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From Whitchurch to Madrid: The story of Gareth Bale

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On Bale’s path — all the way from Whitchurch to Madrid, and ultimately to Cardiff for a special occasion

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.


38 minutes into his Real Madrid debut, Gareth Bale took a break from the right flank he had hugged all game. This time, he opted to make a far post run on the opposite side. Meanwhile, Carvajal had already started cutting vertically without the ball on the right. The dominoes were already in place for Modric, who kickstarted the chance by playing a through-ball to Carvajal which effectively took five Villarreal defenders out of the play. Carvajal took the ball in stride, squared it along the ground with tempo, and Gareth Bale poked it home. The Welshman’s pace and strength beat both Mario Gasper and Musacchio to the ball, and ultimately scored past Sergio Asenjo.

It was a moment that lifted a few bricks from Bale’s shoulders — bricks that came with distasteful expectations. Even then, after a goal in 60 minutes, with little else to show for apart from a stinging long-range shot and bombing run, his display just wasn’t enough for most people given his unprecedented price tag. Bale has battled demons his entire playing career, but none as prodigious as the ones in Spain. He has shaken off some of the incubus, but new evil spirits pounce at every turn.

The blazing spotlights in Spain are a different animal — they are hard to become acclimated with if you’re not already raised in it. In Wales, life was different — maybe even comfortable. Unlike Luka Modric, who was playing in abandoned parking lots, surrounded by wars and grenades which signalled kids to stop playing football and start taking shelter; Bale was playing on a proper football pitch without a cloud of corruption and disturbance. He was a freak athlete whose talent twinkled before his age even reached double digits. He’s come a long way since to polish his greenness.

Bale lifted the Champions League trophy in Cardiff on Saturday. That he played just 13 minutes in the final shouldn’t negate his contributions to the season, nor his input in the previous two Champions League titles he’s won with the team. Saturday’s trophy heave was special, though.

27 years prior, Frank and Debbie — Gareth’s parents — gave birth to a samurai in the very same city Gareth lifted the Champions League title for the third time in his career. He went to school in the suburb of Whitchurch, where he started playing football at Edglwys Newydd Primary. At that age, you’d really have to be a soothsayer to come to any conclusions about anyone — but somehow Bale’s presence was made to be known early. It helped that physically, he was a specimen. Put it this way: Gareth Bale was probably the kid you envied growing up. He was the kid who could eat anything he wanted, run tirelessly in gym class, and just dominate every physical activity — the kid so good the gym teacher would have to hand him handicaps to flatten the playing field.

And, that’s, uh, not a joke. At the age of 14, his gym teacher, Gwyn Morris, had to give Bale special challenges no one else was dealt with when playing football. For example, while everyone else could just, you know, play football the way it’s outlined in the rulebook, Bale wasn’t allowed to use his left foot, nor was he allowed to take more than one touch on the ball.

Five years prior to that, Bale was already raising eyebrows. He was just nine years old when Rod Ruddick, scout at Southampton, discovered him. At that time Bale was playing for Cardiff Civil Service Football Club.

It was a six-a-side tournament. Ruddick had driven through traffic that day to catch this little kick-a-around — something he routinely does. When he arrived, he scouted out the terrain and noticed Gareth, then dubbed as a “little lad” — just running at other kids and blitzing them. From there, Ruddick approached Debbie and Frank in the stands and asked if Gareth would be interested in playing for Southampton. That was the day the Welsh Samurai began the emergence from his cocoon — years later he would transform into a full butterfly.

Around the same time Bale was dominating his poor peers with his right foot, Ruddick tells tales of his evolution as a runner too. Though his endurance was quite impressive from day one, Bale didn’t always have pace. For one, he was second to Theo Walcott when it came to running the 100 meter sprint. No shame in that, of course, and Bale did oust everyone in the yo-yo test — a variation of the beep test. Ruddick says Bale’s stagnancy when it came to pace was mostly down to his growth spurt, and once Bale got past that stage, he was in the clear.

"The interesting one is the Yo-Yo test, which is like the bleep test," Ruddick told The Guardian in 2014. "Gareth was doing over 2,000m, almost double some players. Now look at the height, Theo was 5ft 7in, Gareth was 5ft 6in at that age.

"The following year Gareth's Yo-Yo was 2,880m – that's stamina, he was the best ranked. But he still didn't have his pace back. Look where he is, he was ranked seventh on pace. He was going through a growth spurt at that time, he grew almost eight inches in 18 months. He was struggling. But I knew he would come through that."

Bale’s physical evolution has gone hand-in-hand with his technical evolution. He used to have a stigma attached to him that he was just a player that thrives in space and nothing else -- take space away from him and you thwart him. Such a scouting report fell short once Bale’s composure matured in Madrid. Earlier in this season, before his injury, we were raving about how much Bale has improved in tight spaces. It’s no longer a liability to field him against suffocative schemes.

When I spoke to Juande Ramos about this piece, he mentioned that Bale has adapted his play since the Spaniard (albeit briefly) coached him at Tottenham.

“The main difference is that the player I had was very young and was still in a development phase, now he's a mature player and in his prime,” Ramos said to Managing Madrid. “Probably (counterattacking), that would suit the best his conditions, but unfortunately one cannot chose how the rivals will play and he needs to adapt to any situation... As he already has.”

Ruddick knew the technical ability of Spanish football would test Bale’s prowess in airtight situations. In year’s past, teams like Sevilla, Atletico, Barcelona, Viillarreal, and others doubled-up on the the wings and dared Bale to zig-zag around their sealed channels — he’s done well against them all. Bale’s versatility has made him an asset that can play across any horizontal or vertical plane. Defensively, he does things that relieve both Carvajal and Marcelo, and his aptitude on the other side of the field needs no introduction.

“I said, ‘You’re like a youngster in the playground who knows he can take anybody on and beat them... but you’re doing it at Premier League level’.

“He smiled, but it was true and will be in Spain, too. Yes he will be marked extra closely, yes they will try to deny him space.

“But Gareth is technically good enough to cope with the most technical league in the world.

No one can quite strike it with the same venom and accuracy as Bale does from 40 yards from open play, nor toss their opponents into a food processor on the flank with the same sheer power and pace. Bale is fun. He took Wales to uncharted territory during last summer’s Euros, and has scored the winning goal in both a Copa del Rey final and a Champions League final. The debate really isn’t about whether he’s good or not, whether he’s able to play in tight spaces or not — it’s about whether he’s a samurai or a unicorn.

But, to be fair, there is a large elephant in the room, and it’s Bale’s fitness. Yes, there’s no question that when healthy, Bale is a top-five player. Yes, there’s no question that when healthy, he is either a samurai or a unicorn — possibly even both, which has yet to happen in this sport. But Real Madrid do need him healthy. They also need to have patience.

Being a Real Madrid player means you’ve accepted that you will be in peak tornado season all-year-round. Fans have a short leash with Bale given his health issues, particularly given the emergence of Asensio and Isco; but Zidane’s leash will be longer with Bale as Real Madrid tread into this press-labeled ‘dynasty’. Like it or not, Bale will be a part of it, as he should be. Keep in mind this summer will be a rare one in where there will be no major tournaments taking place. It’s an ideal situation for Bale, who spent most of the second half of the season in recovery mode, and will now have an entire summer to re-establish his fitness.

His attitude is right, too, mind you. Bale’s charm matches his glamour on the pitch. He stays away from controversy, and always supports the team — whether it’s through his much-awaited post-game tweets, or on the pitch, stumped that there is no trophy to lift in Malaga. He’s likeable. He moved to a new country without knowing the language, was crucified from the beginning (as well as perpetually), and yet he never complained.

Consider all the verbal tribulations he went through. First it was that he could only score tap-ins. Then he could only score screamers against small teams. Once he debunked both of those myths, he needed to score those goals in the Champions League. Once he did that against Juventus in the group stages, it didn’t mean a thing because it wasn’t a pivotal game. When he carved Schalke later in the knockout rounds, the answer was “It’s.. Schalke”. Dortmund later on wasn’t big enough either — he needed to score in a Clasico. Once he did that, some of the noise he heard was about Bartra being slow, frail, and injured.

The cloud follows Bale wherever he goes, though Bale himself never gets lost in the shadows. Even in the shade, he is able to bask, and even in the middle of a raucous ocean, he stays bone dry.

“It makes me smile when I see him being interviewed after matches because you can see he is a little embarrassed and that he doesn’t really want to be there,” Ruddick said.

“The headlines he is generating won’t affect him, because he is such a well-grounded young man. When he was once given time off by Spurs, he went back to Cardiff to play golf with his mates.

“Others may have headed out to Dubai. Not Gareth. That’s him all over. He’s just like the young man next door.”


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