Gareth Bale doesn’t want to play his greatest hits album of 2012-13 again, but though the Bale of Tottenham is gone, the Bale of Real Madrid is undoubtedly still worthy of a front-row seat.
It feels as though no amount of success for Bale in Spain could ever curb rumours of a return to England, be it a return to Spurs, a Manchester United switch or a third, curveball option.
Gareth Bale rumours aren’t like a lot of other transfer rumours, though. His injuries and meandering form have meant, for some, the player being linked in their head isn’t necessarily the one who exists now but rather the idea of the one they remember.
It’s like waiting five years for a band’s comeback gig and hoping they pretend their last two poorly-received albums didn’t happen.
Of course, in such scenarios there will often be an unexpectedly good new single, not quite at the level of the early work you fell in love with, but good enough to trick you into thinking they might have their mojo back.
You’d better believe Bale pulled out one of those gems in the last Clásico of the 2017-18 season, curling beyond Marc-André ter Stegen with one of those finishes that most wouldn’t even try while at the peak of their powers.
But if there’s anything we know about Bale it’s that he’s never considered anything to be impossible.
The first time I saw Gareth Bale also happened to be one of the first times he looked like he was using a cheat-code in the middle of a match.
Wales were, if we’re being honest, no great shakes in the summer of 2006. They had won just twice in their qualifying campaign for the prior World Cup and kicked off their Euro 2008 campaign with a late defeat in the Czech Republic, but there were some bright sparks, enough to give fans hope for the future.
Craig Bellamy was beginning life at Anfield after a breakout year with Blackburn Rovers, Danny Gabbidon had been named West Ham’s player of the year after helping the club to within minutes of FA Cup glory, and Bale had made his debut just shy of his 17th birthday, following that up with a goalscoring start to his first full season as a Southampton first-teamer.
Then, in October, he scored his first international goal.
The qualifier against Slovakia at the Millennium Stadium was meant to be a celebration of goalkeeper Paul Jones, making his 50th appearance for his country.
However, it looked more like Bale was the seasoned veteran and Jones the rookie in his first competitive start for his country, with the keeper gifting Slovakia an early lead before – with the score 2-0 to the visitors – Bale stepped up to do this for the first but by no means the last time in a Wales shirt.
If you were to ask fans back then what Bale of the future might look like, their design may well have looked like the player he has indeed has become.
Dead-ball precision and supreme confidence were the traits early Bale had already made his own. That goes hand-in-hand with someone who undoubtedly grew up as the best player among his peer group – and, indeed, as good as the adults against whom he played while still basically a child at Southampton.
But he married that with blistering pace and – as he continued to develop at Spurs – upper-body strength associated more with those in the middle of the park rather than the attacking roles he would eventually make his own.
Bale’s performances in Spurs’ 2010 double-header against Internazionale in the Champions League are widely considered the moment he developed into the star-power version of himself, but frankly his performances throughout his final Spurs season felt almost unfair on everyone else.
In retrospect, we should have known what was on the way when he stroked home this free-kick against Serbia at the start of the season, but once he hit his groove he seemed to give himself power-ups to the point that he was performing above 100% of his level.
There are certain individual seasons or tournaments where success breeds more success, encouraging the player in question to try more and more unlikely plays in the knowledge that their season-long achievements mean nothing is impossible.
It’s something we saw with Bale’s performance for Spurs against Lyon in the 2012-13 Europa League, when – buoyed by an impressive long-range free-kick to give his team the lead in the first half, he proceeded to step up in the closing stages and repeat the trick.
It was the strike of a man who wanted Rémy Vercoutre to know he could try to save it if he wanted to feel better about himself, if he wanted to be able to go home to his family and tell them he tried his best, but if he expected to keep it out he had another thing coming.
It was Bale putting an arm around his opponent, telling him everything was going to be alright, while using his other hand to slowly smother him. Vercoutre may have lost the match in that moment, but he wasn’t even that angry – how could you be?
For all the ways in which stats and analysis have been used brilliantly to help players plug holes and improve aspects of their game, those things which produce tangible long-term benefits are no match for a player having the magic touch in the short term.
For six straight years in the mid-2000s, the World Series of Poker made millionaires out of amateurs, men who found themselves in the zone for long enough to ride out the expertise of their professional opponents. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t all able to keep it going afterwards; the short-term gains were enough to cancel out what followed.
The same goes for Bale, whose personal gains from that one ridiculously hot season meant he could continue an upward trajectory while Spurs took years – and a different structural approach – to return to the levels to which he had lifted them.
After all, how do you replace goals like this one against Norwich with a like-for-like equivalent? The simple answer is you don’t.
Spurs were right to go for quantity over quality that summer – it’s just the choice of personnel where they let themselves down.
The 2012-13 version of Bale may have gone, but he remains a player capable of all the same things.
There were four years beween Bale’s solo strike against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and his stunning bicycle kick in the Champions League final against Liverpool – and in all honesty he failed to hit the same heights in between.
However, even in a stop-start couple of years, he has always been able to remind you the brilliance hasn’t totally disappeared.
By Tom Victor