Gareth Bale was astonishing in the last six months of 2012/13 and the streets of one corner of north London will never forget.
There are few things more beguiling in football than a largely humdrum team being elevated by the presence of a single other-worldly presence. A player so thoroughly out of step with those lined up alongside and for the most part also those ranged against him that they appear to have been dropped into the game from not just another team or another sport but from another dimension.
Younger readers who know him primarily as an online crank and friend of Farage may be surprised, for instance, to learn that Matt Le Tissier spent a good decade of his younger days doing precisely this for Southampton, scoring goal of the season contenders three times a month for a team otherwise comprising 10 Francis Benalis. But you won’t read about that in the mainstream media woke.
Few players have ever done it better, though, than the now-retired Gareth Bale in his final season at Spurs before making a world-record £85m move to Real Madrid. There he would go on to win five Champions League titles and three La Liga titles, contributing a great deal more to those successes than many give him credit for. A Real Madrid career that included all that silverware, one of the all-time great Champions League final goals and an overall record of 106 goals in 258 appearances must make him one of the most impressive flops ever.
But maybe that’s it. Surrounded by greatness as he was at Real – and in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo pretty much entirely overshadowed by it – he could never quite again be the outrageous obvious star of the show the way he was in the 2012/13 season, dragging the rest of the team along with him.
It’s to his enormous credit that he managed it at all with Madrid, and there were certainly games – Champions League finals among them – where he did. But in that Spurs team it seemed to happen every single week.
Spurs having a player who scored last-minute worldie winners on a weekly basis yet still finishing only fifth is so very Spurs. We’re exaggerating, but only slightly.
We didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight the 2012/13 was not just the Gareth Bale Season at Spurs; it was the one that would lay the foundations for the Mauricio Pochettino Team that was to come. In the summer of 2012 Spurs brought in Hugo Lloris, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen, the three players who would go on to form the spine of Pochettino’s team along with Harry Kane, who made his Premier League debut as a late sub in the first game of 2012/13 before going out on loan to Norwich.
But that team was still some way off. This was your classic Spurs transitional season, and for the first half they were very transitional indeed as Andre Villas-Boas tried to pull everything together and form a coherent whole from the disparate parts available, all the while being called a weird nerd on the regular by every tabloid journalist in the land.
A three-game losing streak in November, culminating in a 5-2 demolition job at the Emirates, left Spurs in a very Spursy seventh.
Then something happened. Gareth Bale happened.
We all already knew he was good – this was two years on from the Maicon humiliation in a season that earned him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award – but nobody quite knew he was this good.
In terms of consistency and sheer utter brilliance of game-changing output, that last six months of his full-time Spurs career must rank among the best run of form ever seen in the top flight. There had already been further clues in Spurs’ patchy early-season form that Bale was about to evolve into his lethal final form, most notably a stunning individual display in a raucous 3-2 win over eventual champions Manchester United at Old Trafford where Bale scored one after a blistering, muscular run that left Rio Ferdinand trailing in his wake and assisted the other two.
From November onwards he became almost unstoppable. It would be wrong to say that Spurs’ form over the closing six months of the season was entirely down to Bale – those excellent summer signings had all bedded in for one – but the run that almost dragged a mid-table team into the top four simply could not have happened without Bale.
In those final six months, Bale scored 17 goals in 22 Premier League games. Almost all of them were memorably audacious, three were long-range winners with less than five minutes on the clock, one was a smartly-taken winner against Newcastle with 12 minutes remaining, one was an 80th-minute solo equalizer at Norwich, one was that mad swerving strike at West Brom, another at Swansea that he didn’t so much take early as somehow, physics-defyingly appear to trap and send arcing into the net in one fluid motion before Vertonghen’s long pass had even actually reached him and a 20-minute hat-trick at Aston Villa.
Of his 21 Premier League goals that season, a record-breaking nine came from outside the box with at least half-a-dozen others only being inside the box because he’d carried the ball there himself.
The winner at West Ham was perhaps the best of the lot but the 86th- and 89th-minute strikes to earn 1-0 wins over Southampton and Sunderland in Spurs’ last two home games were perhaps the clearest examples of what Bale was about that season. Both were stunningly good goals at the very end of deeply mediocre and frustrating team performances, and as with the West Ham winner the thing that hits you watching them now is that the defending team knows precisely what Bale is about to try and do but they’ re simply too knackered to stop him doing precisely what he’s about to do after spending the previous 90 minutes trying to stop him doing precisely what he’s about to do.
Bale scored 26 goals in all competitions for Spurs that season and at least half of them were outrageous highlight-reel nonsenses of one kind or another. Knuckleball free-kicks, long-range thrillers, lung-busting runs and cool finishes. Others – like a goal scored charging down the keeper at Wigan – came about entirely because his mere presence had terrified defenders into doing panicky things badly.
And by the end these goals came with a sense of inevitability. Watching videos of his goalscoring antics of him that season you can sense two distinct noises in the build-up. If the game is at White Hart Lane, there’s a murmur of excitement the moment the ball is at Bale’s feet or approaching his head; if it’s an away game you can hear the nervous intake of breath from home fans who know what very well might happen next. And then a ball thuds into a net and a commenter says “He’s done it again!”
Bale would go on to do extraordinary things and leave an extraordinary legacy elsewhere, but never again was his football quite so joyously, absurdly and consistently thrilling as it was in that season where he truly discovered, explored and perfected the full extent of his astonishing powers .