Where did it all go right for Gareth Bale? How Wales's hero became a man at Spurs
Almost 10 years and a month after making his international debut, Gareth Bale will walk into Friday's European Championship quarter-final as a Welsh icon. He is Chris Coleman's talisman and, with due respect to his team-mates, the strength of his performance will shape his country's fate against Belgium. It's a moment he has earned and which he deserves, but one which seemed improbable during his difficult first few months at Tottenham.
Whenever Bale's rise in the game is discussed, references are made to that notorious 23-game winless streak. To this day, the perception – wrongly – is of two different players: the delicate, fringed teenager who became a harbinger of defeat, and the superstar who now stands proudly at football's summit. There is an obvious difference between the two and the distance Bale has covered certainly constitutes a dramatic evolution, but to portray that development in supernatural, unfathomable terms is to do its detail a disservice.
Bale arrived at Tottenham in 2007. Signed at the urging of then-sporting director Damien Comolli, he joined a club which, after a second consecutive fifth-placed finish, was upwardly mobile. Martin Jol's true limitations were yet to be exposed and Bale, alongside Darren Bent, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Younes Kaboul, was part of a summer recruitment programme intended to push the club into the Champions League places.
In his first 14 months at the club, Bale suffered four separate, semi-serious injuries and took part in just eight Premier League games
It didn't happen. In fact, that was the beginning of a phase of great dysfunction. A widening fracture between the coaching and technical staff would cost Jol his job three months into the season. Juande Ramos was recruited to replace him (crucially without replicating the systems that had allowed him to succeed at Sevilla) and the club, although winning the League Cup on their way, began its tumble towards the "two points from eight games" scenario that now takes pride of place on Harry Redknapp's CV.
That's a very necessary context within which to judge Bale's early career. Though he will always be lumbered with that winless streak, it's a legacy that should belong to the team and the circumstances rather than to him solely. Bale was often very effective. Already possessing searing pace and a natural ability to beat opponents, he was worthy of his burgeoning reputation and, though scorned by the wider community, Tottenham fans who watched him at the time will all remember a quietly thrilling prospect.
But, as is often the case with development, it wasn't an entirely smooth curve. For all his ability, Bale was still a teenager when he moved to White Hart Lane and, at times, he was frail. In his first 14 months at the club, Bale suffered four separate, semi-serious injuries and took part in just eight Premier League games.
It was nothing new, either, as that fragility had been a recurring feature of his youth career. Growing pains had at one point threatened his Southampton scholarship and the club's then-head of recruitment, Malcolm Elias, recalled in a 2010 interview with The Guardian: "He'd had so many injury problems that evaluating his progress had been so difficult – he never played back-to-back games."
As a £7m teenager at one of the most visible clubs in the country, it would have taken an iron-clad personality to resist both the pressure of the situation and the metastasising doubts
All players are prisoners to continuity, but for Bale that stuttering start at Spurs must have been an especially difficult time; this was a player built primarily on athleticism and confidence and those were the very qualities that were being compromised. As a £7m teenager at one of the most visible clubs in the country, it would have taken an iron-clad personality to resist both the pressure of the situation and the metastasising doubts.
2008 was Tottenham's modern nadir. Eight winless league games into the season, Ramos – along with the club's entire footballing philosophy – fell victim to a midnight purge. Bale, meanwhile, had reached his own low point. Having already recovered from early-season knee surgery, he sustained further injury during a League Cup game in September. It was typical of the time and, with galling inevitability, he was then sent off in the defeat to Stoke that would ultimately trigger Daniel Levy's revolution.
When Harry Redknapp walked through the door, with his penchant for small groups of favoured players and belief in stable starting XIs, Bale was tainted, perilously low on self-belief and suspended. Spurs would rebound under Redknapp and finish the season in a laudable eighth place. Crucially, though, Bale was never really part of that resurgence: he made just 16 Premier League appearances and, as late as 2009, was still reportedly available for loan.
Close to the exit door?
Was I ever going to sell Bale? No. Was I going to loan him? No... I would never sell Gareth. It upsets me that people believe I was ready to ditch him
What happened next has been the subject of great revision. While Clive Allen, who was part of the coaching staff at the time, has subsequently confirmed that the increasingly peripheral Bale came very close to leaving the club, Redknapp has always denied the story and recently used his autobiography to dispute it.
"Was I ever going to sell Bale? No. Was I going to loan him? No... I would never sell Gareth. It upsets me that people believe I was ready to ditch him."
A more honest account would portray that faith as a happy accident. While that 2009/10 season is seen as a hinge point in Bale's career, in reality he spent the first four months of that campaign as a understudy to Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Had the Cameroonian not been injured in the dying minutes of the 2-0 win over West Ham in December, and had Bale not used those few minutes as his replacement to surge up and down the White Hart Lane touchline, the lack of trust between player and manager might well have continued to fester. Bale had been an outlier at Tottenham and, rather than a prescient coaching decision, it was really fate that intervened.
So began the legend. Emboldened by the crowd's response to his style of play and now equipped with a resilient, adult physique, Bale began to terrorise defences with his relentless dynamism. A flurry of excellent late-season performances, most notably against Arsenal and Chelsea, would usher Spurs and Redknapp beyond the velvet rope and into the Champions League.
He became excellent in the air, a regular threat from distance and often a destructive force through the middle of the pitch
Bale grew at a remarkable rate. Redknapp and his voodoo were key animators, of course, but the player's insatiable appetite for self-improvement provided the lasting fuel. While those years are often discussed in binary terms – with Bale a peripheral figure one minute and a star the next – it was actually a layered process.
Watching him was exhilarating; as the months and seasons changed, new facets of his game would start to glint. He became excellent in the air, a regular threat from distance and often a destructive force through the middle of the pitch. From full-back, to formulaic winger, to a complete, ultra-modern all-purpose forward.
His team-mates were part of that, as were the coaching influences he was exposed to, but Bale was more generally a virtue of marrying great ability with fierce professionalism. From his initial reluctance to leave north London on loan to the point at which he departed in pursuit of a bigger stage, his Tottenham career can be characterised by his refusal to operate anywhere other than at the very apex of his potential.
However, as enticing as it might be to believe otherwise, there was nothing unusual within that process. The surrounding narrative jokingly implies the existence of a Robert Johnson moment, and of shady deals in return for incomprehensible improvement. That's alluring but inaccurate: his story is distinctly ordinary. Bale is simply the product of a sound education, a balanced personality and a rare blend of technical and athletic ability.
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Helped on his way
Once fully grown and properly prepared for professional football, his progress relied on simple incubation. Redknapp may have provided an unwitting jump start and Andre Villas-Boas certainly broadened his tactical horizons but, in each case, that amounted to amplification rather than outright intervention. As his abilities were refined and his range of influence grew, the boundaries within which he was permitted to operate were widened.
Villas-Boas was eventually astute enough to centre his team's entire attacking philosophy around Bale and, previously, Redknapp had had the foresight to deploy him as an orthodox winger. But, though highly successful, both decisions were necessitated by what the player was organically becoming. Rather than actually planting the bulb, the managers just watered it correctly and placed it in the appropriate light.
The great fallacy with Bale is that a correction took place. That, somehow, he was defective as a young player before being cured by someone or something. To believe that, though, is not only to ignore the events of the time but also to forget many of the known truisms relating to player development.
Young footballers need stability, their bodies need to be conditioned to survive in an adult environment and, finally, they require the faith of managers who understand both their limitations and their potential. When Bale's career was eventually supported by that criteria, he began his straight ascent into the game's stratosphere.