Thursday 19 July 2018

Anxious. Obsessive. Closed - We've become hopelessly one-tracked in our thinking about Gareth Bale

From quirky statistic to double Champions League winner, Real Madrid star is crucial factor if his country are to reach first World Cup finals in 60 years

Wales international Gareth Bale. Photo: PA
Wales international Gareth Bale. Photo: PA
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Gareth Bale will know by now that he has begun to occupy Irish imaginations in the way the drone of an incoming bomber might distract a war-time street.

We don't see a Welsh team coming to Dublin to mine the World Cup road tomorrow. We see Bale. We see a player in perfect communion with his gift. We see the powerful hydraulics of his running, the elegance and panache. We sense the profound confidence that only the great players can communicate. So we've become hopelessly one-tracked in our thinking. Anxious. Obsessive. Closed.

Every press-conference arrows obediently, thus, towards the same, simplistic question. How will Ireland cope with Bale? Who will nullify those trademark gusting runs? His threat in the air? His cannonball goal threat?

Wales are currently ranked 12th best side in the world, but Bale's team-mates find themselves all but depicted as a team reclining under a parasol, luxuriating in their proximity to greatness. We can't help ourselves. This is about Bale and the challenge of roping Gulliver down in Lilliput.

So solutions?

Martin?

Roy?

Bale will hate that narrative and, most probably, mistrust it deeply. But this isn't his movie to direct, not yet at least. That one begins at 7.45pm tomorrow. Until then, Bale remains a prisoner of his own world status. Occupying a place in the game unimaginable to those sent out to chase his smoke.

Take him out of tomorrow's game and it's hard to sell it as anything but a likely stalemate of two plain, hard-grafting squads. With him in it, the impression is of a hunt about to unspool.

He is 27 now, at the height of his powers and already closer to Welsh hearts than his childhood idol, Ryan Giggs, ever managed during a 16-year international career that was - crucially - never distinguished by qualification for a major tournament. Giggs scored 12 goals in 64 appearances for Wales. Bale has, already, scored 26 in 65 and was the darling of a team that became last summer's lyric story of the Euros.

At face value, his career reads almost as the perfect football cliché now. The boy from a nondescript north Cardiff suburb so gifted that his head of PE at Whitchurch High School had to ban him from deploying that explosive left foot in secondary school games because, frankly, it was too strong. Son of Frank, a school caretaker, and Debbie, the operations manager with a law firm. A kid first spotted by Southampton's satellite academy at the age of eight.

Thereafter? Second youngest player ever to play a first team game for the South Coast club (his friend, Theo Walcott, being the youngest). Youngest player to a play a senior international for his country. Youngest player to score for Wales. Young Footballer of the Year. Footballer of the Year. Most expensive player on the planet.

Happy. Grounded. A superstar who conducts himself with surprising grace and articulacy. Engaged to marry his childhood sweetheart. Every blessing in his life, now globally chronicled and indexed.

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Except Bale might easily have fallen through the cracks. Aggressive growth spurts pushed his back out of alignment in his early teens, diminishing his mobility and strength. By January '05, Southampton even considered cutting him adrift only for him to win a reprieve in an U-18s game against Norwich. At Tottenham, most famously, he went through two dozen games and three managers without being part of a Premier League victory. Harry Redknapp was the Spurs manager who oversaw the dramatic upswing in Bale's fortunes, but even he worried back then that the player might not have the fortitude needed to be a professional footballer. Actually, Redknapp's earliest impressions of Bale were of a boy who was too soft.

"I just found every day in training, he'd get a little knock," he recalled in an interview with Graham Hunter. "And I could see him limping off on one leg, the physios running over to him. I always felt he was messin' about them days with his hair, wetting it, putting the clips in. I just said to him, 'Stop messin about with your barnet! Get on with it!'

"When he was injured, I just said to the physios, 'Leave him. He'll get up, don't go running over to him. You know if he's badly injured and he lays there long enough? Different. But if you keep running over...'

"Then, suddenly, I don't know... he developed... and he's just an amazing talent."

Tottenham bought Bale for a package stretching to £10 million, Alex Ferguson among those baulking at the price. Then as Bale's extraordinary record of winless games at Spurs stretched into the twenties, Redknapp recalls Ferguson saying to him one day. "How can you pick him?"

For Redknapp, an already superstitious person, it was a question he struggled to answer.

Yet, for all his doubts about Bale's mental and physical fortitude, he could not deny the player's exceptional ability. And, of course, the Gareth Bale story then flew to another place one Champions League night in Milan.

Bale was still regarded essentially as a full-back that evening reigning European champions, Inter Milan, scorched 4-0 ahead of a ten-man Tottenham team in the San Siro. At half-time, Redknapp recalled his assistant, Tim Sherwood, proposing they replace Bale in the interests of "shutting up shop". He disagreed.

So Bale stayed on, scoring a storied hat-trick in the concluding 40 minutes, turning the tie on its head and reducing his own mother in the stadium to tears. He was 21.

His attacking down the left flank that night had been too much for full-back, Maicon and - for the return at White Hart Lane - Redknapp fully expected new Inter boss Rafa Benitez to double-up on Bale as protection for a Brazilian broadly regarded as the best full-back in world football. Yet Rafa didn't.

And as Bale almost blithely repeated the torture during the course of a 3-1 win, the Tottenham crowd began chanting "Taxi for Maicon".

Bale's performance that night reverberated around Europe, yet Redknapp was astonished that Benitez had not put up road blocks. "I felt they would double-up on Gareth," he recalled. "But they didn't. It meant we had two against one down that side and every time we got the ball to Gareth, he just ran at him. I thought they left themselves wide open really."

Redknapp might be broadly seen then as the Spurs manager who liberated Bale, but the real release of the Welshman as an attacking force came under the care of his successor, Andre Villas-Boas. The Portuguese told Bale that he planned building a new Spurs team around him for the 2012/'13 season - licensing the Welshman to roam from central midfield - and, pointedly, his squad number was changed from three to 11.

Villas-Boas believed that, given freedom, Bale would be all but unplayable. He was unleashing a monster.

Yet, Bale's brilliance could not secure Tottenham a Champions League spot, the minimum condition they now knew would keep him in North London. And so, in September of 2013, the 24-year-old Welshman arrived at the Bernabeau, unveiled as Real Madrid's £86 million signing. The fee was a world record yet, in deference to Cristiano Ronaldo (who had cost a mere £80 million from Manchester United) Madrid downplayed the deal as a mere £78 million acquisition.

That PR ruse was an instant articulation of the psychological challenge now facing Bale in Spain. He did not need simply to play great football. He needed to do so whilst avoiding being cowed by the overbearing ego of Ronaldo.

And Redknapp had his doubts.

"Listen, I didn't think there was ever anything missing, just his personality," he says. "Wondering whether he could really come out of himself. He's a quiet boy. So I was worried that he would get overawed by Ronaldo and feel a little inferior. Maybe go in his shell a little bit."

It hasn't happened.

Three years on, Bale has two Champions League medals and the never-to-be-forgotten experience - for a player who once believed his only hope of playing in an international tournament was by representing Britain at the Olympics - of helping Wales reach the last four of the 2016 Euro finals.

And, of their eight goals scored in this World Cup qualifying campaign, he has claimed four - a percentage perfectly in keeping with his Wales tally through the past four years. Tomorrow, clearly, Bale represents the greatest threat to an injury-ravaged Irish team of extending their impressive opening to Group D. And Roy Keane's suggestion that they plan to "hit him" is unlikely to unduly a player now spoken of in the same breath as Messi and Ronaldo and Suarez.

Arsene Wenger has spoken of the "exceptional physical qualities" that distinguish Bale from other superstars. The boy who first played for Wales at 16 years and 315 days is now, indisputably, a man. And his shadow is getting closer.

The rise and rise of a Welsh superstar

1 – Aged 16 years, 275 days, on April 17, 2006 Bale makes his debut for Southampton in a victory against Millwall

2 – May 27, 2006, Bale makes his debut for Wales against Trinidad and Tobago

3 – Signs for Tottenham for an initial fee of £5m. Unveiled alongside Younes Kaboul and Darren Bent. Endures a difficult start to his Spurs career where it takes 25 games and more than two years before he is involved in his first victory as manager Harry Redknapp brings him off the bench during Tottenham’s 5-0 victory against Burnley

4 – Flourishes after moving into a left-side midfield role, the highlight of which comes with a hat-trick against Inter Milan in the Champions League, tormenting Brazilian full-back Maicon in 2010. Wins PFA Player of the Year award in both 2011 and 2013.

5 – Signs for Real Madrid for then-world record £80m fee in September 2013.

6 – May 14, 2014, scores in Champions League final to help Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid 4-1 after extra-time to win ‘La Decima’, their 10th European Cup. A week earlier, he had scored a stunning 85th minute goal to help Real Madrid overcome Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final

7 – Wins his second Champions League title in May 2016, scoring a penalty in the shoot-out as Madrid again beat Atletico

8 – Leads Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 in their first major tournament since 1958. Scores in each of the three group games against Slovakia, England and Russia. Helps underdogs Wales beat much-fancied Belgium before losing to eventual winners Portugal in semi-finals

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Irish Independent

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