Gareth Bale, the ad man’s dream. Looking butch in the Spurs kit ads, hastily withdrawn now I daresay, or glowering over Times Square. Or the Lucozade posters – hipster haircut, jutting jawline, lower lip ever-so-slightly tucked in. It makes me chuckle. Good luck to you, son, but you can’t fool me. I remember when you used to wear a hairclip.
I’m fortunate to sit on the lower Shelf, near the middle almost opposite the press box. I feel an attachment with all our players but develop a special bond with wingers and full-backs. They are right there, in front of me. Gareth, I’ve not just watched you for most of your career, I’ve seen you grow up.
I’ve seen the fear in your eyes when wingers used to get in behind you and you knew you had screwed up.
I’ve counted the beads of sweat on your forehead as late in the game you summon up the energy for one last effort. I’ve felt the pain as the defender’s boot crunched into your shin pad only because you were too good, too quick, too damn bloody brilliant.It’s been a privilege.
Whatever happens in Bale’s career, and I believe he will be a success in Spain, only Spurs fans have been with him as he grew from boy to man. When he began, it looked as if he had the talent but not the temperament. All the airbrushed ads and heroic exploits on the field cannot banish his boyish air.
I (ahem) described him when he was still a teenager as a young man who could become world-class. Suffice to say not everyone agreed with me. I recall a radio commentary from those early years for a cup game at the Lane that I missed. The commentator described how, after he came on a substitute, he was hanging back even though Redknapp and Bond were literally screaming at him to get forward. That image must have lingered because as far as I can gather, the reports that HR fixed up a £3m transfer to Birmingham are true. Then Assou-Ekotto was injured. The young Welshman got rid of the clip and decided to grow up.
I’ve been fortunate to see the modern greats at Spurs. Gareth Bale has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as these legends although he’s at the angels’ right hand rather than up there in the pantheon. He has dazzled in an era where players are fitter, cover more ground and therefore there is less space available for talents to shine.
Bale is unique. I have never seen, not just at Spurs but anywhere, a player that big, with that pace, with that skill on the ball and with that ability to make and score goals. Ever. A rampaging bull with Tinkerbelle’s touch.
In full flight he is utterly magnificent, hurtling down the line at full tilt, drawing in defenders and then he is gone, just when they thought they had done him. Then the sizzling cross fizzing into the box, often when the ball seems to have escaped him by the byline, or cutting inside to shoot. In his final season with us, time and again into the top corner or the calm dagger thrust to finish.
So many memories. Destroying Inter, the European champions, twice, Europe jerked wide awake as it dozed on the sofa in front of the TV. Poor Norwich, not the first to be sliced open as from deep he ran and ran. Many were away from home where he had a fraction more room to work up a head of steam. City away, dipping under the bar from 25 yards then a cross that skimmed Defoe’s toecap and was gone, and with it hopes of a title challenge. West Ham, a miraculous late winner and into the arms of Villas-Boas as in the background the chicken run emptied in disgusted tribute. Swansea away, he gets the ball in midfield and the whole stadium goes silent, waiting.
For me, two winners versus Southampton and then Sunderland, identical and trademarked. Late on when he was our only hope, cut in from the right, keep the ball away from the defender so he has no need to beat him but can’t be tackled, left foot from twenty yards, one top corner, one bottom. Special because I was behind the trajectory of the ball, close my eyes and there’s Bale, body shape contorted over the ball to establish the perfect contact, shot swinging away, keeper forever trapped in mid-air, stretching desperately for a ball he will never reach.
He will prosper in Spain, especially as he may have a little more precious space in deeper areas to get going, but the feeling lingers that we have seen him at his peak. Not that he plays by instinct alone but he was not quite at his best in the latter half of last season when he moved inside and began to realise just what he was capable of. Because he could do almost anything, he took a fraction of extra time to make up his mind. Not everything came off.
If he becomes a little more arrogant, I won’t mind. A long way from south Wales, he will need to toughen up. He’s not like Ronaldo for example, who you suspect has been insufferably cocky since he emerged from womb, treating the midwife with disdain and contempt. Not having a go – you don’t get anywhere in top-level sport without that self-confidence and he’s undoubtedly got the ability to back it up. The football world will never again allow Bale to be as good as he was for Spurs. The weight of expectation in a climate where criticism is the vogue will mean there will always be harsh words for everything less than the unattainable.
And that’s what Spurs fans will always have, the shock of the new, the astonishment and wonder that this shy boy could do that with a football. He was good but no one knew he could be that good. Bale didn’t, and there’s his enduring charm, that we weren’t presented with his talent but joined him on a journey of discovery. The shimmering thrill of the unexpected, of the impossible. Of why we were enthralled by football in the first place. Never again will it be new and fresh. We Spurs fans, we’ll always have that.
To the many who have infested social media this week with the Bale backlash, with bile and hate because he hadn’t turned up to train with a club everyone knew he was leaving, you can stick to your tawdry world of tabloid gossip and the SSN tickertape. That’s football, is it? A photo of a bloke in a London street? When you have a few beers with your pals and talk about the good times, you compare SSN news reports or reminisce over twitter banter, do you?
Tell me, what do you do with your memories? Where do they go? For younger fans, it’s possible he could be the finest player you ever see, you realise that, don’t you? That might be as good as it gets. It’s twenty or more years since Gazza left. I don’t like the way he has behaved in the past week (or appeared to behave, we may find out more later) but on the scales that is insignificant compared with his committment on the field, contribution to the team and at times scintillating football.
Those are my memories. When Bale sets off, my heart doesn’t skip a beat. It pounds and pulsates in expectation.
When Bale shoots, it’s not merely breathtaking. It sucks the breath from my lungs and that of 30,000 other people, rips the sound from my throat as I gasp, wordless, transfixed and rooted, it stops the hands of time as the ball arcs gracefully through the sky.
When Bale does his thing, my heart doesn’t sing. It’s a five-piece brass section strutting sharp and pumping over a sly funky backbeat and swirling Hammond, with soulful guitar, the Sweet Inspirations and Sam and Dave on back-up vocals as Aretha wails while Otis mops his brow with a white starched handkerchief from his top pocket.
I’d liked to have seen you, just one last time, not to change your mind but just to say I missed you, man. Good luck, goodbye, Gareth Bale.