempting.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.