Bullish Bale showing United what they could have had as he leads assault on decima
IF Tottenham Hotspur had got their way, Gareth Bale would currently be a Manchester United player, waiting for confirmation that Louis van Gaal is his new manager following a disastrous campaign.
Instead, he is preparing for the Champions League final with Real Madrid, who face Atletico Madrid in Lisbon's Estadio da Luz this Saturday.
Remarkably, he will also be the first British player to play in a Champions League final for a foreign club since Owen Hargreaves for Bayern Munich in 2001.
Had Bale joined United, they might have enjoyed a far better campaign and David Moyes might still be in a job.
But when United came calling last August and were willing to pay £100m – far more than the world record £86m Real would pay – it was simply too late.
It was not that the Madrid deal could not be gazumped, but simply because Bale would not change his mind. He had set his heart on Real, encouraged by his agent Jonathan Barnett, and would not budge.
United offered more – and even offered to take Emmanuel Adebayor off Tottenham's hands – and Spurs wanted to accept. But Bale would not listen.
The episode highlights Bale's determination and also his stubbornness – key reasons why his first season in Spain has been a success.
When the 24-year-old speaks, he appears shy, introverted, uncomplicated and a little nervous but – as Spurs and United found out last summer – when he has made up his mind, he cannot be dissuaded.
When Spurs first got wind of Real's interest in Bale, which was broached as Carlo Ancelotti had dinner with club president Florentino Perez to discuss his own move to the Bernabeu, there was a genuine belief he could be persuaded to stay for at least one more year.
The message from Joe Lewis, Spurs' backer, was that Bale was not for sale at any price.
However, Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs' then head coach and someone who had a strong relationship with Bale, detected a change in the player.
It was no surprise, then, when Bale returned after his summer break to inform Villas-Boas that he wanted to go.
There was talk of a transfer request. Bale was injured in pre-season and did not train; his professionalism was questioned and Spurs eventually drew out the saga until the final day of the transfer window, so determined were they to sign the replacements they wanted with the money from the deal.
It meant Bale's first few months in Madrid were stuttering as he struggled with fitness and jokes were made as to why he was assigned room 126 at the private hotel inside the club's Valdebebas training complex – the room is the closest to the physio's room.
Bale protested that he did not think about his price tag but it was always going to weigh heavy on his shoulders.
Indeed, until relatively, some questioned how successful he has been since he moved. Bale was even dismissed as "irrelevant" by the Spanish press after an underwhelming Clasico debut.
His problem there was always a simple one: there was a better player already at the club in Cristiano Ronaldo and how could he impose himself, especially when that player is such a strong personality?
But Bale is not just determined – he is also astute enough to know that the best way to deal with Ronaldo is to defer to him – for now.
That process started with the compliments he showered on his new team-mate on his arrival and have continued througout the season. Even this week, he has cited Ronaldo as his role model.
Nevertheless, it was no coincidence that Bale's greatest moment in a Madrid shirt, so far, was that brilliant winning goal in last month's Copa del Rey final against Barca, when injury prevented Ronaldo from featuring.
That night he was confirmed as a Galactico, and even Spain's notoriously demanding press decided he had been worth that record fee.
Both Bale and Ronaldo are expected to be fit next weekend as Real chase that elusive Decima – their 10th European Cup – having waited 12 long years since Zinedine Zidane's wonderful volley beat Bayern Leverkusen at Hampden Park.
That moment, incidentally, was, Bale has claimed, when he fell in love with Real.
Even at his unveiling as a Real player, Bale knew the importance of the European Cup to the club and its supporters.
"I hope to be able to help the club win la decima," he said, in Spanish, before thousands of fans who filled the lower tiers at the Bernabeu.
That wait has become an obsession, which is why Perez has broken the world transfer record three times in pursuit of it.
At that unveiling, Bale was accompanied by his family, including his partner Emma Rhys-Jones, who has moved out to Madrid with their toddler daughter, Alba Violet.
The young family live in La Finca, a gated development, where he has rented a £10,000-a-month house from Kaka, who returned to AC Milan last summer, and where he can count Iker Casillas, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos among his neighbours. Ronaldo lives 400 yards away.
Slowly but surely, Bale has settled.
He plays golf and has Spanish lessons twice a week, although he has admitted he is still hugely reliant on Luka Modric, his old Spurs team-mate, to translate for him. He has become a quiet if popular member of the squad in a dressing-room that has not traditionally been an easy one.
Twenty goals and 14 assists in 42 games have helped, even if Real ended the league season appallingly.
It means that next Saturday's final is given even greater significance, not just for the club, but also, quite possibly, to determine whether or not Ancelotti remains as coach.
How long Bale will remain in Madrid will be interesting. He signed a six-year deal which, in theory, takes him up to when he is 30, although there have already been rumours that once his daughter reaches school age in a couple of years' time he may seek a return to England. But that is for the future.
The Champions League has been a salvation for Real with the high point, so far, their semi-final victory over Bayern Munich.
Bale will already feel that his move has been gloriously vindicated, but how remarkable it would be if he ended this season a Champions League winner having brought back the trophy to the wealthiest club in the world at his first attempt. (© Daily Telegraph, London)