Besides the consolation of having Gareth Bale, it’s been a long wait for fans of the Spurs. Rife with false starts, anti-climaxes and the ones that got away, the life of a Spurs fan is never dull.
Since becoming the first English club to achieve the League and FA Cup Double in 1961 and enjoying several more successes during that decade—including being the first English club to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963—Tottenham have failed to properly build on their initial glut of trophies.
Of course there’s the odd UEFA Cup here and an FA Cup there, but Spurs' hope to be considered one of the “big clubs” has been largely unfulfilled. They have never finished above fourth in the Premier League era, and, despite a notable improvement in the last few years as illustrated by decent challenges for a European place, have not convinced anyone that they are quite there yet.
They were desperately unlucky not be in this year’s Champions League when they finished 2011-12 in fourth, falling victim to Chelsea’s rather fortuitous European triumph, which meant that Spurs missed out, despite Chelsea finishing sixth. This year it looks as though it could come down to the wire, with their game against Chelsea set to influence not only those two teams’ destinies, but also Arsenal’s.
Having had the race for fourth practically in their hands after last week’s victory over Manchester City, it slipped away from them on Saturday with a draw at Wigan, only to be handed back by Arsenal’s draw with Manchester United the next day—this is how close it is.
As Gareth Bale’s double at the PFA Awards last night shows, the Welshman has been the driving force behind Spurs’ campaign this year, scoring 24 goals in 48 appearances in a free-roaming role behind the striker.
That he was considered a winger until last season, and before that a left-back, shows how far he has come to being able to showcase his talents with such freedom; it is not often that a player whose main asset is his speed makes that transition.
Obviously his speed is no longer the headline grabber. The headline grabbers are Bale’s ball control, his set-pieces, his eye for goal and the authority that emanates from him on the pitch; as we can all see, the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards were certainly deserved. The bony left-back has developed into the sturdy makings of a complete player.
As expected, in the aftermath came the customary rebuttal of any transfer rumours that may be floating about, specifically one concerning 45 million euros that Real Madrid have reportedly set aside for him. This should not put Spurs fans at ease though—it would be sensationalist to take too much from this, but while distancing himself from Real Madrid, Bale said nothing to indicate that he would stay at Tottenham.
Not that saying anything would matter all that much. Bale is a world-class player and is only going to get better; it’s almost unthinkable that he won’t one day walk out in the colours of an European elite, be it Barca, Real, United or Bayern.
Let’s say that Spurs do qualify for next year’s Champions League and Bale stays, as AVB says he will. There are numerous issues that Andre Villas-Boas and Daniel Levy need to address already, mainly the strikers and midfield (discussed here), and that is without the added headache of a Champions League adventure.
In fact, money will need to be spent just to ensure a Top Four finish next season, let alone trying to navigate the inevitable “group of death” that Spurs will be drawn into. If Bale does go, having a £100 million price tag on him at the moment, Spurs know they will have power in the transfer market.
World-class players like Bale don’t see competing in Europe’s elite competition as a goal achieved. Rather, it is just the beginning. And that is what Spurs may soon learn if there isn’t a significant improvement, because to finish fourth is all very well, but it doesn’t count for much if your star player is watching his potential suitors storm into the final while you dry the tears of a last-16 defeat.
AVB is a sharp enough mind to repair the hole that Bale’s departure will leave, but it won’t be easy. First, there is the simple fact that his team is tailored around Bale—take away the focus and see how quickly it falls apart. Even with a similarly talented replacement, there will still be a transitional period, as the new man is unlikely to carry the team as well as Bale does.
The second is the emotional damage to the club. When you think about it, the resurgence of Tottenham has been strictly limited to the Gareth Bale era. Who single-handedly tore Inter Milan to shreds in a game which, while not rescuing any points for them, served to boost the team’s confidence during their first Champions League campaign? Whose year-on-year improvement has coincided with Tottenham’s development as a team?
If Harry Redknapp were still at White Hart Lane, then Bale would definitely be gone in the summer. However, in AVB, Tottenham have a double-edged sword. He is a young but proven manager who has twenty or thirty years ahead of him and has already won more than most. More than that, he gives the impression of being a Champions League manager, if not now, then soon.
Unlike Redknapp, who is a Premier League manager who strayed into the European bear pit, AVB is someone with real aspirations and the pedigree to match. The Portuguese could be instrumental, not just in whether Bale goes or not, but in ensuring Tottenham make the leap from CL wildcards to making the grade every season—easier said than done, as neither United, City, Arsenal or Chelsea look like giving up their spot any time soon.
With Bale almost certain to depart this summer or the next—barring an upturn in Tottenham’s fortunes—it is a matter of how long AVB will stick around.
Bale has been the leading light and talisman for Spurs, and the club’s hopes of success have long been reliant on how long they can hold onto him for—after that, it is up to AVB’s transfer nous.
When Bale leaves it will not necessarily mean that Spurs have reached their limit and will crash back down into mid-table, but hanging in there will prove extremely difficult, especially when considering how much influence Bale really has. Truly brilliant players, such as Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez and Neymar, come around very rarely, and those that do are usually snapped up.
Depending on who you talk to, Bale is either in or just outside that category—it will be a while before Tottenham have another player of that calibre, let alone another Gareth Bale.