IT IS NOW almost commonly accepted that Gareth Bale is that rare example of a player who has gone from zero to hero. Indeed, football commentators frequently recount the ‘incredible journey’ of the Welsh star.
This ‘incredibly journey’ is essentially as follows — at the start of his Tottenham career, Bale was a hopelessly inadequate left-back. Yet miraculously, after a few years of total mediocrity in which Harry Redknapp threatened to sell the Welsh international to a lower-division club, he finally decided to pull up his socks and turn himself into a world-class superstar.
It makes for a great story, and one which several pundits have been happy to effectively regurgitate ad nauseam. The only problem is that it’s almost entirely false.
Firstly, let’s point out one of the few ostensible facts in the narrative. Harry Redknapp did, at one point, seemingly seriously consider selling Bale to a lower-league team. This story was widely reported at the time, and has been backed up by several people within the game, including Richard Keys.
Yet Bale was never a mediocre left-back, as has been suggested by some prominent critics. In fact, when Tottenham bought the player as a youngster, he was one of the hottest properties in football. They signed him for £5million, potentially rising to £10million on a performance basis — not the type of money most clubs would be willing to pay for a mediocre 17-year-old left-back.
The heavily endorsed story of Gareth Bale’s ‘incredible journey’ also dictates that he had a tough start to life at Tottenham. This is accurate if you take into account one specific statistic — he failed to win in his first 24 league matches as a Spurs player. This circumstance, more than anything else, is responsible for creating the myth that Bale was inept when he first joined the club.
On the contrary, however, Bale was Tottenham’s best performer (of an admittedly bad bunch) during his first few months at the club. The then-18-year-old scored an impressive three goals in his first four starts for Spurs and continued to dazzle thereafter, constantly posing threats to opposition defences down the left flank.
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Unfortunately for the Welsh player however, he happened to arrive at the club during one of the most tumultuous periods in its recent history — the ill-fated reigns of Martin Jol and Juande Ramos. Jol was coming to the end of his time as manager and had been hampered by a lack of faith at boardroom level, while Ramos’ inability to translate his La Liga coaching successes to the Premier League, coupled with a further series of ill-advised boardroom decisions, such as the £15million purchase of David Bentley, ensured that Spurs would remain winless during that particular season until the Spaniard was eventually sacked and Harry Redknapp took over. Hence, while Bale continued to perform well, circumstances conspired against him.
Before Bale could really get into his stride at the club having made an initial splash in his debut season, he suffered a serious injury that put him out for its remainder. Yet despite this setback, the youngster had impressed Spurs enough to earn a new four-year contract — again, not something you give to a mediocre left-back who is having a torrid time.
When Bale recovered from his long-term injury, he struggled to get back into the first team, through a mixture of Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s good form and further injuries. But once Assou-Ekotto was himself sidelined, Bale performed so impressively in the Frenchman’s absence that he would be impossible for Redknapp to ignore thereafter. The youngster quickly re-established himself as one of Tottenham’s most important players, performing with consistent brilliance and increasing effectiveness as his game developed. Nevertheless, even then, commentators would fatuously remark upon how much he had ‘improved’ since the start of his Tottenham career.
So ultimately, the claim that the Gareth Bale narrative is reminiscent of a fairytale in which a no-hoper suddenly becomes a world beater constitutes a gross oversimplification that has been perpetuated by far too many people who should know better. In reality, he was always a prodigious talent who continually showed that he had the potential to become one of the world’s best players. Yet unfortunately, the zero-to-hero story is far too seductive for certain media outlets to ignore, irrespective of its lack of factual basis.