Bale was 21, staring down the barrel of a 4-0 losing deficit from Tottenham‘s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Mourinho’s Real Madrid and yet still gave the impression, as one writer put it that night, that he had ‘borrowed one of Superman’s telephone box dressing rooms,’ giving Sergio Ramos a match to forget in the second leg.
The game had a few minutes to run when Bale followed a high ball towards the touchline and stumbled into Mourinho’s embrace. The two of them lingered there, fractionally longer than you might have expected.
Spurs boss Jose Mourinho first encountered Gareth Bale during his first spell with Tottenham
The pair have now been reunited on the same side after Mourinho signed Bale on a year’s loan
It was later, as Bale walked in from the far side of the pitch, that Mourinho waited around for long enough to shake hands, half-embrace him and whisper something in his ear. ‘Did he, by Christ?’ Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp said when told of this. ‘Maybe we should report him.’
Even when Bale’s first Premier League season was cut short by injury, Mourinho, Internazionale manager at the time, included him in his Fantasy Football XI. He later urged Real Madrid to sign him, though they were ships that passed in the night — Mourinho leaving for Chelsea in June 2013 and Bale arriving three months later.
‘He can change things, change a match,’ Mourinho said of Bale, who is in contention for a return against West Ham on Sunday. Had it not been for that sliding doors moment, you feel that the two of them might have fitted, just like Mourinho and Frank Lampard always did.
Bale did not find the same kind of freedom he enjoyed with Redknapp at the Bernabeu because the place was a nest of vipers and Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho’s successor, pandered to a chosen few. It was never a meritocracy.
Mourinho will be aware that Bale struggled when he was given less freedom at the Bernabeu
On the big European nights, when Cristiano Ronaldo wanted the spotlight, he expected players to pass to him; not Bale on the wing. And when they did not, they got the sharp end of his tongue. ‘Centro, centro’, Ronaldo would scream at them, demanding the ball.
Rafael Benitez recalls Bale knocking on his door when he succeeded Ancelotti and telling him this was driving him insane. Benitez immediately took to Bale.
He promised he would make him a better player, and began moving him to a more central area. ‘Why are you putting him there?’ Benitez recalls Ronaldo subsequently asking. ‘He’s standing on my space.’
Benitez eventually found a place for Bale behind the striker in a 4-4-1-1, though by the end of his reign his best way of assembling the highly charged egos seemed to involve letting the key players find their own space.
Never, down those seven years in Madrid, did Bale find himself being the one the manager would take to one side during a game and ask to effect a change. Yet he has the intelligence to do that.
In Spain, he was often written off as a mere athlete, though many was the time that he game-managed matches while team-mates were taking risks.
He viewed his second season there as a vital part of his evolution in this respect. ‘You watch games back and think: ‘I don’t need to run with the ball here; I need to play more one-twos there,’ Bale reflected a few years back.
‘I have taken things on board and as a consequence become a more complete player.’
Glenn Hoddle has suggested that Bale has improved as his knowledge of the game has grown
Glenn Hoddle feels Bale’s point about being a smarter player is significant. ‘He is not just a runner (with) the ball, now. Not just a player that can use his pace,’ he said.
‘He has a sensational ability to pass. He plays and looks up and I think he’s going to be that creator the team are lacking.’
Fitness is the biggest source of uncertainty, of course. No fewer than 15 injuries have kept him out of the Madrid side since 2016-17, though when the players came back from lockdown in May the one who came out on top for pretty much everything — speed, strength, resistance — was Bale.
The Bale/Kane/Son front three could be the best in the Premier League, according to Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett. ‘But it depends how Mourinho is going to play him. Gareth would like the freedom to do what he will want to do.’
Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, expects his client to combine well with the likes of Harry Kane
Mourinho offered no guarantees when he said that Bale has indicated his preference is to operate on the right.
‘Does that mean Gareth will always be used in that position?’ he said. ‘No. Because the most important thing is the team, and he will play where the team needs him to play.’
Mourinho’s low block method — dropping back, drawing teams out and creating counter-attacking space — may create more potential for Bale to deploy his explosive pace than in La Liga, where defences sat deep.
Time will tell. But first reactions spoke louder than words at training last week as Bale despatched a series of shots past Joe Hart.
The audio captured the sound of Mourinho, purring with satisfaction, finally in the company of the player who landed on him in a dug-out all those years ago.