As he stands on the edge of becoming the most expensive player in the world, it's hard to believe that Gareth Bale was considered a "flop" a few seasons ago. His skills were so derided, in fact, that many joked that he was "cursed".
After starting his career at Southampton—where he was a local favorite after making his full debut as a 16-year-old—the Welshman caught the eye of Tottenham manager Martin Jol.
"I had a few words with his mum to convince him to come to Spurs,' the Dutchman told The Express.
Bale started his career in North London fairly brightly, scoring in his second game for the club (a 3-3 draw against Fulham), putting away a free kick against Arsenal in his third match and then scoring again in the League Cup win over Middlesbrough. With three goals in four starts, the future was looking bright for the 18-year-old.
However, by December 2007, he had still not been on a winning Tottenham side in the league. At that point, the young left-back picked up an ankle ligament injury that kept him out of action for the rest of the season.
In 2008/09, Harry Redknapp started his mission to clear up the mess left by Juande Ramos, but in 12 appearances that season, the Welshman still failed to make his way onto a winning side.
Bale's status as the albatross around Tottenham's neck continued all the way until September 26th, 2009, when he came on as an 84th-minute substitute in a home match against Burnley, which they were already winning 5-0.
After over two years and 24 games without a league win, a late appearance in a game that was beyond conclusion was what it took to break his "curse".
But what a difference a season makes. After helping his side qualify for the Champions League in 2009/10, Bale cemented his position on the left wing in 2010/11 and scored 11 goals (seven in the league, four in Europe) to become Spurs' third-top scorer.
This writer was at White Hart the night Tottenham beat Inter Milan 3-1, with the Welshman enjoying his finest hour. "Taxi for Maicon!" sang the locals, as Bale repeatedly left the bemused right-back in his wake.
And to think, not so long before that famous evening, this writer tittered with schadenfreude at the player who was a winless wonder!
During that difficult two-and-a-half-year period when Bale was lost in a wilderness of defeat and injury issues, Tottenham did very well to keep him on the books. It would have been easy for Spurs to cut ties with their "flop" and the player might have jumped at the opportunity of a fresh start elsewhere.
According to the Daily Mail, such a fresh start was offered in December 2008, when Middlesbrough toyed with the idea of a cash-plus-player deal for their captain Stewart Downing.
This retro transfer rumor begs the question: What would have happened if Bale had gone to Middlesbrough?
At the time of the Daily Mail article, Boro were in 12th position in the league, sitting comfortably with 20 points. However, from that point, the Teeside club only won a further two matches and managed six draws.
They spent most of the second half of the season in the bottom three and were relegated on the final day. Seeing as Bale failed to manage any goals or wins in this period—while Stewart Downing was voted man of the match five times—it seems very unlikely that the Welshman could have saved Boro.
However, Downing actually missed the final match of the campaign at West Ham with a rare injury.
Perhaps if Bale had been on the left wing instead that day, things could have been quite different for Gareth Southgate's doomed side.
More likely, though, Middlesbrough would have dropped and Bale would have spent some time in the Championship before being picked up by another mid-table Premiership side. Without being in a Spurs team with exposure to the Champions League, his ascension to the object of Real Madrid's affection probably wouldn't have happened (at least not this summer).
So, what if Alex McLeish had snapped the Welsh winger up for a price approximately 33 times lower than the value currently being placed on him?
Shortly after October 21st, 2009, the date of the Daily Mail article, Birmingham went on a 12-match undefeated streak, rising from 17th to eighth in the league.
They unexpectedly finished ninth in 2009-10, so the three goals and seven assists that Bale provided at Tottenham from October that season probably wouldn't have had too much of an impact if they were produced at Birmingham instead.
The following season, however, Birmingham were relegated after losing on the final day of the season to...Tottenham!
Bale wasn't actually playing that day, but seeing as The Blues were relegated by a single point, it's quite conceivable to imagine that Bale's contributions could have saved them. After all, four of his seven goals that season were match-winners.
We can play the football equivalent of the movie Sliding Doors all day long, but it is very difficult to predict the career path Bale would have taken if he had left Tottenham.
What is quite clear, however, is that he would have been involved in at least one relegation battle. What's more, plying his trade at lower profile clubs than Tottenham would undoubtedly have been worse for his flourishing career.
He would not have had exposure to the Champions League, he would not have been the focal point of a team aiming for the top four and he would not have been on the radar of a club like Real Madrid.
With such a valuable asset now sitting on Spurs' books, chairman Daniel Levy should be feeling very smug over his decision to stand by the man who everybody thought was a curse on the club.
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