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For Tottenham, Gareth Bale represents the recurring spectre of the Ghost of Football Past

The Spurs-bound player's return could be the rerun of a beautiful relationship — he will not be the first to rekindle old glories

Gareth Bale of Spurs takes on Lucio of Inter Milan during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan at White Hart Lane on November 2, 2010 in London, England
Gareth Bale in full flow in his first stint at Tottenham in 2010 Credit: Clive Rose /  Getty Images Sport

It is probably fair to say Gareth Bale is not familiar with the work of the former Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy. Unless there was a copy of it lying around in the golf club bar, he will almost certainly be unaware of her mournful, poignant, elegiac piece Never Go Back

“Never return to the space where you left time pining till it died,” she writes of the inevitable emptiness of trying to revive past experience. 

For Bale seems unconcerned about treading once again in familiar footsteps. After seven years of exile in Spain, he is about to return to the club that made him. And right now, never mind the perils of going back over old ground, Bale and Tottenham look made for each other: him needing a place where he might once more be valued, and them needing a spark to ignite a season that otherwise looks to be burrowing deep into a trough of despond.

And Spurs have a history of this sort of thing. This is a club that has several times before addressed problems of the present by trying to rekindle old flames from the past. Take Jurgen Klinsmann. In 1994, the German World Cup winner had just one season at White Hart Lane. But what a season it was, his trademark dive celebration, his 21 goals, turning up to training in his battered old Beetle: when he left for Bayern after just 41 appearances, there was barely a dry eye along the Seven Sisters Road.

Indeed when, in January 1998, Tottenham were in real danger of being sucked into the relegation mire under the stuttering management of Christian Gross, there seemed to be only one direction in which to turn for salvation. And Klinsmann was duly brought back on loan from Sampdoria. He only played 15 times, but in many ways his contribution was even more significant second time around. His nine goals, including four in a 6-2 victory over Wimbledon, helped stave off eviction from the Premier League. When he drove his Beetle off into the sunset (well, a mink-lined retirement in American soccer) he did so with the eternal thanks of the Tottenham faithful. 

Klinsmann's time at Spurs was fruitful for both club and player Credit:  Action Images

And it was clearly Klinsmann’s second coming that informed Harry Redknapp’s transfer policy when he first became manager of Spurs in the summer of 2008. Apparently not convinced that Gareth Bale, the brilliant teenage talent signed from Southampton the previous summer, could do it on his own, in the January transfer window that season, Redknapp appeared to be re-enacting the plot of the Blues Brothers, his intent to get the band back together. No fewer than three former Spurs players were brought back to the Lane that January. Jermain Defoe returned from Portsmouth and stayed for a further five years, scoring 47 goals and so enjoying his experience, after he left for a second time he even came back for a brief loan spell from a posting in Canada. Though Pascal Chimbonda’s recall from Sunderland was somewhat less successful: the Frenchman only played three games before being hurriedly off-loaded to Blackburn. 

But the most eye-catching of Redknapp’s call-backs was that of Robbie Keane. Sold to Liverpool the previous summer (a club he had announced on signing was his boyhood favourite), he was bought back at a discount of some £3 million. Precisely the kind of turnaround which will always rank as a success for the Spurs chairman Daniel Levy. So remarkable was his comeback, Virgin Trains used it as a slogan in their commercials, claiming that their return service from Euston to Liverpool “gets you back even faster than Robbie Keane.” Which, given it took Keane eight months, was not the boldest of claims. 

Unlike Defoe, however, Keane’s second term did not last long. He was loaned to Celtic the following season, a move he greeted with much enthusiasm, saying he was delighted to be joining the club he had always supported. Apart from when he was cheering for Liverpool, obviously. 

Indeed in football, Bale will be relieved to discover, the journey back is not always as miserable as Duffy’s insistence. Sure, Joe Cole would probably prefer not to reflect long on his inconclusive reunion with West Ham, Wayne “once a blue always a blue” Rooney was obliged to play for almost as many managers as he scored goals in the one season of his emotional return to Goodison, while the jury (with Graeme Souness as its foreman) remains out about the enduring success of Paul Pogba coming back to Manchester United

But returning to the club that sold them after unproductive overseas postings worked for two of Bale’s Welsh international predecessors. Ian Rush left Anfield for Italy in 1986, only to return two seasons later after finding his time overseas all a little too foreign. Back on Merseyside, he played for another eight seasons, becoming in the process far and away the club’s all time leading goalscorer. And Mark Hughes too flourished at his first club Manchester United after brief postings in Barcelona and Bayern Munich. One of the Alex Ferguson’s first signings, over the course of five silverware bedecked seasons, Hughes scored a hat full of important goals to help turn the serial disappointment of a club he had left into serial champions. 

And so it might well prove for a returning Gareth Bale. For him and Tottenham, Duffy’s ghost of the past could have very different resonance. This could be the rerun of a beautiful relationship.