The past week was training as normal for Harry Redknapp's Tottenham squad with the exception of one man who has, over the last 10 months, earned himself the right to be treated differently.
Gareth Bale was given the week off simply on the basis that Redknapp wanted to ensure his young star was fresh for Old Trafford today.
While most holidaying Premier League stars head for Dubai, Bale just went home to the Whitchurch suburb of Cardiff where he grew up as the only child of Frank, a former school caretaker, and Debbie. Bale was spotted playing a round of golf at Celtic Manor this week although that was the only decadence from a teetotal fitness devotee who, even at 21, has seen his fair share of highs and lows.
Bale has had a remarkable year. Firmly established as one of the pre-eminent young players in Europe, although he only properly broke into the Spurs team as recently as January, the challenges just keep coming. After Manchester United today, Spurs turn their attentions to the visit of Internazionale to White Hart Lane in the Champions League on Tuesday.
The match against United has particular resonance because Bale is exactly the kind of exceptional British player United always used to sign and, given their recent public reprimand from Wayne Rooney, will presumably try to do so again. But Bale turned down the chance to go to United when he left Southampton in 2007 and having done so once it does make you wonder whether he might do so again.
Huw Jennings oversaw the player's development at Southampton and was there when the club sold him to Spurs in a deal worth up to £10m. "I think the right phrase is that they 'flirted' with looking at Gareth," he told The Independent. "To my knowledge I don't think there was a concrete offer for him. There remained a certain amount of doubt [over whether United really wanted the player]."
It was a concern over whether he would get a chance in the first team that convinced Bale that he would be better served joining Spurs than United. Now the tables are turned. Should he leave Spurs, he could go anywhere in Europe. He has already taken some big steps before – first to Southampton and then to London – and he is not thought to be opposed to playing in Spain or Italy one day.
The former England international Tim Sherwood, who works at Spurs with young players bridging the gap from academy to first team, says that he uses the example of Bale to all the aspiring young footballers under his charge. "He grabbed his chance with both hands," Sherwood told The Independent. "He is proof that if you get in and do well the manager will stick with you. Having said that, he is better than anyone I ever played with.
"He has seriously got potentially everything as long as he keeps his feet on the ground, but that's not a big worry for us. He's a lovely lad. You aren't going to be reading about Gareth on the front page of newspapers – he has got no interest in all that side of it. He just lives for the game. He can play anywhere on the left hand-side and against anyone. You saw that when he was ripping it up at the San Siro."
The hat-trick against Inter in Milan was the high point so far of Bale's annus mirabilis and further proof that he is very strong late-on in games. Sherwood describes those long runs of Bale down the wing before he cuts inside at goal as his "lung-bursters". "When he goes over those long distances his energy is second to none. People can't stay with him.
"We were always on at him to train properly. If you train sloppy then it is hard to switch it on when you are in a game at, say Old Trafford. You can't turn it on and off. He trains magnificently, in fact he trains like he plays, up and down the touchline. It is the only way to do it. You can't be half-cocked about it and the kid never is.
"His stats from the game are ridiculous. He just blows up the whole thing. We use GPS systems now to track the players' movements and Gareth's has smoke coming out of it. It doesn't just tell us how much running he has done but how many high-intensity runs he has made. He does more than anyone and I don't just mean in our club but the Premier League as well. His energy is a massive part of his game."
Given that his development has come in fits and starts – last season, he did not start a Premier League game for Spurs until January – it is not so surprising to learn that Bale very nearly missed the cut at Southampton, aged 16. Jennings recalls that when he was in charge of deciding which players were to be awarded scholarships for the academy, Bale was, in his words, "borderline".
"The interesting thing about Gareth was that he had the most pronounced period of difficulty with growth-related issues over two seasons. He was struggling for at least 18 months. I remember a meeting with his parents and his mother Debbie was absolutely passionate that he should be given his chance. The memory of how she argued for him will stay with me for a long time.
"We gave him a couple of games for the under-18s after Christmas to see if he could prove himself. We played away in an FA Youth Cup game in Norwich and he did exceptionally well. I remember being very impressed that he had made the journey from Whitchurch to Southampton and on to Norwich and had put in such a strong performance when there was so much resting on the game for him. He earned his scholarship that day.
"It was touch and go for a while. It wouldn't have been the finest moment of my career if I had let Gareth Bale go! There but for the grace of God go all of us. We think we have a secret formula for developing young players but really we all need a bit of good fortune as well."
It always raises a smile at Southampton that the man who discovered Bale was the club's Cardiff-based scout, Gareth Hale (who, it should also be pointed out, is not the moustachioed one from the much under-rated comedy act Hale and Pace). Bale was developed at the club's satellite academy centre in Bath by Rod Ruddick who also brought through Nathan Dyer and Martin Cranie.
"I remember saying to the lady in charge of the academy players' accommodation at Southampton, Julia Upson, that Gareth was a bit shy," Jennings recalls. "She said, 'You must be joking. He might be quiet during the day but when he comes back here in the evening he is the life and soul of the party.' I was pleased that he had that side to him, a liveliness and an ability to integrate. He has a mischievous side too which is a good thing."
Yesterday Redknapp repeated a familiar refrain about Bale. "People say is he for sale – no, he isn't. This is where he needs to stay to keep improving and take Tottenham to where we want to go." Understandably, Redknapp is getting fed up with the assumption that Bale is bound for bigger and better things. But he has become so good, so quickly, that another match-winning display today and the momentum could be irresistible.
Lee Dixon's verdict
'Bale is one of the best with the ball at his feet'
I have always been a huge fan of Gareth Bale, even when he was going through that remarkable period when Tottenham never won when he was playing. I know that Harry Redknapp started to worry about it at one stage because it was becoming a mental thing.
Bale has always been a great athlete, with a remarkable ability to keep running up and down all day. But there is more to it than being able to run about. He is one of the very best when it comes to running fast with the ball at his feet.
Ryan Giggs is probably the best I have seen dribbling at pace. He seemed to run faster with the ball than without it. Bale is also fantastic at it, and he is very direct with his runs – which is a nightmare to defend against.
Harry said recently that he thinks Bale's best position ultimately will be at left-back, but I am not convinced. If that's going to be the case, then he needs to play there now and learn how to defend, to get in the right position. The more he plays in midfield, bombing forward, the better he will get as an attacker. This is how he is making a name for himself, and he is improving all the time.