EPL TALK: Gareth Bale may not get the swansong he deserves

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Gareth Bale celebrates with his Wales teammates after winning the World Cup 2022 play-off final qualifier against Ukraine.
Gareth Bale celebrates with his Wales teammates after winning the World Cup 2022 play-off final qualifier against Ukraine. (PHOTO: Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images)

GARETH Bale’s most treasured possession is a rowing machine and his guiltiest pleasure is watching the PGA Tour after bedtime.

Oh, Wales history-maker and part-time footballer, where did it all go wrong?

The chasm between the infamous George Best anecdote and Bale’s anodyne lifestyle could hardly be greater. Best often told the one about being in a hotel room with a bed filled with cash and a naked Miss World, and a waiter asking him where it all went wrong.

Bale could buy the hotel.

Instead, he spends time riding a rowing machine and watching golf. And this, strangely, makes him a liability of sorts. He’s not a lad in the most laddish of work environments.

Jack Grealish is a lad. A colossal talent spending his 26th year on the Manchester City bench. But he’s a lad. So he’s all right.

Bale, on the hand, is the quiet, odd one in class, holding his calculator upside down to reveal the word ‘boobs’ on screen, an old sight gag that is tolerated because he wins every school match by waving that wand on the end of his left leg.

He has never changed. In the apoplectic age of social media, people change between tweets. But Bale hasn’t. The son of a school caretaker now has enough money to buy a stake in Cardiff City, his hometown club, let alone play for the Bluebirds in the run-up to Qatar 2022. But that appears to be the only reported option ahead of the World Cup Finals in November.

He’s the humble Welsh GOAT without a club. His deflected free-kick against Ukraine secured Wales’ first qualification for the tournament in 64 years and he’s technically unemployed.

The reluctant carrier of a nation’s hopes seeks new job opportunities in an industry that was once jokingly ranked below Wales and golf, in terms of Bale’s interests, and he’s done little to dispel the stereotype.

Indeed, his complicated relationship with his sport evokes memories of Andre Agassi, who expressed his love-hate feelings for tennis, often contemplating a permanent separation at the height of his powers.

Bale has never gone that far. But he hasn’t always helped himself either. On the eve of Wales’ World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, the rumours persisted that defeat would lead to retirement. Bale didn’t commit an opinion, either way.

He rarely does. The rowing machine claim was made in a spectacularly awkward interview with The Guardian, where he typically divulged less information than a circumspect politician, giving little, offering nothing.

Gareth Bale was often kept on the Real Madrid bench.
Gareth Bale was often kept on the Real Madrid bench. (PHOTO: Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

At Real Madrid, he was a Galáctico with a reluctance to shine anywhere but on the pitch, which should have been enough, but his simple, homely interests worked against him. He wasn’t an authentic Madrista because he didn’t frequent players’ parties.

Bale certainly looked like a Madrista when he left the field of play against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final, before returning to score a goal for all time. And his Galactico credentials looked pretty solid when he took flight in the 2018 Champions League Final, essentially winning the contest on his own.

The Welshman scored 106 goals in 258 appearances, more goals than the original Ronaldo. He conjured more assists than David Beckham. Ronaldo and Beckham are revered in Madrid. Bale was booed. The Spanish media labelled him a “parasite”. For what exactly? According to former team-mate Thibaut Courtois, Bale went to bed early.

No, really. Bale was ostracised for his early nights, making Real Madrid’s dressing room sound like a petulant mix of fragile national service recruits and British private school bullies, excluding the new kid for not conforming.

Oh, Bale also played golf a lot, which as an act of rebellion hardly makes him a Sex Pistol.

There are chicken and egg elements between Bale’s growing disillusionment with the game and the abuse suffered in Madrid – it’s clear that his priorities shifted from club to country – but the very public punishment never fitted the apparent crimes.

There are chicken and egg elements between Bale’s growing disillusionment with the game and the abuse suffered in Madrid, but the very public punishment never fitted the apparent crimes.

Bale’s reputation is tarnished, a situation that he acknowledges with admirable indifference, except that he now seeks a new employer to restore the kind of match fitness for Qatar 2022 that cannot come from his beloved rowing machine.

A romantic homecoming to Championship club Cardiff might provide a poignant full stop, but not always the physical protection. The last thing Bale needs is a midweek encounter with a Championship defender with a chip on the shoulder and a reputation to establish. He needs the more refined setting of the English Premier League.

But who takes him? Bale is 33 next month. In the last two years, he appeared in more games for his country (19) than he did for his club (seven). Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea have no interest in providing a six-month training regimen for an injury-prone golfing enthusiast with different priorities.

Bale’s former club, Tottenham, represent the sentimental choice, but Antonio Conte’s drilled tactics usually work in two- to three-year cycles before burnout. Bale would do well to last three months.

The Gunners are not a realistic destination either. Apart from Bale’s Spurs connection, Mikel Arteta favours prepubescent types that run around energetically for a bit before flopping onto the sofa and demanding something sugary.

While Manchester United already have an ageing megastar to contend with. And Cristiano Ronaldo is still addicted to the right sport at least.

Of the remaining sides in the top half, West Ham United look the most likely candidates, with a long and patchy track record of taking punts on regressing legends. A short stint with an empathetic David Moyes might be a viable proposition.

Wherever he ends up, Bale certainly deserves a club epitaph that doesn’t write him off as a parasite.

He has ended 64 years of hurt for Wales. Surely, he has earned six months of warm appreciation and dignity for himself.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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