ALTHOUGH five months have passed since it happened, the memory of Gareth Bale’s winner in Cardiff hasn’t dimmed a jot, the vicious thump from distance that rose high into Allan McGregor’s goal and ushered the end of the Craig Levein era.
Even now, watching it on replay, it’s hard to fathom. One thing to have the confidence to hit it from such range, but quite another to hit it with such power and accuracy that once it left his boot you knew, just knew, that it was flying nowhere else but in.
Bale has scored 20 goals for club and country since then. He’s fast, dangerous and 23 years old. One of the most talked-about players in Europe – and one of the most coveted. When Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, spoke about him last week it was almost like he was describing a footballing Adonis. “When you see him stripped down to his shorts he is built like a middleweight boxer,” said Coleman. “He has big shoulders, a thin waist, a very muscular boy. Even if the opposition stops Gareth for 89 minutes he can score a goal out of nothing. If you have that in your camp it’s a hell of a plus.”
Scotland needs no reminder.
“Kicking him is one way of trying to stop him and slow him down, but the more he gets kicked and thrown about, the more determined he is to stick the ball in the net,” said Coleman. His grit is something that many talk about. It’s not just pace and power and stunning technical ability, it’s his mind as well. “He’ll only be in his prime when he’s 27,” said Ian Rush the other day. “It’s too early to be talking about him as one of the all-time Welsh greats, but in three or four years time I’ve no doubt that he’ll be in there with John Charles, Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes.”
To Hampden on Friday. The first competitive game under Gordon Strachan, but the pulse won’t quicken at the sight of any Scot, with all due respect to them. There will be but one superstar on the field and everybody knows who it’s going to be.
In Glasgow on Tuesday, Joe Jordan spoke about Bale, about his first glimpses of him as a free-kick wunderkind at Southampton, how every time Big Joe used to sit down to watch highlights of the Championship on a weekend this lad would always catch his eye, whipping dead balls into the danger zone with the kind of accuracy that you just cannot teach.
Bale ended up at the Tottenham of Martin Jol, which became the Tottenham of Juande Ramos, which became the Tottenham of Harry Redknapp and, of course, Jordan himself. “He’s a terrific player but also a smashing lad. If he wasn’t playing this weekend he’d be at home with his family in Wales, that’s the type of boy he is. Sensible. You look at him now and he’s playing with great responsibility. Scoring and creating nearly every week. He’s as likely to come at you in the 90th minute as he is in the first. Not many players can do that. Most of them only do it in bursts but Gareth can keep at you all day long.”
The love-in only lasts so long. How did Bale get on when Spurs went to QPR, where Jordan is Redknapp’s right-hand man once again? “He never got a kick. Finished nothing-each. He had a very, very quiet game.”
The plan – the only way, he says – was to deny him space, stop him getting up a head of steam, track him as he drifted into pockets of space. Make him lay the ball off every time. “It requires an awful lot of concentration and we had it that day. Top class. He’s not playing down the left side or the right side any more, he’s drifting into other areas now. In the last couple of games he’s playing in behind the striker so they’re trying to find another wee area for him, just a bit of space for him to murder you.”
In Cardiff we saw the light and shade of Bale, the brilliance and the conman that so many talk about. He won a penalty by hurling himself over in the box. As sure as lightning pace is part of his armoury so, too, is diving. Even his allies speak of it.
“He’s allowed it to become a talking point,” says Jordan. “Happened again recently. The incidents are fewer than they were but I can see why people talk about it, definitely. Now, with some of them I think people have looked back and realised that he was clipped, or whatever, but it was his theatrical reaction that caused the problem. He can’t ignore it. He has to take into account where people are coming from with this thing. He’s left it out there for debate and he has to assess it and put it right. I don’t think it’s good, but I’m old school. I think it’s terrible.”
Jordan and Bale go back a while, but if you want to wind it back even further it was a different Scot who set Bale on his way in senior football. It was George Burley who gave him his debut at Southampton at 17.
“We’d had Theo Walcott, but he’d gone to Arsenal and the difference between Theo and Gareth was that Theo didn’t always have an end product but Gareth always did. He could do anything with that left foot. Opposition teams were making plans for him even though he was a teenage kid playing full-back. They knew what damage he could do.”
Burley made a couple of quiet predictions when Bale left for Spurs in the summer of 2007. Firstly, he thought he was too young and would struggle. Secondly, that when he found his feet he would be spectacular. “I felt he was making a mistake leaving Southampton so early. I thought he needed another year with us and I think I was right. Six months after he left us, I saw him playing for Spurs and he was finding it hard, but there was so much interest in him that you can see why he wanted to go as early as he did. Man United wanted him. We spoke to their chief executive and Sir Alex [Ferguson] and they didn’t want to pay the money that I felt Gareth was worth. Arsenal paid a fee rising to £12 million for Theo and I didn’t think we should let Gareth go for any less than that. United thought it was too much for an unproven full-back, but he was never just going to be a full-back. You knew he was capable of playing anywhere on the field just as soon he learned about the game. In the end, Spurs came in and paid the money.”
Bale’s early travails at Tottenham are a fast-fading memory now, but not to those who were around the scene at the time.
He made his Premier League debut in August of 2007, played eight games and didn’t win any of them. The following season he played 16 more in the league and didn’t win any of them either.
He was talked about as a jinx and a flop. It was only in his 25th Premier League game that Bale finished on the winning side and only then as a late substitute when Spurs beat Burnley 4-0. It was two and a half seasons and 32 Premier League matches before he played in a winning team from the start.
“When Harry and myself came in we just had to work on him mentally,” says Jordan. “He had this monkey on his back regarding not playing in a winning team and there was mickey-taking in the dressing room over that. He’d had a lot of attention at Southampton and he would have been treated as a special player and he probably didn’t get that at Spurs.
“We knew his potential but, for a while, it was a case of: ‘Come on, let’s go, time to show it’. You can see what he’s become now. A thoroughbred footballer.
“I’ve heard crazy talk comparing him to Ronaldo at Real Madrid – far too early for that – but what I would say is that he’s good enough to get the opportunity to play at that level and the rest then will be up to him.”
Strachan should dig out the DVD of QPR versus Spurs. “Never got a kick.” How the Scotland manager would like to repeat those words come Friday night.
• Joe Jordan and Ian Rush are part of ESPN’s football coverage. ESPN is showing Serbia v Scotland live on 26 March.