Focus on the main man as Tottenham face Arsenal: how Gareth Bale became a world-beater

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The Independent speaks to five people who have played a key role in the development of the star

Gwyn Morris

Head of PE, Whitchurch High School, Cardiff

I taught him from when he was 13, at the start of Year 9, and my first impression was “what a talented year group”. Out of his form class, they had three internationals in Sam Warburton who plays for Wales and Elliot Kear who plays rugby league for Bradford Bulls. There were eight internationals in the year group.

The main thing we tell the kids about him is his willingness to play all sports. He was a tremendous athlete. He was county champion at athletics, in the 1500m and 800m, and a cross-country runner. Southampton encouraged him to play for the Under-16 B rugby team. But obviously football was his love.

We made him only use his right foot at times. You try to maintain the strengths and develop the weakness. But Gareth was very talented and it was one way to make sure everyone else got a touch of the ball.

He was playing at 14 or 15 in the Under-18 side for the first XI. I remember the boys coming off the field saying, “He’s a bit special”. He was part of the senior football side that won the Cardiff Ebbw Vale Cup in 2005.

He used to go down to Southampton two days a week, which the school and Gareth’s parents discussed, because the academic work had to be caught up. We were chuffed to bits when he signed there. As soon as he got there he sent us a Southampton shirt to say thank you and that’s boxed and framed here, we were so proud.

He’s always been very level-headed. When he gets a week off he comes home to see his family and friends. He’s brought back shirts for our hall of fame. He doesn’t like the limelight but we have a new football facility here and he came and opened that. He was very kind and donated a signed pair of football boots for  a young gentleman who broke  his neck.

He’s a perfect role model for our kids. We tell them all here, “You aim for the top of Everest and then see how far you get up the mountain.” And that’s what he’s done.

Huw Jennings

Director of Southampton academy 2001-2006 (now Fulham academy director)

The challenge for Gareth in his early teenage years was that he went through difficult issues relating to growth and he couldn’t train and play a lot. That he got through that was credit to a lot of people who kept faith in him. His parents were massively supportive and determined to make sure he had a chance.

Within a year he went from someone who was not certain of being offered a scholarship to playing in the first team.

We decided to play him in a few Under-18 matches after Christmas 2004 before the decisions were made on scholarships in March [2005, when Bale was still 15]. Malcolm Elias and Georges Prost [then academy coaches] were very struck by Gareth’s performances. That was one of the tipping points to giving him a scholarship.

He did a lot of work at Southampton’s centre in Bath, where he went to develop from the age of nine or 10. He was always technically very good. If a player has that quality, you are always loath to let him go.

The physical side came later. In those teenage years he was quite small and didn’t grow until later. When George Burley [then Saints manager] saw him later in Gareth’s development he picked him out straight away. At 16 and a half, he had grown up a lot and was flourishing physically. I suspect all along he was quite quick but it seems at Spurs he has got even quicker.

I’m biased, but the output from the Southampton academy is as good as any in Europe and a lot of that is down to recruitment. It is an art with a bit of science thrown in and the credit must go to people who identified the potential of Gareth, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. When you saw them first they might not have been the same as, for instance, Joe Cole was at a young age but they have matured into top-quality Premier League players.

Gareth’s progress has been slower. The fact that he stayed at Southampton longer than Theo  will have helped him. Wayne Rooney stood out as a teenager for his physical maturity and also his maturity as a footballer. In Gareth, that maturity has taken a bit longer. Going through those difficult experiences at Spurs initially will have helped him in the long run.

Brian Flynn

Wales Under-21s coach 2004-2012 (now manager of Doncaster Rovers)

I first came into contact with Gareth when he was 15 and he was special then. He had everything. He was a threat in front of goal. He had a fantastic left foot, great in the air, electric pace – even at a young age. We felt he was too good to play left-back and that he could be further advanced up the pitch. We first picked him in the Under-17s and then he went straight up to the Under-21s. He missed out the Under-19s.

I remember saying to Gareth when he was 16, “I won’t be doing my job properly if you don’t get a full cap as a teenager”. He got his first cap at 16 [Bale is the youngest player ever to be capped by Wales].

Tosh [John Toshack, then Wales manager] phoned me up and said to me, “Who’s next, Bri?” I told him Gareth and he said, “He’s only 16”. I said, “Age doesn’t matter”. He said, “I know” and picked him.

You have to have that single-mindedness that Gareth has got if you are going to be at the very top. There are some complex characters in the game but, knowing Gareth as I do, that grounded character he has is very strong. It comes from his family. They are really, really good people and they have been fantastic parents to him. His family background has been very important to him.

He had a lot of success staying wide and being a producer of goals. Now it seems he wants to improve his game even more by being able to pick up possession in forward positions further inside. He is coming inside and staying there and being just as productive.

The obvious comparison is Ryan [Giggs]. Both are Welsh, both left-footed, both from Cardiff, both have phenomenal speed and balance. Both have come on the scene at a very young age but maintained it. Because of those reasons, people will compare them. If he can match Ryan’s career then he will have done well.

Gareth is a very proud Welshman. He loves playing for Wales and putting that Welsh jersey on. He feels Welsh. He is only 23 as well. His best years are still well in front of him.

Tim Sherwood

Tottenham Hotspur technical  co-ordinator

You have got to graft at it and  Gareth trains really hard. The penny has dropped that he can be anything he wants to be if he  works at his game. Those free-kicks that he takes that go in: he doesn’t just turn up and smash them in. He spends a lot of time practising them.

When you get a kid saying, “I can’t do that, I’m not born with it”, you show them how long Gareth practises hitting the ball. Gareth lives for the game. He is not a razzmatazz player. He has got his football and his young family.

I think it also helps that the club has grown up with him. Would he be as effective at another sort of club? The answer is no. It is because Tottenham are dominating a lot of the possession in games which means that Gareth is getting the ball in the correct areas where he can make the most of his qualities.

He’s playing a lot looser too, it is not just a case of playing on the left side. I hear the fans singing, “Gareth Bale, he plays on the left”. It cannot be as simple as that. If he just stuck to the left he could easily get blocked by opposition teams. He has adapted his game in the mould of Cristiano Ronaldo.

There is no harm in making an exceptional talent the focus of your team. He is not a luxury  player, he’s a grafter and he comes off the pitch hurting. He does a lot to get on the football.

It takes a lot of maturity to get to his level in terms of his statistics: the distance covered, the high intensity runs he makes time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, he knows when to nick a breather but he doesn’t have many.

Who really wants to put their hand up nowadays and say, “I’m marking Gareth Bale tomorrow”? It used to be the right-back who would have sleepless nights and I’m sure a lot of them are happy that he is taking up positions more centrally. Now he’s running at centre-halves, who are generally less mobile than full-backs. The last thing anyone wants is Gareth Bale running at them.

Peter Crouch

Played with Bale at Tottenham Hotspur 2009-2011 (now at Stoke City)

It’s mad really, because when I first went to Spurs, Gareth was in and out the team and playing at left-back. It soon became clear he had much more to offer than just being a left-back. First and foremost he was such an athlete. The funny thing is, I never saw him do a great deal of weights in the gym. That power and pace is natural.

Yet even without those attributes of power and pace he would be a top player. He is very good on the ball. He can see a pass. He has got great delivery and, of course, that left foot is fantastic. Then you add the pace and power and you have got a very special player.

As a left-back, the defending was probably the weaker part of his game. Now, because he is playing behind the front player, he doesn’t have to think about that. It became clear at Spurs that he had to play higher up the pitch and his confidence grew as he played week in, week out. Now he is crushing teams on his own.

We played together in the Champions League. The side that beat Milan and Inter was a really good team. With Gareth on one wing and Aaron Lennon on the other, for me as a centre-forward it was a dream. As long as I could keep up with the pair of them!

Gareth was skinning full-backs then, but not just any full-backs. He was doing it to Maicon, one of the best in the world. It was then people really started to notice that he could do it in the Champions League, which is a very different ball game. He was world-class then but I think he has gone on since.

The great players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, run with the ball at such pace and have it under such control. They switch wings and run through the middle of the pitch, which is the most dangerous area. I don’t think Gareth is up there with them yet, not with the goals they score, but I don’t see why he couldn’t be. He has got every attribute to his game and also he’s a great lad. He’s down-to-earth, friendly and likeable.

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