Gareth Bale’s much-publicised return to Spurs was met with optimism by many. Finally free from the shackles of that dastardly Zinedine Zidane, Tottenham fans were delighted to have arguably their greatest Premier League player back at the club. A club he loves. A club where he wouldn’t sulk and shuffle through the corridors, halfway between disinterested and incapable. True, there was some sense of reality from Spurs fans; very few, if any, were expecting the world-class athleticism, the running power or the thunderbolt shots from distance that typified his first spell in north London. There was an acceptance that Tottenham were getting ‘Bale-Lite’, but with the tingle of the promise of improvement as the Welshman built up his match fitness throughout the season.
But for all the vilification of his manager at Real Madrid – particularly after his comments in 2019 that Bale leaving was “best for everyone” – perhaps the Frenchman had a point. Even Bale’s staunchest defenders and former teammates, Peter Crouch and Jermaine Jenas among them, have struggled to forgive his recent performances.
Harry Kane’s absence with an ankle injury should have offered the perfect stage for Bale. A superstar for a superstar. He was given the opportunity from the bench last week against Liverpool and then with a start against Brighton. Both games saw the forward make little impact as his team lost successive games, something Tottenham have managed four times since Jose Mourinho took over. This sort of run might have been tolerated by ‘old Tottenham’, but these days not so much.
Those ex-teammates were speaking about Bale in the studio in a confused daze. “We played with him when he we was just unbelievable. It’s so bizarre to see him now,” said Crouch. It was as if they were speaking at Gareth Bale’s wake. But he’s not dead; he’s just not very good anymore. Is that such a difficult thing to admit?
Not all players can go on forever, after all. Not even the man to whom Bale has so often been compared – Manchester United icon Ryan Giggs. Comparing the careers of Giggs and his compatriot feels almost cruel; the consistency and longevity produced by Giggs and Paul Scholes are not just rare but freakish.
Bale moved abroad for a world-record fee and accumulated a haul of trophies in seven years with Real Madrid that most players can only covet in their whole career. Though not adored in the same way as Raul and Ronaldo, he’s won more than many Los Blancos icons. Quite the career, if he is indeed on the home stretch.
Under the tutelage of a manager blatantly unwilling to tolerate his sub-par league performances, the Welsh international has stumbled into an altogether different Spurs from the one he left in 2013. The stakes have raised and things seem to matter a lot more. The snazzy new training complex and stadium are symbols of that ambition.
In the Harry Redknapp sides beloved of Jenas and Crouch, the team revolved around Bale’s singular ability and everything had an air of fun. The Spurs sides of that era weren’t meant to be flying high, they weren’t expected to be snatching Champions League places and they certainly weren’t earmarked for winning league titles. It’s all too easy to point the finger at the win-at-all-costs, pragmatic demeanour of Jose Mourinho, but the club itself has shifted its targets significantly.
It was widely reported, as well as confirmed by Bale himself, that Real Madrid blocked the Welshman’s move to the Chinese Super League last year. The Spanish club were unhappy with the finances involved but perhaps when the dust settles, this was the move that best suited everyone.
There is nothing wrong with a player declining with age. It is, after all, an inherent and looming inevitability in the game and in life. While some would level accusations of laziness or a hastily-assembled golf joke in Bale’s direction, it feels less inflammatory to simply accept a decline. Maybe sailing off into the sunset on hefty wages in a lower-quality league was the right move for Bale and his parent club. And maybe for Spurs.