‘Good session today,” wrote Gareth Bale on Instagram, accompanying the photograph of him from Tottenham’s training pitches on Tuesday with a bicep curl emoji. When the post went live that evening, the Spurs squad were at their hotel on Merseyside and looking forward to Wednesday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Everton. Except that Bale was not with them.
“Good session today?” thought José Mourinho. Bale had made clear to him that he was not feeling 100% and would not be able to travel but the tone of his public messaging was different. Taken to the extreme, it stood to back Mourinho into a corner at Goodison Park when Bale’s absence came to light.
What we have long known about Mourinho is that he will fight his corner, he will seek to control the narrative and, very often, he will throw a few punches in the process. And so we had the interview after Spurs’s wild 5-4 defeat in which the manager provided uncomfortable detail to explain why Bale was not a part of it.
Mourinho expressed his surprise that after Bale had been an unused substitute in Sunday’s 2-0 home win over West Brom, the player said he needed a scan on something that was irritating him, which took place on Monday. He was able to train on Tuesday but Mourinho wanted to make clear that Bale then got word to him that he felt he should work with the sport science team for the next couple of days. “I don’t think it’s an obvious injury,” Mourinho said.
There has been little detail on Bale’s problem, except to say it is somewhere along a leg, and nobody knows whether he will be available for Saturday evening’s game at Manchester City. But the impression Mourinho got across was that, at the very least, he was baffled by Bale’s condition and, at worst, he wondered whether it was really that bad. To labour the second point – does Bale still want to run through walls for Spurs?
It is all impossibly delicate, the situation framed by the romance of Bale’s return to the club from Real Madrid on a season’s loan, the yearning among the fanbase for him to roll back the years to when he was the Premier League’s most dominant talent.
Mourinho is caught in the middle. He does not want to attack Bale in his press conferences – he knows he must not do that – but it has become increasingly difficult for him to hide his frustration at the 31-year-old’s fitness levels and performances.
Remember the joy that Spurs supporters felt when their idol swept back into the club in mid-September? A group of them lined the entrance to the training ground as he was driven in to finalise everything, the sun shone and they allowed themselves to be carried away by the thought of Bale alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in a lethal front three.
The reality has been jarring and there is a reason why Mourinho has barely played Bale in the matches that count – he has looked fragile and one-paced, seemingly lacking confidence in his body. On the bad days, it has been as if he is worried about getting injured.
There has been a touch of the Emperor’s New Clothes about it all – hard to accept that Bale has been stripped of his finery – although Mourinho’s veiled digs have become a little more regular and with the veil slipping more and more.
Bale has been held back by a lack of football in recent seasons at Madrid, with the last one being the worst. When he rejoined Spurs, he had played only four times since 26 February. Bale needs trust and regular action to find his rhythm; the more he plays, the stronger and more resistant he gets. Plainly, that has not happened.
How much does any of it bother Bale, the man who has won everything at club level, including four Champions League titles, and has everything off the field, too: a loving family, magnificent homes and nearly £200m in the bank? In terms of Mourinho’s machinations, the answer is not one bit.
Bale endured far worse in Madrid, where almost everyone seemed to be against him. The club wanted him out but they were scared of letting him join a rival lest he come back to haunt them. It made no sense, though, when they stopped him from going to the Chinese Super League in the summer of 2019. The lines of conflict hardened, with Bale acting up at times – he felt trapped. It was messy. At Spurs, meanwhile, he is a popular member of the dressing room and the fans will always love him.
Where does Bale go from here? He has an eye on the European Championship with Wales in June, although he would not be able to affect that in his current form. There is no option in his Spurs agreement for a further year and so he will return to Madrid where he is under contract until June 2022. He is unlikely to be wanted there any more than he is now but he would not be inclined to go on another loan.
He is paid somewhere north of £650,000 a week under the terms of his Madrid deal and, if it is unclear exactly how much of that Spurs agreed to take on, it is understood to be less than the £200,000 a week they pay Kane, their top earner.
On a worst-case scenario, Bale would collect what is owed to him by Madrid for a final year, even if that involved further stand-offs and drift. It is providing the sad postscript to a glorious career.