The Prodigal Son Returns

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7 years and 13 trophies after leaving the club, Gareth Bale is on the verge of a sensational return to Tottenham.

When news began to break of Tottenham’s rumored interest in Gareth Bale this past week, the story was greeted with a collective shrug. Here we go again, was the common reaction, few paying any real attention. Over the years, the sense of indifference, the muted apathy, to what once would have evoked the utmost excitement, had become widespread. Yet, despite all efforts to ignore it, within every Tottenham fan, that small kernel of hope, that familiar ember of optimism that had glowed since the Welshman’s departure in 2013, continued to linger, impossible — whether consciously or not — to be fully extinguished.  

Could this be the year? fans began to wonder, with increasing fervency as the stories began to gain momentum. One outlet after the other began to report the impossible: 

Then Fabrizio Romano, European football’s current oracle of choice, confirmed that talks were indeed underway. Here we go.

Tottenham fans were stunned. The surge of euphoria, the wave of collective delirium sweeping over North London, was palpable. What has transpired over the past couple of days is perhaps testimony to Levy and the board’s ability to drive the prevailing narrative around N17. Fans’ hopes and dreams truly do rest upon their shoulders, slave to their whims and desires. With one fell swoop, Tottenham’s hierarchy managed to transform the entire mood and dynamic around the club. 

It was a timely intervention, as well. 

After yet another summer of watching rivals strengthen while the same old excuses were being trotted out, the storm clouds were already gathering prior to kickoff on Sunday. Levy seemed perfectly content to persevere with the notion that Spurs were the only club affected by the coronavirus — oblivious to the fact that the rest of Europe was going about their business as usual — and transfer activity had clearly reflected this stance. Deals had come relatively early, but none were particularly exciting or ambitious, and all were merely plugging holes in the squad. Few fans were going into the new season with any real sense of optimism. Sure, Spurs might defy expectations and scrape into the top four, but clearly the team was deficient, and the squad, as a whole, nowhere near good enough for major honors. 

Mid way through a dire second half performance against an invigorated Everton, those clouds had congealed into something worse. A dark, ominous, and almost unpalatable air was taking root around the club, a sense of despair and anguish not seen for many years at Tottenham. What transpired during those 90 minutes was so poor, so devoid of hope and inspiration, that tonic was needed — and fast. 

For many, it was Groundhog Day. Another half-hearted, half-baked attempt at bridging the gap to rivals was unfolding, important transfer business was being left late, and another underwhelming, underachieving season beckoned. Ziyech, Werner and Van De Beek — all long term targets for Spurs — had joined other clubs, and Spurs were (again) left to rue missed opportunities and forage for scraps once the big boys had taken their fill. 

That, at least, was the perception for many Spurs fans as the whistle blew on a dark, almost historically dismal performance. 

So do Spurs owe Everton and Mr Ancelotti a debt of gratitude for the manner of the defeat they administered? For showing that ambition off the field truly can translate to success on it? Everton, after all, are a team that had not beaten Spurs in sixteen attempts, one of the few sides Tottenham had enjoyed superiority over in the past few years. Even the most optimistic of fans were concerned. A limp, lifeless defeat — at home — to a team that had outspent, out dreamed, and ultimately outperformed Tottenham on the field, was clearly not the best start to Mourinho’s first full season in charge. Sunday was a wake up call to fans, Mourinho, and possibly even Levy himself, who perhaps for the first time understood the scope of the task at hand, the sheer degree to which the squad was lacking. 

Perhaps Jose Mourinho deserves a statue outside the ground for helping orchestrate a defeat so bad, so hopeless, that even the Premier League’s most frugal, risk-averse chairman was forced to dip into his pockets and shatter his club’s existing parsimony? Perhaps, some wondered, this was Mourinho’s last throw of the dice, a final, nuclear attempt at persuading Levy to finally open his cheque book. Throwing Sissoko on for Dele while the team went in search of an equalizer was certainly among the more baffling tactical decisions you’re ever likely to see . . .

Whatever the true reasons, something shifted. A change was catalyzed deep within the manicured lawns and gilded halls of Hotspur Way. 

Get Bale, came the order. And while you’re at it, sign Reguilon too. 

The reaction was extraordinary.

An outpouring of joy and elation — a sense of anticipation not seen since the signing of Klinsmann — followed from Tottenham fans across the globe. Even supporters of rival clubs were forced to sit up and take note, those of a United persuasion especially; fans who themselves once dreamed of the Welshman’s return.

All this is not to say that the move to bring back Bale is not without risk, or without reasons for skepticism. Bale is not the 24 year-old starlet he was when he left Tottenham. Madrid fans will tell you that at 31, the pace is gone, his legs are tired, and the motivation just isn’t there. And while there is no transfer-fee for Spurs to dispense with, Bale’s wages were an eye-watering £600K a month. Even paying half of his salary would upend Tottenham’s existing wage structure, something that Daniel Levy would have been acutely aware of.

But Gareth Bale is no ordinary footballer. In 2017, he was clocked at a record breaking 22.9mph — faster than the likes of Mbappe and Ronaldo. Even if there’s been a noticeable dip in his afterburners, he’ll still be much faster than many Premier League footballers. So while Bale will likely not have the same explosive, devastating turn of pace of before, he’s probably no slacker either. It’s worth remembering as well that Ronaldo is 35, Messi 33, Lewandowski 32; and few football fans on earth — if any — would not have them in their teams. 

In his seven years away from Tottenham, Bale has tasted that rarified air of superstardom, stood atop that pantheon of greatness reserved for the game’s true elite. He has four Champions League trophies to his name, more than Zidane himself. In the past few years, only Neymar and perhaps Antoine Griezmann can claim to have come as close to gatecrashing football’s ultra elite. Yet neither has performed so spectacularly, and so frequently on the big stage, and especially in the big moments. Indeed, both, it could easily be said, have flopped massively. Bale, by contrast, has thrived under the spotlight, single handedly propelling one of the world’s most famous clubs to a glittering array of trophies. From his crucial strikes in Champions League finals against Athletico and Liverpool, to his blistering solo goal against fierce rivals Barcelona in the final of the Copa Del Ray, it’s hard to deny his impact on the game’s biggest stages. 

Even his overall record at Madrid — managed while often being on the periphery of the team and out of favor with both fans and managers — is nothing to scoff at. Madrid is a pressure cooker environment at the best of times, one in which many great players, from all corners of the world, have failed to truly live up to expectations. Yet, with Bale, the antipathy in which he’s held amongst Madridistas runs far deeper than purely an inability to perform on the football pitch. The issues were more personal, cultural even, which is surely a major reason why Bale himself was so eager to return home, to come back to a place where he is so universally adored. To be sure, 105 goals and 68 assists in 251 games are impressive numbers for any player. It is perhaps strange that his time at Madrid is viewed in such an underwhelming light, when his stats outperform many of the club’s all time legends. His 105 goals are one more than Ronaldo Nazario, and his assist tally 17 more than Beckham’s. 

Indeed, Bale’s time at Madrid, often derided as a failure, has yielded two league titles, one Copa Del Ray, three Club World Cups, and two European Super Cups, in addition to his unprecedented four Champions League titles. Thirteen trophies in seven years is an objectively ridiculous trophy haul — one almost unprecedented in the modern game. How Tottenham could do with a man of his pedigree. How the likes of Kane, Son and Dele might benefit from a player of his experience. And how one of the game’s most successful managers must be salivating at the prospect of landing a player he’s coveted for years. It’s mouthwatering stuff all around. 

Much has also been made of the Welshman’s lack of game time, but could this actually be a positive for Tottenham? Less wear and tear on the tires, less mileage on the engine? There is a school of thought that Bale’s inaction could very much work in Spurs’ favor. Could Bale be one of those individuals who’s physical age is actually far lower than their actual age? And in terms of psyche and what sort of mentality the player will arrive in, while some would argue that spending his time calculating his handicap and waiting for the international breaks may have sapped his competitive drive and numbed his killer instinct; perhaps the opposite might be true. Maybe the inactivity has fomented into a well of pent up frustrations, a footballing potential stored and ready to be unleashed upon the White Hart Lane (or Amazon stadium, whatever you’d like to call it) faithful? Could Gareth Bale be the footballing equivalent of a caged lion, fattened and fed, and waiting to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting Premier League? 

Time will tell, of course, but for now, at least, Tottenham fans can dream. 

For so long, once Harry Kane broke onto the scene, the unavoidable question on the lips of Spurs fans worldwide was: “Imagine Kane and Bale in the same team?” 

Now they may no longer have to wonder. 

Two generations of Spurs legends appear to be colliding at exactly the right moment. When Bale was in full flow, the observation — and lament — was often: What if Tottenham had a world class striker to play with him? Indeed, his final season with the club was as disappointing from a team perspective, as it was jaw-dropping from an individual one. I will maintain to this day that there has never been a better individual season in English football than the one Bale produced in 2013. The number of times he produced a moment of magic; carrying the ball from deep within his own half to score, mesmerizing with his free kicks, firing off devastating strikes from the edge of the box, or simply thumping them in from wherever he pleased . . . It was Playstation stuff, virtuoso performances week after week; no one could touch him. And yet, as has often been the case with Tottenham, the team around the team’s crown jewel was not at the same level, and ended up winning nothing. It was somewhat reminiscent of the Ginola era, where the player won every individual accolade available, but the team around him was nowhere near the same level. AVB’s misfits did still manage to finish fifth — but to say that Bale carried that Tottenham team would be a grave, grave understatement. While this current iteration has plenty of weaknesses, and is nowhere near the finished article, it’s surely a world away from the last Spurs team Bale last played in.

Kane, Bale, and Son will form one of the most attacking, dynamic, and sumptuous front threes in all of football. Yes there are still problems behind them, but surely this extraordinary trio of world class footballers can overcome them? Ossie would certainly think so . . .

Is it a Hail Mary? A sudden, temporary fix of morphine rather a carefully administered dose of long term immunotherapy? Perhaps. 

But for now, who cares?

Gareth Bale is coming home. 

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