So established is Gareth Bale’s status as a bona fide superstar that it’s easy to forget his early struggles at Tottenham.
On joining the North London giants for close to £10m as a precocious teenager in the summer of 2007 the Welshman endured two prolonged lay-offs that prevented him from hitting the ground running. It’s telling that in his first two seasons Bale made only 18 league starts as large chunks of each campaign saw him consigned to the treatment table.
What exacerbated these initial set-backs was a drawn-out coincidence that resulted in Spurs failing to win every time Bale put on the jersey. In his opening 24 appearances Tottenham drew or lost and as this bizarre run began to gain national traction the youngster found himself labelled a jinx.
Lastly, there was a third problem, as if long-term injuries and a curse weren’t heavy enough burdens to bear. Bale had primarily been purchased to resolve a long-standing issue at left-back for Spurs but in the meantime, Benoit Assou-Ekotto had put in a series of outstanding displays in the role and claimed it as his own.
This then offered up a legitimate question: even when fully fit and having finally broken his hex – a charitable late introduction with his team 5-0 up against Burnley did for that – where would the Cardiff-born prodigy, with his vast potential already waning, play?
The answer came courtesy of a Harry Redknapp masterstroke and if it’s easy to be sceptical of many aspects of Redknapp’s tactical acumen it should be said that regarding the extraordinary elevation of Bale’s career he royally came up trumps.
Because we’re now into the autumn of 2010 and with Bale finally starting to prove his worth and quietly impressing due to his marauding style down the left flank, Assou-Ekotto remains a model of consistency, ahead in the pecking order on merit. Logic dictated therefore that the Cameroonian would get the shirt for the season to come while the promising 21-year-old would primarily act as understudy.
Only Redknapp didn’t take that decision, instead opting to select both on a weekly basis, with Bale advanced and reimagined as a winger to best capitalize on his searing pace. And that’s all it took really. Just one tweak. One tweak to change absolutely everything.
It was a reinvention that in truth had begun the year before but now Bale’s levels soared, his influence and impact growing at an accelerated rate. At home to FC Twente, in Tottenham’s second ever Champions League game, it was he who slotted home a late fourth to seal matters and victories in the Premier League either side of the subsequent international break revealed that this was a side liberated and figuratively flying. In midfield, Van der Vaart and Modric schemed and probed. upfront Crouch, Keane and Pavlyuchenko shared out the goals. It was a great team to watch from a neutral perspective. For the Spurs faithful, they were a joy.
Then came Inter in their next group game at the San Siro, indomitable Inter who had last lost in their famous stadium over fifty matches before and who had five recent Scudettos gleaming in their trophy room. With Rafa Benitez at the helm and marquee names like Coutinho, Wesley Sneijder and Samuel Eto’o to call on – not to mention the peerless, if ageing Javier Zanetti still leading by example – few expected Tottenham to head to Italy and grab any sort of result and this tall ask became towering when Redknapp picked an open, attacking side, his lack of tactical acumen costly on this occasion.
From the opening whistle the Nerazzurri ruthlessly ripped into their opponents going ahead just two minutes in and then doubling their advantage soon after when Spurs keeper Heurelho Gomes had a monumental brain-fart and upended Jonathan Biabiany in the penalty area. Eto’o dispatched the penalty past stand-in stopper Cudicini after Gomes saw red.
Ten minutes had yet to be navigated and already the visitors were two down with a player deficit. Already this was about damage limitation.
Inter, however, were in no mood to be merciful. A decisive third followed when the brilliant Dejan Stankovic trickled one in from the edge of the box and when Eto’o grabbed his second of the night fears grew that this could be a humiliating massacre. What was the record score-line in the Champions League, pundits and fans alike mused, heading to Google to find out.
When the half-time whistle peeped it was respite and a blessing for Spurs.
If being four down and a man short had the visitors in all manner of trouble it was a situation greatly worsened by the mismatches that were evident all over the pitch. Tom Huddlestone was struggling to negate Coutinho. Zanetti thundered forward at every opportunity to torment Alan Hutton.
For Bale’s part, he was doing himself justice against Maicon – the Brazilian then widely considered the best right-back in the world – but his defensive obligations after Gomes’ departure was too often putting him on the back foot.
That all changed in the 58th minute and spectacularly so. Picking up the ball wide left of his penalty area the 21-year-old ran, and ran, bounding past Maicon and Zanetti in the process. He ran some more; his head down; his legs going like the clappers, until the halfway line was a blur behind him and revisiting this brilliant individual effort it feels strange that only Walter Samuel steps across at any point to try and push him wide. But really, how often does a player simply and directly peg it to the opposition goal? How often do we see that? Bale didn’t only have blistering pace as an advantage: he had the element of surprise too.
Having reached the Inter box the player later hailed the ‘Welsh cyclone’ by Gazzetta dello Sport, executed the most difficult aspect of his wonder-goal. At great speed, and from the tightest of angles, he guided the ball into the far corner, past a statuesque Julio Cesar.
A goal so breath-taking would change the dynamic of any game, even one as unbalanced as this, and though Inter still peppered Cudicini from long-range the chances evened out. Down the left Bale became a man possessed, whipping over dangerous deliveries and charging full pelt into the faintest whiff of space and then, as the contest began to peter out, incredibly, unbelievably, with a twist words cannot fully detail, he repeated his feat from earlier.
It was almost identical, right down to Maicon being had on toast, as his tormentor embarked on a 100-metre sprint. From the tightest of angles, Bale once again slotted home against the odds.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to score one like this might be considered fortunate. To score two is just pure genius.
Inter were rocked now, the stadium was stunned, while the watching audience at home shouted jibberish at the telly. This was bizarre. Just utterly bizarre.
So nonsensical was it that when Bale fired home his hat-trick just a minute later, in the game’s dying embers, it made complete sense. Of course, he has scored again. That’s what supernatural players do.
That surreal evening on October 20 2010 saw Maicon’s reputation plummet. He was ruined, gone. In the return leg – that Spurs won 3-1 – the fans chanted throughout that a taxi awaited him outside.
While for Gareth Bale it was an announcement. Here was someone special. Here was a player who would soon enough be a bone fide superstar.