Much like other Premier League training grounds, Tottenham Hotspur’s base in Enfield is under strict Covid-19 regulations. The senior squad, in their own bubble, have the run of the main parts of the complex, while the academy train out of the way and thus out of sight.
For those footballers at the start of their journey, it means missing out on one of the perks of being at a top-tier club – proximity to superstars. While a select few get the opportunity to make up the numbers in first-team training alongside those big names, such as Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Hugo Lloris, most have to get by on the odd glimpse or passing in the hallways.
However, having got used to the new normal, the last fortnight has seen those youngsters grow more frustrated by the day at the distance. At any other time, they might have had a chance of brushing past, holding a door open or even a cursory “alright mate” to a certain Gareth Bale.
That giddiness is not just confined to young minds or those with Spurs allegiances. On Sunday, Bale is set to make his second debut for the club he left seven years ago against West Ham. Come 4:30pm, all eyes will be on the return of one of the best footballers to come out of the United Kingdom.
You could argue that Bale is the signing of the transfer window, if you are willing to work within the following parameters. The first being the gravitas of recruiting a four-time Champions League winner not yet past his prime, and secondly allowing yourself to get lost in the nostalgia of that 2012/13 season which saw the 24-year old earn that £85.3m move to Real Madrid. This may not be exactly the same player returning, but it's not far off it.
That season was Bale’s emergence as a fantasy footballer: a one-man army, super-soldier type, wedding physical prowess with technical excellence. Age may dull the former - though Cristiano Ronaldo has shown that decline does not need to be so pronounced - but from the flashes we have seen of Bale in the last year (almost exclusively in a Wales shirt), the body and mind are still capable of the extraordinary.
Back then, Bale was a surprise package, emerging from ridicule as a left-back whose first win in a Spurs shirt came in his 25th appearance and who came close to dropping down into the Championship to find his level, before flourishing to heights even those who thought highest of him at Southampton would not have dared predict.
Between 2009/10 (Bale’s first season with over 20 league appearances) and the 2012/13 campaign, Spurs alternated between fourth and fifth, but Bale, notable with 21 goals in that last season, elevated them to a new level. One they would cement under Mauricio Pochettino and feed into packed Champions League nights at their new state-of-the-art ground.
Now, after a tough 18 months, albeit with a Champions League final appearance in there, the responsibility falls to Bale once more to give them another kick-start having set the whole project in motion all those years ago. He returns a bigger player if not a better one, and thus with greater expectations.
This time, however, it is not presumed to be Bale or bust. Kane and Son have already tallied nine goals and seven assists between them and Jose Mourinho’s system is beginning to look less like a straight-jacket.
Also, Bale’s involvement is likely to be limited at first: he arrived with a knee injury and has seen limited action over the last 12 months. And when you consider the wages Spurs might have to front up to make this loan move permanent, this “homecoming” may only be temporary. Thus, any influence he may have on the field will be short and sweet.
Indeed, it may be off the field where, for now, Bale's impact will be most pronounced. Not just in the eyes of those who may still have his poster on their walls, but also among this first-team. With an average age of 26.6, most of the squad would have been in their early teens when Bale began taking his most purposeful steps to stardom.
The first week of November will mark a decade since he scored that hat-trick at the San Siro against Inter Milan, before treating Maicon with utter disdain in the corresponding group fixture at White Hart Lane. It was six years ago he settled a Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona, taking the long way around Marc Bartra with a supersonic 70-yard dash on 85-minutes. The outrageous overhead kick against Liverpool in the Champions League final was the summer of 2018.
These moments were being replayed on televisions throughout the training ground, as Sky Sports News celebrated the news of Bale’s re-signing with a dip into his archives. Flashes of that same brilliance have already made appearances in training. Those around during that first stint are all too familiar with some of the stunned look on his new teammates' faces. Ryan Mason is one of the few who was there during that first stint still at the club.
“What separates the good players from the greats people will remember is consistency,” Mason tells The Independent. “The thing with Gareth was that those brilliant moments, he’d do them all the time in training. That winner against West Ham away? He must have scored more or less that same goal about 20 times on the training pitch. The goal at home to Southampton, where he gets the ball on the right, cuts in about 30 yards and finishes in the corner. He did those kinds of goals on a regular basis.”
Mason, now head of player development at Tottenham, was on the books at Spurs from the age of eight before he moved on in 2016. During Bale’s purple patch, he was a consistent presence around the first-team squad. As it happens, his lack of game time during this period meant he spent more time jostling with Bale on the training ground rather than reaping the benefits of playing alongside him. Like those now under his care, Mason admits he also used to get left wide-eyed by the Welshman.
“It’s one of those for me as a player during the latter stages of his first spell, you kind of watch him and appreciate what he is doing. You just found yourself admiring the player.
“You’ve seen what he can do in Champions League finals. If he’s proving that on the biggest stage, you can only imagine what he used to do in five- and seven-a-side games in training. When you are around someone like that, it inspires you to raise your game. Right there in front of you is an example of what a really good player looks like. If it doesn’t inspire you, why are you playing football?!”
The day after he signed, Mason bumped into Bale and the pair reminisced about old times. There is only two years between them and life - specifically, kids - has happened at the same pace even with both on different paths.
“He was as he was before he left. You think, he’s come back with Champions Leagues and La Liga titles under his belt. But he’s still the same humble guy.” Bale, for instance, still rocks up in his Adidas tracksuit, a regular source of amusement during his first chapter that he has carried over into the second.
“I think maybe that might be the biggest thing younger lads at the club can learn from him. That players get to that level because they don’t let stuff get to their head.
“He’s done what he’s done in the game, but he’s still himself. He’s not changed one bit.” Perhaps that last bit is something to hold dear.
The Premier League is very different from what it was seven years ago, and the world a different proposition to seven months ago. And over the international break, the first round of a power struggle around the game's future has created a further disconnect between supporters and the game. Maybe Bale's return could be a throwback to a different time, of a player whose brilliance cut through the white noise.
Wishful thinking, sure. But amid the turbulence of British football and life, the return of one of its best is worth getting giddy over.