FROM team jinx to global attacking phenomena, Gareth Bale has had a roller-coaster 18 months at Tottenham. But how will the family-focused winger cope with his new pin-up status?
The irony of Sunday May 24th 2009 would not have been lost on Gareth Bale. Trudging off the pitch after a final day defeat at Liverpool, the Welshman had increased his unenviable Premier League record - the match was his 24th league appearance for Tottenham Hotspur without a victory.
But just over a year later, the man labelled a 'curse' was the hottest property in world football after two devastating performances against Inter Milan, the European Champions. First, Bale scored a superb second half hat-trick at the San Siro in a 4-3 defeat. Two weeks later, he produced a man-of-the-match display - combining raw speed and athleticism for his two assists as he destroyed Inter's Maicon - the world's best right-back.
It is a remarkable turnaround for a player who was considered too naïve when playing left-back in the Premier League - good going forward, not good enough defending.
"He has everything to be a top player but he has to learn how to defend," said Spurs manager Harry Redknapp in 2008. "Learn how not to let people play inside him, learn to recover, just learn parts of his game."
But the 21-year-old has never been scared of improving. Whilst at Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, PE teacher Gwyn Morris gave Bale special rules to play by, aiming to improve his weaker right foot.
"We wanted to challenge him," said Morris. "There were games when we only allowed Gareth to use his right foot. We'd say, 'Any touch of the left foot is a free kick to the opposition.'"
Bale's talent was evident well before his one-footed high school matches. As an eight-year-old he secured a place with Southampton's youth academy after amazing scouts while playing in a five-a-side tournament.
In one of the best youth set-ups in the country, Bale flourished at Southampton alongside other talented youngsters including close friend Theo Walcott, now with Arsenal.
In 2006, Bale, aged 16, became the second youngest player, after Walcott, to play for Southampton. A series of impressive performances, including several goals from free-kicks, meant the big clubs were soon sniffing around. And, just 13 months after making his debut, Tottenham pounced with a £5m ($7.9m) deal.
The transition at Spurs was tough. Bale endured a catalogue of injuries and, coupled with the incredible 'curse' he seemingly held over the team, he could have been forgiven for thinking the move had come too soon.
Unlike the many prima donna young footballers who would seek a transfer after a single match out of the starting XI, Bale remained patient.
Then, thanks to a shrewd piece of man management from Redknapp in September 2009, Bale broke his jinx. It may have only been a substitute appearance five minutes from the end of Spurs' 5-0 win over Burnley, but it was still a league win for Bale in a Tottenham shirt.
Then, after months of watching Benoit Assou-Ekotto shine at left-back, an injury to the Cameroonian gave Bale his chance. He impressed in the 4-0 FA Cup win against Peterborough in January - a fine start to what would turn into a fantastic year. The return of Assou-Ekotto pushed Bale into a left-wing position where he excelled, tormenting right-backs with his directness and lightning change of pace.
Redknapp joked that his no nonsense advice to Bale, who had a penchant for different hairstyles at the time, was the reason for his transformation.
"I just said, 'C'mon Gareth, stop messing about with your hair,'" said Redknapp. "He was always at it."
Growing in confidence, Bale's performances got better and better, capped by winning goals in derbies against Arsenal and Chelsea. In Bale's first 24 games Spurs had lost 16 times. In the next 24 they lost just six. His renaissance was perfect timing for Tottenham, and proved vital in their qualification for the Champions League - where Bale's reputation soared.
It is highly unlikely that Bale's new susperstar status will go to his head, however, according to those who know him best. A fact evidenced by Bale's choice of 'holiday' destination after Redknapp awarded him a well-earned rest.
"I said 'go abroad for a few days,'" said Redknapp, "and he did: he went to Cardiff and stayed at his Mum's - that's just the kind of boy he is."
Mum Debbie, 53, who lives with Bale's father Frank in a modest three bedroom home in Cardiff, said: "He is very grounded and just likes to come home for a family meal.
"He will keep his feet firmly on the floor.Playing football and his family are all that matter to him."
Blessed with a wand of a left foot, comparisons with fellow Welsh winger Ryan Giggs have been predictable, but Mum Debbie believes it is in personality where the two are most similar.
"He will be like Ryan Giggs. You'll hear more about him on the field than off it."
Whether or not Bale can remain grounded in the modern footballer's world of money, fame and WAGs remains to be seen, but he should know more than most that in football heroes are made and fall in a day.
And, if he needs straightening out, Redknapp will always be there with some advice for his star performer - perhaps to concentrate on his football and not his hair!
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