Growing pains at the Lane: Face to face: Gareth Bale
Tottenham have endured a poor start to the season but, as the 19-year-old full-back tells Jason Burt, the desire and ability to turn things around is not lacking
Saturday 27 September 2008
Fresh-faced and just 19, Gareth Bale is talking about the growing pains that almost put paid to his football career before it had begun. "There was a time," he recalls, "I didn't think in my mind I wasn't going to make it, but there was a time when it was difficult at Southampton and I almost didn't get signed on as a scholar. I had one season when I was just growing all the time and it caused me a lot of difficulties. I had growth problems at 14 because I was quite small and then suddenly I was spurting up. It caused me a lot of problems with my back and it disorientated me quite a bit. I had to stop playing because my back was out of alignment. I just couldn't run properly."
Out of alignment. Growth problems. Almost didn't make it. Bale could be talking about the club he now plays for, Tottenham Hotspur. As ever – it seems – it has been a difficult start to the season at White Hart Lane. A summer of change, upheaval, and hoped for growth has brought its own painful problems. For the third year in a row. This is their sequence of league results so far this campaign: LLDLD which equates to just two points from five games. Last season? Then it was LLWLD – four points from five games. And the season before? LWLLD – again four points from the opening five games. Except now Spurs are bottom of the table. "It's been our worst start for 34 years," Bale volunteers before adding, "but we try not to pay too much attention to that."
It can't be a coincidence that it has been tricky so far and although this is the first campaign that Bale has started for Spurs – he was injured when he arrived from Southampton last summer and missed the opening of the campaign – he accepts that there are common, recurring factors. "We have to get our confidence early on," he says. "Maybe it's to do with being a young team, or the expectation levels but we have also had a lot of new players as well and it's a case of gelling."
Nine signings this summer and 10 established players departing. A typical whirlwind transfer window. That's a lot of upheaval especially when those going have included Robbie Keane and, on the final day, Dimitar Berbatov. It has been the same at Spurs for the past few seasons as they search for the right mix to, as Bale puts it, fulfil "the ambition" to "go forward and break into the top four at some point". The teenager adds: "I think everyone here is just hoping that the sooner we do it the better. We have the players to do it. It's just getting that confidence, gelling, and then we will be a force in the Premiership."
Confidence is, slowly, creeping back. Spurs are clinging on to a record of three games unbeaten – in the Uefa Cup at home to Wisla Krakow, who they face in Poland next Thursday holding a slender, nervy 2-1 advantage, the dire goalless draw against Wigan Athletic and then, most importantly perhaps, the boost of beating Newcastle United away in the Carling Cup on Wednesday. "It was good to get that win especially as it came against a Premier League team," says Bale. "We really needed that and we are starting to pick up slowly. Hopefully we can use it as a base to push on." Newcastle, meanwhile, have, he says, "hit rock bottom". "Two of the big stands were really empty which is not what you expect up there," Bale adds of the strange atmosphere at St James' Park that night.
Whether the victory provides a springboard or not – and tomorrow's away match against Portsmouth will provide further evidence of that – the Carling Cup has proved to be a vital competition for Spurs. They are the holders, of course, having beaten Chelsea at Wembley last season, bringing home their first trophy for nine years. Unfortunately for him Bale was a frustrated – if elated – spectator that day having injured his foot in December which ruled him out for the rest of the season.
"It was a big blow for me personally to miss out on the final," Bale says. "It was great for the team and the club but when you are not playing you do feel a bit left out, to be honest, because you want to be contributing. It's very frustrating not to do the thing you love every day."
Football has always been Bale's love. He fondly recalls, from the age of three and growing up in the suburb of Whitchurch, on the outskirts of Cardiff, waiting for his father, Frank, to return from work every evening so the pair could go out and practise, in either the garden or the local park. "Even when he was really tired from work he'd do it," Bale says. "He liked playing football, was a parks player but maybe could have gone further himself. Unfortunately his family didn't have the money and so on to help him with transport. But he's always been there for me. He's put in a lot of hard work, giving up his weekends and supported me."
It has paid dividends. A promising athlete at school – from 100 metres to distance running – Bale was quickly spotted, aged nine, when he was playing for Civil Service, a boys' team coached by a friend's dad, in a tournament in Newport. Rod Ruddock, a Southampton scout, now at Portsmouth, took a keen interest and Bale was hooked, first joining in at the club's satellite centre in Bath and then – three times a week accompanied by his parents, with mother Debbie also making the journey – travelling down to the south-coast.
The talent was obvious – his PE teacher at school, Gwyn Morris, would restrict him to playing one-touch and not allow him to use his favoured left foot in matches – and it has been well-chronicled that, later at Southampton, Bale lodged with a certain Theo Walcott. Both have since made a big impression in north London and although the Welshman could have followed his friend to Arsenal – or Manchester United or Liverpool – it was Spurs' persistence in landing him that paid off. An initial fee of £5m was paid last summer which, with add-ons and incentives, could eventually be doubled. "I came here because I was offered first-team football in the Premiership," Bale says. "They were the most interested in me and stayed keen. I was going to join in January  but I wasn't quite sure so they even waited for me until the summer. They showed a lot of faith, a lot of respect for me as a player and I just want to repay that now."
Life at Spurs has been a "dream" but also a frustration for Bale, who made his international debut for Wales aged just 16 years and 315 days. Walking into the Spurs dressing room for the first time was nerve-racking – Keane took him under his wing – and Bale quickly settled. "We play attacking football and I like to get forward," he says. "I'm a very offensive full-back so it suits my game very well. That's what the fans want to see – attacking football and scoring goals."
There was one bonus to the injury lay-off. Bale bulked up. Work in the gym paid off with the 6ft 1in defender more toned and far more muscular. "I can compete better with the physical battles," he says. "I feel much better than I did last year." He also shrugs off the tough training regime that has been set by head coach Juande Ramos although he admits that pre-season in Spain – out of bed and running by 7am and then two-hour double training sessions – was tough. "It wasn't nice at the time, it was very difficult but we are going to feel the benefit of it," he says.
Similarly the dietary changes brought in by Ramos – an obsession for the coach who brought in dietician Antonio Escribano – are shrugged off as simply what is expected of a professional athlete. "I don't think there were any major changes," Bale says. "It just got us into shape a bit more."
The shape of the team also needs to be addressed. Ramos has chopped and changed personnel and formations – with new signings such as David Bentley and Luka Modric struggling to find their feet – and although much of that has to do with Spurs's poor start to the season it's also clear that his squad is not quite right. After the failure to sign Andrei Arshavin in the summer, a bid for the Russian is likely to be submitted in January while other reinforcements are expected to arrive – the team is crying out for a holding midfieler – while another striker, such as Emile Heskey, will bolster options.
Bale also has a big part to play. The potential is clear – Harry Redknapp, in opposition tomorrow at Fratton Park, eulogised about Bale's "grace and style" while another of his former managers, George Burley, said he expected him to be a better left-back than Ashley Cole – and now finally free of injury he is beginning to fulfil it. Ramos is also a fan and Bale dismisses any suggestions that the head coach struggles to communicate with the players. "He talks to me all the time," Bale says. "He keeps me on my toes and tells me things I need to know. I really think he's a very good manager and someone who can give us the confidence. And I do believe it is all down to confidence for us. Once that comes back we'll win the majority of our games. I'm sure of that. And I think it is finally coming back."
My Other Life
"I'm really into my gadgets and things that keep me entertained – laptop, DVD player, Nintendo DS – and spend a lot of time on the internet, staying in touch with my friends back home in Cardiff. They come up quite a lot to see me and they go to the Spurs home games as well. It's important for me to stay in touch with my friends and I'm lucky that I've got some really good mates who I've known for a long time. They mean a lot to me. Because I do a lot of travelling I would say my favourite possession is my laptop. I'm always using it. I'm also into music – various things, nothing in particular, although I must admit that I also spend a lot of time sleeping! A lot of footballers do."
Millions for teenagers
Gareth Bale cost Spurs £5m (rising to £10m) when he joined them as a 17-year-old in May last year. But he is far from being British football's most expensive teenager
£30m: Wayne Rooney (paid when he was 18)
Manchester United paid a record fee to Everton following the striker's impressive 2004 European Championship for England in Portugal. The fee was an initial £23m rising to a possible £30m.
£12m Cristiano Ronaldo (18)
Sporting Lisbon's Portuguese winger was much coveted when he joined Manchester United in the summer of 2003.
£9.1m Theo Walcott (16)
Signed by Arsenal from Southampton in 2006 for a total possible fee of £12m – though the two clubs renegotiated the deal for a total of £9.1m earlier this year.
£6m Glen Johnson (19)
West Ham defender became Chelsea's first purchase of the Roman Abramovich era in 2003. Failed to settle, however, and is now a regular at Portsmouth.
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