It was on a cool April night in north London, almost a decade ago, that Jose Mourinho first batted his eyelashes at Gareth Bale.
Bale was 20, staring down the barrel of a 4-0 losing deficit from Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Mourinho’s Real Madrid and yet still gave the impression, as one writer put it that night, that he had ‘borrowed one of Superman’s telephone box dressing rooms,’ giving Sergio Ramos a match to forget in the second leg.
The game had a few minutes to run when Bale followed a high ball towards the touchline and stumbled into Mourinho’s embrace. The two of them lingered there, fractionally longer than you might have expected.
Spurs boss Jose Mourinho first encountered Gareth Bale during his first spell with Tottenham
The pair have now been reunited on the same side after Mourinho signed Bale on a year’s loan
It was later, as Bale walked in from the far side of the pitch, that Mourinho waited around for long enough to shake hands, half-embrace him and whisper something in his ear. ‘Did he, by Christ? Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp responded when informed of this in the post-match press conference. ‘Maybe we should report him.’
Even when Bale’s first Premier League season was cut short by a foot injury, Mourinho, Internazionale manager at the time, included him in his Fantasy Football XI. He urged the Real Madrid board to sign him, insisted on it after a 5-0 evisceration by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in March 2010, though they were ships that passed in the night – Mourinho leaving for Chelsea in June 2013 and Bale arriving three months later.
‘He can change things, change a match,’ Mourinho said of Bale, who is in contention for a return against West Ham at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium today (sun). Had it not been for that sliding doors moment, you feel that the two of them might have fitted, just like Mourinho and Frank Lampard always did.
‘One of the great things about working with Jose Mourinho is that he respects his top players and recognizes that they know best what they need,’ Lampard said of the Portuguese in his autobiography and it is the same quality which always made Bale love Redknapp. Recalling the ‘taxi for Maicon’ game – the 3-1 defeat of Inter Milan in 2010 in which he destroyed the Brazilian full back, Bale reflected: ‘It was just that every time I got the ball I said to myself: “Go!” And I had Harry Redknapp screaming: “Run! Run!”’
Mourinho will be aware that Bale struggled when he was given less freedom at the Bernabeu
Bale did not find the same kind of freedom under the five managers he played for at the Bernabeu because the place was a nest of vipers and Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho’s successor and the man who set the tone, pandered to a chosen few. It was never a meritocracy.
You suspect Mourinho’s approach would have been very different to the laissez-faire Ancelotti, whose ‘servant leadership’ philosophy – giving people a say in designing the strategy and vision – meant not imposing himself too much.
Never, down those seven years in Madrid, did Bale ever finds himself being the one the manager would take to one side during a game and ask to effect a change. Yet he certainly has the intelligence to do that. In Spain, he was often written off as a mere athlete, though many was the time that he game-managed matches, marshalling and keeping the ball while team-mates were taking risks.
He viewed his second season there as a vital part of his evolution in this respect. ‘You watch games back and think: “I don’t need to run with the ball here; I need to play more one-twos there,”’ Bale reflected a few years back. ‘I have taken things on board and as a consequence become a more complete player.’
The risk that comes attached to playing for Mourinho, of course, is the public censure he so lavishly dishes out, though after those turbulent years in Madrid it is difficult to see that fazing the 31-year-old. True, much of the criticism there has been delivered in Spanish, a language he never really mastered, but he also heard John Toshack’s negative sentiments loud and clear. And despite the frustration Benitez describes, Bale is not an introspective soul.
Glenn Hoddle has suggested that Bale has improved as his knowledge of the game has grown
‘We actually felt that from the start,’ says one source who knew him in the Welsh youth set-up. ‘He didn’t disappear into his own worries.’
Inquiries as to how Bale felt after one particularly bruising briefing against him by Real Madrid elicited the response that he was ‘out on the golf course’, because that helped him ‘clear his head.’ And after that, what was the plan? ‘To get around the course in as few shots as possible,’ came back the reply. This, in essence, is Bale. He loves to train. When he’s fit he’ll give 100 per cent. But when he clocks off he doesn’t lose any sleep over things that would haunt other players.
Mourinho will be desperate to succeed where Zidane failed in getting mileage out of him, though Glenn Hoddle feels that Bale’s point about being a smarter player is significant.
‘He is not just a runner of the ball, now. Not just a player that can use his pace,’ Hoddle says. ‘He has a sensational ability to pass. He actually plays and looks up and I think he’s going to be that creator the team are lacking.’
Fitness is the biggest source of uncertainty, of course. No fewer than 15 separate injury problems have kept him out of the Madrid side since 2016/17 with calf problems accounting for six of the absences.
Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, expects his client to combine well with the likes of Harry Kane
It helps that the Madrid years have been a time of clean living. Golf and daily sessions in the gym he installed at his home in the city both featured heavily. Bale is teetotal. The only player less inclined to join the player social circuit was Toni Kroos. And it seems the pace could still be there. When the Real players came back from lockdown last May Gregory Dupont, the fitness coach, did tests on the squad and the player who came out on top for pretty much everything – speed, strength, resistance – was Bale.
The Bale/Kane/Son front three could be the best in the Premier League, his agent Jonathan Barnett said. ‘But it depends how Mourinho is going to play him. Gareth would like the freedom to do what he will want to do, and that will be very important for Gareth.’
Mourinho’s low block method – dropping back, drawing teams out and creating counter-attacking space to exploit in behind – may actually create far more potential for Bale to deploy his explosive pace in the Premier League than it did in La Liga, where defences sat deep.
Time will tell. But first reactions spoke louder than words at the Hotspur Way training base last week as Bale despatched a series of shots past an unfortunate Joe Hart in training. The audio distinctly captured the sound of Mourinho, purring with satisfaction in the background, finally in the company of the player who landed on him in a dug-out all those years ago.