Bloggers are free and easy with words. We churn them out like manic 5 year-olds with their first Playdoh set, misshapen splurges of gloop strewn all around, ideas left incomprehensible to those who look on with tolerance and, sometimes, patience, but clear in our heads as we rush on to next one.
Words deserve more care. Some must be cherished, lovingly wrapped in soft tissuepaper and stored away for special occasions only, so that when they appear, they dazzle and amaze with their shimmering brightness.
Here’s one I’ve unwrapped because the time is right. It’s simple impact has been long since mired in a quicksand of over-use and hyperbole, but for some it has meaning still. ‘Great’ carries not only the heft of significance but in a mere five letters includes also a sense of perspective, because it compares something with others around it and with examples from the past. It’s a mighty word, not to be used lightly. To me, Gareth Bale is a great Tottenham Hotspur footballer.
The greats have two things that set them apart. One is that they possess a distinctive signature, something in the way that they perform the same tasks as their professionals that remains unique. Hoddle’s long pass, stroked rather than kicked with precision and spin, backspin to hold it up into a striker’s stride or top to let it roll on invitingly into space. Gascoigne’s burst, arms out, head down, sucking a gaggle of defenders into thinking they could get him before emerging with the ball at his feet. Greaves’ effortless glide across the turf, the ball always two or three feet from his foot, the pass into the net.
Shut your eyes and see Bale at top speed, perfect control again but this time with pace, power and muscle. He can trap a ball, shoot from range or in the box, pepper the keeper with long shots or slide one past desperate outstretched fingers to nudge it inside the far post, but in 45 years I’ve never seen a six foot 13 stone player run like that with a football at his feet.
The other unique quality that marks out the great ones is their enduring capacity to astonish. Even if you have seen it all before, this run, this pass, this shot is a thing of wonder that leaves the spectator dumb with awe. When Bale gets the ball, I’ve discovered that I no longer cheer encouragement – why would I, he doesn’t need my help. Instead, I gawp like a lovestruck teenager. He runs, my mouth falls open and I hold my breath, I am drawn from my seat by some mysterious force. Time restarts when the move is over.
In an age when the average is given preposterously inflated status, when mundane is the new top class, Bale continues to amaze. At Spurs we are privileged to see him blossom into a wonderful footballer coveted worldwide. I bore my kids with context, with stories of heroes and magnificent occasions from Tottenham’s past. I’m so delighted they have a player whose career they have seen from its awkward beginnings and who now weaves tales they can spin for their children and grandchildren. An honour and a privilege to see him play. Enjoy every moment, I beg you – this doesn’t happen very often.
Yesterday Bale won the match with two very different goals and could have scored two more. From a starting position on the left, he came inside more as the match went on as it became clear that Spurs needed some inspiration to lift the spirits as well as the tempo. Beforehand there was talk of him playing as a striker. It’s tempting as right now, you feel he can succeed at anything he likes. However, he needs a few yards to get going – defenders would love it if he had his back to the goal and pace was taken out of the equation – so that free role is perfect.
Over the last few games, Spurs have been busy but lack a cutting edge. Bale makes the difference, versus Norwich, West Brom and now Newcastle. In a bright opening, he burst down the left and Dempsey should have touched in his perfect low cross as it skimmed along the six yard line. Then a free kick after Dempsey’s good turn was cut down by Colloncini. In a footnote, Spurs had men spare at the far post but a cross was never an option. We no longer joke about Spurs and free-kicks. Over the wall and down again, enough to bounce before it plopped into the corner.
The game was bookended by decent spells at the beginning and end. In between, we struggled to impose ourselves. Going a goal up after five minutes paved the way for some lovely flowing football with everyone involved but gradually Newcastle came back into it. Last week I suggested that with a striker shortage, we could always tighten up at the back even though ‘one nil to the Tottenham’ doesn’t have much of a ring to it. The suggestion seems reasonable and we played two defensive midfielders in Parker and Dembele. While Parker was there, Dembele is wasted in that role. Three times we left acres in front of the back four. Cisse missed with a header, unmarked as Caulker and Naughton looked on when they should have done much more, then no closing down and an equaliser.
Newcastle have a strong midfield that at the moment lacks the capacity to control a game but they were always dangerous in bursts and kept Spurs quiet for the rest of the half. In the second we had more of the territory and I can recall Lloris making only one real save, an important one late on at Ameobi’s feet. Meanwhile we had the ball without making much of an impact. Dempsey was poor up front, showing his uncertainty in that role by dumping his stock in trade, the awareness and one-twos at the edge of the box, in favour of three long shots when others were much better placed. Holtby impressed in an advanced role but was wasted by being moved wide left in a reshuffle at the start of the second half. Predictably the game passed him by and he was withdrawn in favour of Adebayor. Parker drove on from the back but exercised poor judgement and accuracy with his forward passing. Lennon fizzed and came back to help out the defence.
Enter Bale. Just when it seemed the deadlock would not be broken, he seized on a mere moment’s hesitation between the Newcastle centre halves. At his feet, an innocuous bouncing ball in the middle suddenly became a charge on goal. This wasn’t a mere lunge to a high ball. He got there first and controlled the ball. A gallop, three touches, the fourth slid the ball home.
We became a different side. Bouncing around now, we protected the lead well. Dembele got into the match and Dawson came into his own, dominating his area to close out the match. Bale’s athletic long shot was touched over gymnastically by Krul, then the Welshman put the easiest chance of them all over the bar from close in.
So not entirely convincing but we remain four points clear in fourth, although Arsenal are ominously coming into form and Chelsea can never be written off with talent such as theirs. The pressure will increase with every game and we will have to play much better when the key battles versus our main rivals come along. Time to get Adebayor motivated – he is key – and find the best midfield shape. In the meantime, relish what we have. Gareth Bale is 23 years old.