Southampton fans are a phlegmatic bunch, so last week's report that the club had foregone the clause allowing it 25 percent of any sell-on fee that Tottenham Hotspur generate for Gareth Bale -- in return for the £3m payment that kept it afloat in 2009 -- was met with less despair that you might have thought. "I'd rather have the club still in existence than £20m or so now," is how one Southampton fan put it.
Spurs followers, on the other hand, have become used to seeing chairman Daniel Levy sell his players at the top of the market. The likely sale of Bale to Real Madrid follows those of Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modrić where you can imagine the buying club were left scratching their heads and wondering, "How did that just happen?"
I first encountered Bale in summer 2007, just after he completed his £5m move to Spurs. His new coach was Martin Jol, and the 18-year-old liked the fact that Spurs were building a squad around young English players like Paul Robinson, Ledley King, Michael Dawson, Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Jenas, Jermain Defoe, Darren Bent and Tom Huddlestone. "I feel they have lots of British players and they look like they are going in the right direction. I wanted to be a part of that," Bale said then.
We had met in a training center in the Midlands, where Bale was doing some promotional work with another young British player tipped for greatness, Micah Richards. The two teenagers were plugging their boot manufacturers and talking me through three parts of their game: Pre-season warm-up routines, featuring exercises like ankle flicks, dead leg lifts, knee out skips, and lateral running; ball work exercises, like long passing, dribbling, free-kicks, shooting and crossing, and fancy moves that proved 'tekkers' (slang for technique): the drag-back, the scissors, the side-step, the pull-push behind.
Both players were warily respectful of one another but came across differently in interview: Richards was confident and brash, Bale almost painfully shy; Richards was accompanied by two agents, Bale by his parents, Frank and Debbie, who spoke of their concern that their boy would feel overawed among his new teammates.
Bale had broken records of his own by then: He became the youngest player to represent Wales, at 16 years and 315 days (making his debut in the same month that his former roommate at Southampton, Theo Walcott, broke the same record for England). His free kick against Slovakia four months later made him Wales' youngest scorer.
Watching them do the exercises was instructive in itself: Richards was a monster in the fitness routines, but Bale was far better with the ball. I remember being surprised at watching Richards struggle to slalom dribble the ball between some cones before shooting past a goalkeeper. I knew he was a defender, and yes, he was only 19 at the time, but when we met, he was already England's starting right back and a few months away from being named Manchester City's youngest ever captain. Richards looked like an athlete who played football; Bale, a footballer who was yet to become an athlete.
The journey from the Southampton youth team to €100-million Real Madrid target has not been a smooth one for Bale: a series of back injuries as a 15-year-old almost cost him his scholarship at Southampton, where there were doubts, according to academy head Malcolm Elias. "Is he going to be physically and mentally tough enough?" he told the Daily Telegraph.
Five games into his career at Spurs, Bale broke his ankle ligaments and missed the rest of the season. A 24-game winless run at the start of his Tottenham career ended when he came on as a late substitute in September 2009 with Spurs already 4-0 up. Bale only got his first-team chance the following January when Benoit Assou-Ekotto was called up for Cameroon's African Nations Cup campaign. Ironically, Assou-Ekotto never played in the competition, due to a hip injury, but Premier League rules kept him out of the Spurs side until Cameroon was out of the tournament. Once Assou-Ekotto was fit again, Bale moved to left midfield and scored match-winning goals against Chelsea and Arsenal to help Spurs beat Manchester City to fourth place.
"I had watched Bale a lot in training, so it was no surprise when he went out and scored those goals," Assou-Ekotto told SI.com. "The guy is a marvel. To start with, I used to try and keep up with him and give him an option on the overlap but he is so fast that I don't bother any more."
Bale hit the gym in summer 2010, and when the season began, he was looking more like Richards. Broader in the shoulders, chunkier in the thighs, he was no longer just the scrawny, fast kid. He now had power to go with his pace. This was his breakout season, best described in three words: "Taxi for Maicon!" That was the chant that went around White Hart Lane as the Inter Milan fullback was beaten time and again by Bale in Spurs' 3-1 Champions League win. Two weeks earlier Inter had won 4-3 in Italy despite Bale's second-half hat trick of solo goals. At the time, Maicon was widely regarded as one of the best in the world and was one of only three fullbacks in the FIFA 23-man Ballon D'Or shortlist).
Bale's hard work, development and improvement continued last season under Andre Villas-Boas, who gave a moving tribute to all those qualities at the Barclays Premier League Football Writers' Awards Dinner in May. The guest of honor Bale won the Footballer of the Year award and, as always, Frank and Debbie were not far away. Both sat to his right while, perhaps significantly, his agent sat on his left.
Richards, on the other hand, has since admitted he was overhyped as a younger player. He lost his place in the England side when Fabio Capello took over as the national coach and was omitted from Roy Hodgson's England squad for Euro 2012. He did make 29 starts in the season City won the Premier League title but missed much of last season after tearing his knee cartilage. He is now a senior player and the only homegrown talent in City's squad. In an interview with the Daily Mail last year, Richards named Bale as one of his toughest opponents. "(He) took me to pieces," Richards said. "He just doesn't stop running. It's ridiculous."
Now Bale is closing in on a move to Real Madrid. As for his ultimate position, whether it's on the left wing or central, it's certainly not in defense, where Harry Redknapp said he would end up. Has he changed much from the 18-year-old firing in free kicks from all angles six years ago? Of course. Now he is a winner, a player feared by opponents, a game-changer against any team. His niggling injuries have stopped, his hair is slicker and his goal celebration is trademarked. He may be on his way to becoming a brand in himself, but get him talking about football, or himself, and he remains modest as ever.