It’s amazing what two games of football can do to a player’s reputation. Following a pair of sublime performances against Rafael Benitez’s Internazionale, Gareth Bale has come to be spoken of in the most glowing of terms. From Tottenham’s unlucky charm to arguably their most influential player, the speed of Bale’s development seems to have turned hyperactive of late, the Welshman now being considered by some as one of the best left-sided players in European football.
As a Southampton fan I was fortunate enough to see Bale begin his development on the South Coast, the wiry young full-back first searing himself into my consciousness on the opening day of the 2006/07 season when he scored a magnificent free-kick in front of the Sky cameras to secure a 1-1 draw away at Derby County. I saw him live at St Mary’s for the first time a few days later with the visit of Coventry City, and I can say with some confidence that he is the best young player I have seen in the red and white shirt. I may have been too young to see Le Tissier in his youth, but I did witness the rise of Theo Walcott and, in my humble opinion, Bale was the superior player for the club at Championship level.
Even as a 17 year-old Bale possessed a rare intelligence at full-back, the excellence of his movement and positioning being plain for all to see. From my seat in the front few rows of the Kingsland Stand I had a superb view of his second spectacular free-kick in as many games, his all-round play in both the attacking and defensive phases being absolutely breathtaking. Very rarely caught out of position and intuitive in his link-up play with left winger Rudi Skacel in the 4-4-2/4-1-3-2 Southampton played at the time, Bale impressed me in a way very few Saints players have done before or since.
There was a story about Bale’s school days that used to circulate around St Mary’s, a story which claimed that the Welshman had been so good at school level that his coach, in a move designed to improve his positioning and range of passing, had painted a box onto the pitch outside of which he was not allowed to travel. Whether or not the story was true or not I have no way of verifying, but such was the immaculate nature of Bale’s spatial understanding and passing over distance that it was eminently believable. Just a few weeks into the 2006/07 season and it was already clear that the young left-back (he was exclusively considered a defender in those days) was quickly outgrowing the level of football Southampton could provide him with.
Although it was obviously disappointing to lose Bale to Tottenham in the early summer of 2007, particularly when you consider the departure of Walcott just a year earlier, his ascent to bigger and better things was inevitable. He may have struggled to establish himself initially at White Hart Lane, but even during that difficult early phase with Tottenham his ability shone through. The last few weeks and months have confirmed the validity of the impression Bale left on those Southampton fans lucky enough to witness his emergence into professional football, that he has the talent to become one of the best British footballers of his generation.
Of course, a degree of caution must be exercised over the praise the Welshman is receiving; he is still to demonstrate great consistency in the Premier League, but Bale is certainly on the road to becoming a left-sided player of the very highest order. It’s taken the best part of four years for him to do it, but the glimpses of brilliance we saw at St Mary’s are being knitted into an increasingly complete and mature player. We might one day look back on the two Champions League games with Inter as the moment Gareth Bale became a truly world-class athlete.