News from Spain where the prince in comfortable exile has signalled his intention to return – although what Gareth Bale might it be who comes back to the Premier League only time will tell. Can he still fly past full-backs in the outside lane? Is there a formation that permits him to do so? Will he learn the language?
Much water under the bridge since his departure in 2013 when Tottenham Hotspur financed seven signings with the proceeds of what was later disclosed as a world record fee from Real Madrid. The whereabouts of the seven now is not an entirely happy story. Vlad Chiriches, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue and Paulinho did not make it past a second season at Spurs. Nacer Chadli lasted one year longer and Christian Eriksen was the single unqualified success. Only Erik Lamela remains at the club, a player whose promise has always been just tantalisingly ahead of his output, and now faces the curious prospect of being replaced by the man he replaced.
Bale in 2013 was a phenomenon unlike any other in the Premier League, a homegrown footballer who had developed beyond even the most optimistic expectations for a fragile boy of undoubted talent. He was the accidental superstar; his run in Spurs’ first team only really began in Jan 2010 when injuries meant he went into the side for a FA Cup third round tie against Peterborough. By the end of the season he was a regular - although by no means prolific. The following October he scored that hat-trick in San Siro and a couple of weeks later tens of thousands of taxis were being hailed for Inter Milan’s embattled full-back Maicon at White Hart Lane. Bale had arrived on the European stage.
He left the Premier League at 24, an astonishing ransacker of defences who scored a quantity of goals that only the league’s best strikers could compete with. He has played less regularly in Madrid over seven seasons but still his numbers – 105 goals in 251 games in all competitions – are by no means shabby. There have been much bigger trophies at Madrid but nothing like the impact of Bale’s final season at Spurs when he scored 21 goals and swept the board at the Professional Footballers’ Association awards. At 31 it is a lot to live up to.
Still, there is no better way to end his career than seeing if he can mix it anew with Trent Alexander-Arnold or give his old team-mate Kyle Walker twisted blood. At last the flickering flame of competition in Bale seems to have been renewed and who cares if a legacy might be at stake. Here is a footballer, once unplayable, potentially returning to the Premier League to try to do battle with a new generation. Seven more years in his legs, something like the GDP of Wales in his bank account: has he still got it? This is how all great careers should end - not alone with one’s butler at the grace and favour apartment provided by Guangzhou Evergrande, but in the fiery uncertainty of a combative away at Turf Moor.
For some time it had seemed that Bale had made his peace with being that awkward passenger at Madrid. Contracts are contracts of course, but all big clubs will eventually squeeze out those they no longer want, and Madrid have done so to bigger names than Bale. Once you make your peace with that, then the possibilities are endless. Time is short for Bale to do what he does best. He can play that replica Augusta 11th hole in his back garden for the rest of his life, but there are only a few more years he can play Old Trafford, Anfield and the others.
Bale would be coming back to the league in which he once made life impossible for full-backs the age he is now. He fitted well at the Spurs of that era, a club where it was enough to be challenging the elite again although in the meantime expectations have risen. At Manchester United those expectations have never been less than sky-high and the club has had a habit in recent years of weighing down its biggest signings. When Bale last played against United, Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge.
Yet there is something of the eternal teenager about Bale and his trust in his own talent suggests that there is little that worries him. He should have returned earlier, after that fourth Champions League in 2018, but better late than never.