Gareth Bale wanted to leave Tottenham, but not like this. It was the long and stressful summer of 2013, Real Madrid were making their moves, supremely confident that they would get their man, and Team Bale felt they had to harden their exit strategy.
Whoever said what to whom is unclear but the upshot was that Bale changed. He had played and scored in Spurs’s opening friendly at Swindon in mid-July and it would be his last involvement for the team. He developed a gluteal injury followed by a foot problem, which ruled him out of the rest of the pre-season programme, but behind the scenes, to put it bluntly, he became a pain in the backside.
Bale was no longer willing to do the things that needed to be done, such as player appearances; maybe an autograph session, for example. All fairly minor but things that caused a headache and fed into the increasingly bitter stand-off between him and the chairman, Daniel Levy, over his desire to join Madrid.
Bale did not turn up to Spurs’s friendly against Espanyol on 10 August, their only one at White Hart Lane that summer. As the then manager, André Villas-Boas, noted, the winger was not obligated to attend because he was injured, but this sort of thing would have been unheard of under normal circumstances.
By the end of August, Bale was refusing to report for training – “It’s up to the club to decide if it’s a fineable offence,” Villas-Boas said – and remember this from Levy when the €100m (£85.2m) transfer went through on 1 September? “Such has been the attention from Real Madrid and so great is Gareth’s desire to join them that we have taken the view that the player will not be sufficiently committed to our campaign in the current season,” Levy said. “We have, therefore, with great reluctance, agreed to this sale and do so in the knowledge that we have an exceptionally strong squad. More importantly, we have an immense team spirit and a dressing room that is hungry for success.”
This was not Bale, the boy who had arrived from Southampton as a 17-year-old in 2007 and become such an unassuming and popular part of the dynamic. He knew it, he recognised it and, after the deal with Madrid had been agreed, it went around Spurs at the time that he had apologised to various members of staff for his behaviour.
The story illustrates two things. First, Bale’s single-mindedness. Getting out of a contract with Levy is a war of attrition in which nothing is off the table, even things that might be against an individual’s better nature. Bale was prepared to put sentiment to one side, to do what it took.
On the other hand, and this is the second point, it shows the respect and deep affection that Bale has for Tottenham. He could not erase the sentiment, the bonds he had built, the good times he had enjoyed and this, more than anything, is the theme that has underpinned his return from Madrid on a season-long loan.
Talk to anybody connected to Bale and they say the same thing. The 31-year-old is happy again. According to one source, he did not fully realise the effect that walking back into a warm and welcoming environment would have on him, having not been happy for so long at Madrid. According to Sergio Reguilón, who went from Madrid to Spurs on the same day last month and on the same private jet, Bale is like a different man, finally smiling. And if it all sounds schmaltzy, it is because it is a very schmaltzy tale.
In some respects, Spurs are a different club to the one Bale left. Never mind the stadium rebuild, he was more familiar with the old Chigwell training ground that was dotted with Portakabins. The new one in Enfield has a five-star hotel, where Bale stayed while the club looked to find him a house. That now done, his wife, Emma, and their three children have moved over from Madrid.
What has stayed the same for Bale are the faces on the staff. There are still many of the old ones, from the player liaison guys to those who work on the media side – people that he likes and can sit down with for a coffee or lunch. Maybe it was the language barrier, but the suspicion is that Bale did not have the same relationship with the staff at Madrid.
Then there is the golf, Bale’s other sporting passion, for which he was mocked at Madrid. That always felt curious. Bale does not drink, smoke or gamble. He is not a person to hit the bars and clubs, which makes golf perhaps his only vice, but how can anybody say that with a straight face?
Bale currently plays off 2.5 – the fraction comes from the app with which he tracks his game – and at Spurs he will encounter teammates on similar handicaps in Harry Kane and Matt Doherty. He will doubtless enjoy playing against them.
So Bale is relaxed, contented and loved – not least by a misty-eyed fanbase that is beside itself with excitement over the prospect of his second debut for them; it should come in Sunday’s derby against West Ham, most likely as a substitute. “Bale 9” shirts are doing a roaring trade and the hope at Spurs is that with the environment around him seemingly perfect, he can produce his best football. Bale has always said that he plays his best stuff when he feels at home in his surroundings and a good example of that is how he usually turns it on for Wales.
When Bale left Spurs, he had two PFA Player of the Year awards and a back catalogue of thrilling goals but no silverware. He returns with 13 titles to his name, including four Champions Leagues, and having established himself as a global superstar. He has nine figures in the bank and 93.8 million followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
The comeback was always a possibility, as Levy had negotiated a right of first refusal with Madrid in the event of them selling, but did any Spurs fan dare to dream it would happen? On one level, Bale has continued to give from afar. Every time he won the Champions League, Spurs got paid. He has further dividends on his mind.