Georgina Turner
Friday October 1st, 2010

LONDON -- It's more than an hour since the whistle was blown on Tottenham Hotspur's Champions League victory over FC Twente on Wednesday. As the stewards make their final checks of the stands and the last remaining hospitality suite revelers are coaxed to exits, Gareth Bale makes his way around the pitch toward the players' car park, the last man out of the home dressing room again.

Even on a night when Rafael van der Vaart wrote the headlines and Roman Pavlyuchenko scored twice, Bale's performance won him another bottle of Man of the Match bubbly and endless appointments with camera-wielding scrums. His face appears repeatedly in the match program and supporters queued for hours when he attended last week's kit launch. He is Spurs' poster boy for 2010.

It's easy to forget that not much more than a year ago, Bale was on the fringes of Harry Redknapp's team, a bit-part player whose Tottenham career had been blighted by injury. In two years, he'd made 24 appearances, none of them a Spurs win. His reputation as a jinx was such that Alex Ferguson reportedly told Redknapp he'd be mad to pick Bale. Kept out of the team by Benoit Assou-Ekotto, rumors linked him with loan moves to Championship sides such as Nottingham Forest.

"It shows that my hard work in games and in training has paid off," Bale said in his quiet manner, clutching the champagne that he, being teetotal, won't drink. "It's good -- I'm just enjoying playing my football. I always believed in myself that if I got my chance I would be able to play well and do well for Tottenham, so I'm happy. I'm happy to be playing every week and doing my best for the team."

In the second half of last season, Bale put together a run of consistently eye-catching -- and often match-winning -- performances. He's Spurs' top scorer in the league so far, and set up all four goals against Young Boys in August. His quick shift from the bench to the forefront of Tottenham's drive toward Champions League soccer has led to a deluge of stories about his "transformation."

It suits Redknapp's style of man-management for people to talk that way, and Bale himself has credited his manager with delivering a few necessary home truths about his staying power. But there's a strong case for saying that 2010 has brought a change of fortune as much as anything; Redknapp has aged a good vintage, not turned water into wine.

Even at school (in a sporty class containing two future Welsh rugby professionals), Bale was so much better at soccer than his peers that his PE teacher would make him, a natural left-footer, play using only his right foot, or allow him only one touch, to try to level the field. By the time he arrived in north London from Southampton in 2007, the 17-year-old had a reputation for lethal free kicks and the Football League Young Player of the Year title in his pocket.

Under Martin Jol, Bale made his Tottenham debut against Manchester United on Aug. 26 of that year, combining athleticism with Dimitar Berbatov's artistry to torment Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in a match Spurs ought to have won. He scored in each of his next three starts, but his promising season ended before Christmas thanks to an ankle injury.

Where Redknapp (and perhaps the simple passing of time -- Bale is still only 21) has arguably added to the young Welshman's game is his resilience. Bale shot up by eight inches in his midteens but making the most of his new 6-foot-2 physique was harder in the Premier League. Part of Redknapp's toughening-up regime was to instruct the physio not to attend to Bale in training: "Just leave him on the floor."

Sounds cruel, but there was evidence of its success on Wednesday night: White Hart Lane was silenced, momentarily, when Bale's momentum carried him into the advertising hoardings and he lay crumpled, clutching his leg. The stretcher was readied and Redknapp surveyed his bench, looking grave. But Bale ran it off.

"Just a little bit of a knock, that's all," he said with a grin afterward. "Standard stuff."

The sense that Bale remains something short of the finished article probably stems from the ongoing debate about his best position. A left back for Southampton and Wales, his early appearances for Spurs came on the left wing, where he looked the obvious choice to fill a gap that neither Aaron Lennon nor David Bentley had adequately plugged.

But since then he's flitted between the two, coming in at left back when Assou-Ekotto was injured in January last season and only switching into the midfield when the Cameroonian returned in March. Though he's spent this season so far in the same position, Redknapp's long-term vision for Bale is a return to the back.

"In years to come, he will be the best left back anywhere," the Tottenham manager said recently, drawing comparisons with Ashley Cole. "At Benfica [in the preseason], he produced probably as good a performance as I have seen from a left back. He is a fantastic left winger but if he is going to be the best around, it will be at left back."

It's an interesting time to be positing such theories. With Lennon low on confidence and benched this week, Spurs relied entirely on Bale for forward thrust on both flanks as he drifted between them. There was palpable excitement in the stands every time he received the ball; Bale rarely looks for a backward pass. His first-time deliveries are varied but usually wicked, and his capacity for improvisation makes him a fullback's nightmare.

He has a habit of embarrassing individual defenders and ghosting through packs of them -- no player in the Premier League made more successful dribbles per game last season. Michel Salgado, red-faced after Blackburn's 3-1 defeat in March, said he had come up against "a complete player." After Wednesday's game, Redknapp concurred: "Bale's got everything. He's incredible. Their right back [Roberto Rosales] is a good attacking player but he got run the other way."

For Redknapp, having someone capable of making such a decisive contribution from the back is a mouth-watering prospect, though Bale still seems somewhat inhibited by defensive responsibilities when he shoulders them alone. Still, he has tenacity and stamina to spare. In added time on Wednesday, with Spurs leading 4-1, he was upended trying to defend a Twente flurry but still made the clearance from the floor. Was he feeling it in his legs afterward? "I'm just thinking about the result tonight," he said, grinning. "It feels great to get three points and get up there with Inter."

Internazionale being, of course, one of a host of major European clubs to have been linked with a move for Bale this year -- the others include Juventus, AC Milan, free-spending Wolfsburg and Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho has had a thing for wingers since he arrived in Madrid, so it's hardly surprising to hear that he's as interested in one of the Premiership's most exciting wide players as the 46 percent of us who have Bale in our fantasy soccer teams.

Spurs fans know how it usually ends when such clubs show an interest in their players, but it's unlikely that Tottenham will be maneuvered as it was in the case of Berbatov, or sell so easily as it did in the case of Michael Carrick. Berbatov had always regarded Tottenham as a steppingstone, and at the $30 million offered by United, Carrick was replaceable. In the space of a year, Bale has proved himself to be one of the players whom Spurs could not do without. Putting a monetary value on what he brings to the side is difficult enough that few offers are likely to seem so temptingly overblown.

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