Two stories come to mind when I think about Gareth Bale. The first is centred on an FA Cup fourth round tie in January 2007.
There was a lot of hype around Bale, who was then in the Championship with Southampton. He was quick and wiry and came to face Manchester City full of confidence. He was my direct opponent that day, but that was the season where I had just been capped for the first time by England.
I’m only 13 months older than Gareth, who was then 17, but I felt invincible against him. Basically, I ate him for breakfast and wondered why there was such hype. He started his runs from too deep and his energy had waned by the time he got to me. I didn’t have a moment’s worry and we won 3-1.
It’s great to see on-loan Tottenham forward Gareth Bale back smiling and enjoying his football
I knew Bale was a problem when he left me in his wake during a 2010 Premier League fixture
And 11 years on his talent remains unquestioned as he established himself as one of the best
The second story is from August 2010 at White Hart Lane and the opening game of the season. Again, he was my direct opponent but this time I was left in no illusion how a young boy had become a man – and was destined for greatness.
It still haunts me what he did during those 90 minutes. I was fast but Gareth seemed turbocharged and I couldn’t keep up, it felt like I was running after him through treacle. I had confidence in my strength but if I put an arm out to block him, he brushed straight through it.
If I tried to go tight to him, he could skip past me with a trick. If I dropped off and gave him a bit of space, he would spray a pinpoint ball 30 or 40 yards. If this had been a wrestling match, I’d have had no choice but to tap the floor in submission.
My only saving grace was Joe Hart. Had he not been similarly world-class and made a load of unbelievable saves, people might have remembered me as they remember Inter Milan’s Maicon after Gareth turned him inside out and back again during two Champions League games.
When you have talent of that level, it never leaves you. I’ve listened all season to critics of Bale, who have questioned his desire and his effectiveness, and felt saddened. Sometimes I’m not sure he gets the respect he deserves. Four Champions League winners’ medals? What more can he do!
Maybe people expected on his return to Tottenham at the beginning of the season they were going to see the Bale of old, the flying machine who would trample all over you. That was never realistic. He’s matured over the last eight years, he’s advanced his games in terms of positioning.
Criticism of Bale for most of the term has saddened me, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves
But to hear people question Bale’s hunger was really irritating. Perhaps it stems from the infamous photograph of him celebrating with Wales’s squad with the banner that read: ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.’ The assumption, I guess, is that Bale isn’t as motivated as he once was.
That’s absolute rubbish. In the last two seasons in Madrid, Bale will have felt hurt and embarrassment. Do you know how hard it is to walk into a dressing room, having been someone who has scaled such heights, knowing that you won’t get a chance?
Bale’s love of football will never have gone through that. He will have been angry that he was denied the chance to play and frustrated that Zinedine Zidane effectively cut him adrift but it has felt like some of the criticism aimed at him has been personal.
It’s why I’m so glad to see him start to have such a big influence for Tottenham again. This point was always going to come, where he began to pull the strings and make a difference, and his timing could not have been better.
Tottenham go into the north London derby as dark horses for the top four but you would be a fool to say it is beyond them. They have some weaknesses at the back but at the top of the pitch, I would argue they have got the best front three in the Premier League.
I’m so glad to see the Welsh wizard start to have such a big influence for Tottenham again
Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have had that title for a long time but they are the most consistent. I’d say Tottenham’s front three is potentially the best because of Bale, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min can do everything.
It really wouldn’t surprise me if they finish in the top four thanks to this front three. Son is incredible, Kane can score any kind of goal and Bale has something that only the best possess – the ability to terrify just by being on the pitch.
Jose Mourinho has come under fire for how he has used Bale and, at times, all has not seemed well. In recent weeks, though, there has been a significant change and you can see Gareth has a big smile on his face once again. That should spell danger for Arsenal and the rest.
His romantic return to Tottenham has been a slow-burner but I hope he stays next season for another year. The days when he took off like an Olympic sprinter might be gone but the ability to change a game with a flash of genius remains. Write him off at your peril.
Alongside Harry Kane (left) and Son Heung-min, Bale can fire Tottenham into the top four
MICAH’S MOAN OF THE WEEK
Having predicted that City would win last week’s derby, I must give credit where it is due. United hatched a plan, stuck to their task and got the result they wanted.
What puzzled me, though, was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lowkey reaction to it all. Maybe he was taking pressure off his squad by not talking about the title but I thought he had the perfect opportunity to make a significant statement.
He could have acknowledged that City are odds-on favourites for the title and likely to win it but why didn’t he say that United would be waiting, applying pressure and prepared to take their chance should City slip? I’m surprised Solskjaer didn’t call it on. I really expected him to be more bullish.
Manchester United enjoyed a brilliant 2-0 win at Manchester City on Sunday in the league
However, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was very lowkey at full-time despite United’s display