Is Gareth Bale the best since Best?
He might just break a trend and say there are things more valuable than the pay packet
When you see Gareth Bale running with absolute control and confidence in his ability to create new havoc, when you grasp all over again the simplicity of his brilliance, you wish that all of life could be so uncomplicated. Then you remember he is also dashing towards the most pivotal decision he will probably ever face, one that offers undreamt of wealth but no guarantees.
It is too early to guess how it will end because we do not know the weight of the blandishments that will besiege him in just a few months – or the changes of perspective and ambition that might come with honeyed words in his ear. At 22, the world is, after all, still filled with all kinds of possibilities, especially if you happen to be arguably the most exciting football player bred in these islands since George Best.
There is, though, something we can say about Bale that he has pushed a little further beyond contradiction with two more superb goals this week. As much as any of the great figures of their past, he has the power to shape the future of Tottenham Hotspur.
This may prove just a matter of his saying yes or no. Yes to a situation in which he seems to grow a little stronger, more fulfilled by the week, and no to the vast financial reward and maybe a few less certainties about who he is and where he stands in a place like the Nou Camp or Bernabeu or the Etihad Stadium.
For the moment at least he remains at the heart of a story which has the potential to carry his club to a uniquely uplifting place in the recent history of English football.
With this player – about whom the great Luis Figo murmured last season, "he is amazing, amazing, he killed us [Internazionale] twice and he has the ability to do it to anyone" – it is indeed possible to believe that Spurs might just defy the financial might of Manchester City and the winning tradition of Manchester United.
A huge reach, of course, but his manager, Harry Redknapp, knows enough about the pitfalls of football and life to keep his hopes lean. When asked about title possibilities early in the run that has taken them to seven points behind City and United – a deficit that will dwindle to four if they exploit their game advantage, and might in that circumstance have been a mere one if they hadn't been so outrageously jobbed out of three points at Stoke a few weeks ago – Redknapp said, cheerily, "Why not?"
It was probably a better thing to think than to say because the odds remain so formidable. Yet if City have such deep resources, and proven cover in every outfield position, and United are displaying once again an extraordinary competitive resilience, it is impossible not to be deeply impressed by the style and the meaning of Tottenham's challenge.
Bale has been described as a force of nature by some astute judges. He may also be the player who breaks a trend, who says that at some point in a brief career there is something more valuable than the highest available pay packet. It might just be the kind of jubilation and satisfaction he displayed in the company of his team-mate Emmanuel Adebayor after scoring a second and quite sumptuous goal.
It was also a strike that perfectly reflected the freedom of movement Spurs believe, so implicitly, that Bale has earned for himself. He has become the football shock trooper par excellence. He goes where his spirit and his instinct take him and Tottenham understand the value of this even as they close the gaps he leaves, inevitably, from time to time.
If Spurs win the prize of the Premier League – along with a return to the Champions League they illuminated so brilliantly in a most superior learning experience last season – it will also be because, from chairman Daniel Levy down, they have displayed the nerve not only to play in a certain thrilling way but also break some of the top flight's more dismal rules.
Levy held the brilliant Luka Modric to his contract, said that in this case Chelsea couldn't identify a target who happened to be the creative lifeblood of Tottenham's midfield, and tick him off their shopping list. With a degree of financial prudence that is unlikely to cause problems with the Financial Fair Play regulators, Tottenham have built a team of authentic quality. They have displayed a workable flair for the art of the possible, which means that we cannot dismiss too brusquely Levy's claim that he will keep Bale as he did Modric.
The pressure on the boy, the degree of enticement, may indeed prove too great. However, no one can say that Spurs have forfeited the right to call a great young player their own. This side of winning the title, they cannot do a whole lot more.