Gareth Bale: Where Did It All Go Right for Tottenham's Welsh Wing Wizard?

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Gareth Bale: Where Did It All Go Right for Tottenham's Welsh Wing Wizard?

Hindsight is a tool used by the smug in the pursuit of one upmanship

“That was obvious.” “It was always going to happen.” "I could have told you that.” It is a familiar track that never seems to be exhausted. 

The perimeters of "hindsight" are all-encompassing. Simple social decisions to business deals, choices and predictions can be easily scrutinised upon revision.

Foresight is, as yet, not infallible. Human decisions can be wrong, sometimes spectacularly.

In December 2008, The Telegraph ran an article under the headline “Spurs must lose Gareth Bale to land Stewart Downing.” With hindsight, such a statement is lunacy with Bale, one of the world’s best players light years ahead of Downing, a player languishing on the fringes of Liverpool’s first team. It would be easy, years down the line, sitting in a gilded castle of pomposity to ridicule the article, rumour and decision to write it, yet at the time it was perfectly valid.

Downing, then of Middlesborough, was one of the country’s most exciting young talents who had out-grown the limited potential of his hometown club. Gareth Bale, an incredibly hyped young player, had moved to London from south-coast side Southampton the year before. 

Bale’s career at Spurs, however, had been an unmitigated disaster. Deployed in his original position as a left-back, the young Welshman maintained the inimical honour of going 24 Spurs games without victory.

At left-back, Bale’s attacking penchants, although pleasing on the eye, left his side incredibly vulnerable to the counterattack. A vulnerability that was ruthlessly exploited on a consistent basis throughout his early tenure at the club.

An injury-hit 2007/08 season, in which a foot injury restricted Bale to just 12 appearances, curtailed his development yet further.

Therefore, in December of 2008, at the time the incriminating article was written, Gareth Bale, at the time still a left-back, was a good but not spectacular player.

Ironically, it was injury that transformed Bale into the rampaging behemoth whose name strikes fear into the hearts of defenders the world over.

After requiring knee surgery in 2009, the prolonged hiatus facilitated another player, Benoit Assou-Ekotto to become undisputed first-choice left-back.

The move left Bale at a juncture. Although he had sporadically been played in a more attacking capacity, he was still recognised as a wing-back. Assou-Ekotto’s acquisition of the role left the then-20-year-old Bale in limbo, shorn of the position that he had maintained throughout his youth career.

Then-Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, in response to the dilemma, pulled a masterstroke that is almost certainly the finest of his glittering career. Noting that Bale’s defensive susceptibility was not conducive to such a withdrawn role, and with a recognised left-back secure, Redknapp deployed Bale on the left wing.

The move almost instantly came to fruition as Bale won his first-ever Tottenham league game, against Burnley and his first as a starter, against Fulham, soon after.

By the end of the season, Bale’s transformation into a natural winger was complete and Redknapp lauded a genius, as Tottenham qualified for the Champions League for the first time.

It was in that debut Champions League season, in the daunting Milanese San Siro stadium, that Gareth Bale asserted his claim for true greatness.

Playing away from home, in the club’s first venture into the pre-eminent European football competition, little was expected. The opponents, Inter Milan, had pedigree in the competition having won the competition under Jose Mourinho the year before.

In the event Tottenham lost the game. Yet after playing with 10 men for 80 minutes following the dismissal of goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, and recovering from 4-0 down, a 4-3 loss was a psychological victory. Bale scored a hat-trick, tearing the champions rear-guard asunder with his direct running and electric pace.

The match instigated a remarkable run in Europe where Tottenham, un-fancied in a difficult group, qualified for the quarterfinals of the competition.

Today, Bale is rightly established as one of the finest exponents of the English game. With unbelievable pace, ball control and shooting ability, he is one the country’s most marketable assets. 

In hindsight, we can say he was a winger all along. We can laugh at the lunacy of trading him for Stewart Downing or ridicule the notion of him not fulfilling his potential. Yet there was a time when a journalist felt compelled to brand Bale a “bargaining tool.” 

There was a time when Bale was considered a Jonas by a disillusioned fanbase after a 24-game losing streak before the inaugural win of his Spurs career.

Harry Redknapp, now of QPR, is reaching the twilight of his managerial career as he battles to help the struggling London club avoid the drop. An impressive managerial CV, including an impressive stint at Tottenham and an FA Cup with Portsmouth will be his memoriam. Yet a change he made back in 2009 to turn Gareth Bale into a winger will be his legacy.

At 23 years old, Bale has another decade to write his own legacy. Harry Redknapp has another decade to bathe in the reflected glory of his protegee and Middlesborough have another decade to rue not selling Stewart Downing a little bit sooner.

Hindsight, huh? 

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