If I’m honest, I didn’t really take to Gareth Bale right away. When he burst on the scene at Spurs it seemed the English Premier League was desperate for a homegrown superstar, which is its normal state I know, but particularly back then, with David Beckham having been given a queenly send-off after his record haul of international caps and Wayne Rooney beginning to show that one of the sharpest things about him was his ability to re-negotiate an already fat contract.
Everyone was in too much of a rush to acclaim Bale, especially after he rushed past Cafu in a Champions League tie when the Brazilian was at the veteran-on-farewell-tour stage and never Carlos Alberto in the first place. The young wingman then got a reputation for a simulator, diving and squealing everywhere, and then – an abridged version of the career, I know – he earned a £85 million move to Real Madrid.
Good luck with that, I thought, and it seemed the Bernabeu would swallow him up and spit him out. Indeed it seemed Cristiano’s Ronaldo’s designer wash-bag would swallow him up, when the two were photographed together for the first time in a Madrid car park, the bashful Bale looking as if he was thinking he should maybe swap his Louis Vuitton for something more functional from Boots and get to know his place in RonaldoWorld.
But look at him now, look how he’s grown. He’s not dwarfed by the Portuguese, the price-tag, the Bernabeu intensity, the pressure of being Wales’ great hope, the pressure of tournament football. The latter did for England at these Euros, so we’re told, but Harry Kane didn’t have to shoulder all of the English expectation by himself. He had Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy and Raheem Sterling and the rest to share the load.
You could argue there’s been less expectation on Wales but does it look like Bale’s been coasting in France? Swanking around in semi-holiday mode, just happy to be in the same competition as the rest of the elite guys but with no hope of achieving something unforgettable?
Bale at the Euros has been brilliant. As a player, goalscorer, talisman, spokesman, wind-up merchant and rampager through the Russian defence. His performance in that victory has been the best individual one of the tournament thus far but while England players can’t be blamed for not being world-class like Bale they could have been bold like him. They could have been smart like Bale. They could have shown the character of Bale. They could have looked for all the world that, like Bale, being at the tournament had caused them to grow a foot rather than shrivel. They could, like Bale, have been relaxed and confident when invited to speak on behalf of their country at a media conference, rather than uncomfortable and gormless, with a flunky in a blue livery suit alongside holding their hand.
The hand-holding has been seen as part of the problem for England. The players are cocooned. Never having had to think for themselves previously, the players can’t make a decision on the pitch when it matters. Where are the leaders, the wail has been, and why can’t the academy system breed them?
The lack of leaders in this England team was pointed up on Thursday night by rival nostalgia documentaries stuffed with them. On one channel Terry Butcher, Peter Reid and the rest of the 1986 World Cup side recalled Maradona and the Hand of God. On the other Tony Adams, Stuart Pearce, Alan Shearer and Paul Ince reflected on Euro 96 when, as the latter remarked, Terry Venables stuffed the team with club captains.
Another criticism of the class of 2016 – and there’s been so many – is that once they get in their club sides they don’t bother to learn any more. The money-drenched culture of the Premier League dictates that Manchester City are perfectly prepared to splash £49 million on a player – Sterling – who seems chronically short of game intelligence. Why didn’t City get a discount for that?
Does Bale look like he’s stopped learning, that because he’s made it to Real he must be the complete footballer? I’m not sure if he could head a ball before but he can certainly do that now. One of the most thrilling images of these Euros was of him launching himself at a high cross far from goal in the last minute of the match against England. Maybe if Ron Davies, the steepling Welsh centre-forward from the 1960s, had climbed on to the shoulders of the equally lofty Wyn Davies, it would have been a goal. Still, Bale’s attempt was a valiant one.
In the immediate aftermath of England’s exit from this tournament they were slammed for being arrogant and insular, and funnily enough on the same day you could find exactly the same condemnations of the country at large on the political pages. In France the team employed more armed guards than other sides and Harry Kane’s non-answer when asked about Brexit was risible. I know he’s not in the team for his EU expertise but his performance at the mic was just another example of unwillingness to take responsibility. Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, when asked, was perfectly happy to discuss Brexit. Mind you, has that man ever shirked anything?
Kane can’t have thought he was in the side to take corners and free-kicks but these were duties he was given. Roy Hodgson made blunders in tactics and team selection and – shades of Ally MacLeod in Argentina – was too loyal to players whose form had slipped or who weren’t at peak fitness. But I come back to individual responsibility: England still had enough experienced, quality footballers on the pitch against Iceland and Slovakia previously to have won these games – if only more had shown some.
So the English cycle continues. Effortless in qualification, rubbish in tournaments. With Scotland – in the same group as England for the next World Cup – it’s the other way round, or so we’d like to think. We struggle with qualification but if only we could get to a tournament then surely we’d have some fun, progressing at least as far as Northern Ireland and the Republic – wouldn’t we?
Wales? As they demonstrated so brilliantly in Lille on Friday night they’re not one superstar and ten others but a real team. Nevertheless we don’t have a Gareth Bale right now and neither do England.